Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10, 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is interesting to note that only two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—describe Jesus’ birth at all. That’s right, the event that is so important to modern Christians, that we celebrate with so much attention and fervor—was not even considered important enough to be mentioned in half the Gospels. On the other hand, John the Baptist’s message of repentance is in all four. It always makes me wonder. Why? What makes John the Baptist so important? And why is Jesus’ birth so relatively unimportant?
I think it comes down to meaning. Without Jesus being born as fully God and fully Human, he could never have died to save us from our sins. But while it’s wonderful to celebrate the birth of a baby, just the fact that the baby is born doesn’t tell you much about what that baby is going to become, what they’re going to do with their life. The mere fact that Jesus was born doesn’t tell us what his birth means. And it certainly doesn’t tell us what his life and death mean! But John the Baptist does. John gives context. John the Baptizer, that crazy guy out in the wilderness, is the guy telling people what’s coming. The Baptist sets up Jesus’ ministry by shaking people out of their comfortable certainties and preparing them to receive Jesus and his message.
“Repent,” John told people, “for the kingdom of heaven is near!” Now, when people hear the word “repent,” a lot of people dismiss it out of hand. Some people because it’s an old-fashioned word, but mostly because people don’t think it really applies to them. We look at our lives and go, “well, I’m not that big a sinner, I’m a good person, so I don’t need to repent.” But while repentance can certainly mean being sorry for our sins, that’s not the only thing it means. The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent,” for example, literally means “to turn around,” to reorient yourself towards God instead of all the things that draw you away from God. And the Greek word used in the New Testament literally means “change your heart or mind.” It’s not primarily about feeling sorry for your sins, it’s about seeing the world through God’s perspective. It’s about being re-formed in God’s image, and according to God’s priorities. When you do that, you will change your ways, but our individual sinning is only part of what changes. Repentance is not just something that sinners need to do; this is something that all of us need to do, every single one of us, not just once, but always. This world we live in is always trying to shape our priorities and our perspectives. And those priorities and perspectives may not be particularly bad, in and of themselves, but they’re not God’s priorities and perspectives. The problem is when we let them blind us to God’s priorities and perspectives.
Like the Pharisees did. We Christians tend to think the Pharisees must have been horrible people because Jesus was always clashing with them, but the reality is that they were good, God-fearing people who worshiped every Sabbath, gave generously to their houses of worship and to charity, taught people about the Bible, and were good solid middle-class family people. In the entire Bible, there is no group of people as much like modern Christians as the Pharisees were. The problem was not that the Pharisees were bad people, because they weren’t. And the problem wasn’t that they didn’t try to be faithful—they did try. (If they hadn’t spent so much time trying to be faithful, Jesus would have had fewer problems with him because they wouldn’t have cared so much.) No, the problem was that they thought they didn’t need to repent. They assumed that because they were good, God-fearing people, because they were leaders in their congregations and communities, that God must agree with them. They assumed that because they read the Scripture, their hearts and minds were already formed around God’s Word, and so they didn’t need to change. They assumed that because they were children of Abraham, they were naturally in the right. “We are God’s people, therefore we already know what God wants—the same things we do.” They thought they already had the right answers and did the right things, and so they didn’t need to repent.
And that’s why, when Jesus showed up, they gave him such a hard time. Because for all that they agreed with him on most things, where there was a difference they never even asked themselves if he might have a point: if he disagreed with them, he was wrong. Period. End of story. They never asked if there was anything in their perspective, anything in their interpretation of scripture, anything in their lifestyle, that might not line up with what God desired of them. They assumed they did not need to repent, and so they didn’t. And so when God Incarnate walked among them, they dismissed him out of hand, because he didn’t look like what they expected him to look like.
You can see why a call to repentance is so central to the beginning of each of the four Gospels. Because without repentance—without re-orienting ourselves to God, and allowing God to re-form our hearts and minds so that we see from his perspective—it doesn’t matter whether we tell the story of God becoming flesh and living among us. Without repentance, it’s just another story to be slotted in to our lives to confirm that we’re good people who already know what God wants because he wants the same thing we do because we’re good people who go to church. The crucial measure of faithfulness isn’t worship attendance, or good deeds, or Bible study; those can all help deepen our faith, but they’re not the center of what it means to be faithful to God. To be faithful, we have to repent. We have to let God open our hearts and minds, take them out, shake them up, and turn them around so that they’re focused on God’s priorities and not the world’s priorities. Only then do all our pious deeds have any meaning beyond ego-stroking. When paired with repentance, reading the Bible and worshiping and doing good deeds become far, far more meaningful.
This is how John the Baptist prepares for the coming of Christ: by reminding us that repentance is necessary, because the world’s priorities—our priorities—are not God’s priorities. Our eyes are not God’s eyes, and our understanding is not God’s understanding. John was the voice in the wilderness telling us to prepare the way in the wilderness, to make a straight road for God. That’s a quote from Isaiah 40, by the way, which talks about valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills levelled and the grass withering and the nations being worth nothing. In other words, we’re not just talking about small changes here, little adjustments. We’re talking about the very foundation of our lives—the ground beneath our feet and the powers of the world we respect—being completely and utterly reshaped by God. To prepare for Christ, we have to repent. We have to get ready for the fact that God’s coming means that the entire world is going to be re-shaped. And the more tightly we cling to our own priorities and prejudices and ideas about how the world works, the more painful it is going to be.
Human beings don’t like change, on a fundamental level. Things have to be pretty bad before we want something new, and even then, the “new thing” that we want is often just an old thing in a shinier package. We look with nostalgia and rosy-tinted glasses at the past, and think that if we could just make things like they used to be, then everything would be great. This is especially seductive for Christians, because we can look back on a time when our religion dominated the country and the laws were weighted in our favor, and everyone went to church even if they didn’t really believe because it was just what everyone did on Sunday morning. The problem is, when God does something “new” it isn’t just an old thing in a shiny package, it is genuinely new, different. Jesus didn’t come to kick the Romans out, and he didn’t come to turn back the clock to the 1950s, and he isn’t coming back to keep the world as it is except for the parts we find inconvenient. Jesus comes to break down the gates and set people free and raise up the valleys and mow down the mountains and rearrange the world according to God’s vision, not ours. If we’re going to be faithful to Jesus, we can’t just read the Bible to hear what we want to hear. We can’t just assume we’re always right, or that God always agrees with us, because like the Pharisees, we may occasionally find that we are wrong. To be faithful, we have to repent. We have to turn towards God; we have to open our hearts and minds and let God change us into the people he created us to be. And that’s not easy; in fact, it can be very scary. But