Linda was a good person. Everyone thought so. She went to church regularly, was very responsible in her job position, and was a helpful, loving, guiding mother to her children. Surely Linda didn’t need to repent, to ask for forgiveness. She was a good person. Yet, occasionally she got impatient with others, spoke a harsh word to another, talked before others we finished speaking, and slept in during a Sunday morning. Truth be told, she enjoyed gossiping about others too, a little. We wouldn’t think too unfavorably of her for those things still, those behaviors were not what God wanted of her. Even though Linda was a good person, she still needed to turn back to God, the meaning of repentance, time and again. If she waited until she did something really awful, God would likely think, like in the OT prophetic book of Amos, that she had ‘not yet returned to God.’
Ted had lots of friends and was generally liked. He faithfully attended Bible Study every week at his church. Once a quarter he assisted at the local soup kitchen. He rarely missed a day of work and he was a thoughtful and generous person to his wife. Surely Ted didn’t need to repent for he too was a good person. Yet, occasionally Ted drank a little too much or became impatient toward someone who did not live the way he thought one should live or who didn’t have his opinions and beliefs. And too, he would forgot to pray for a whole week or two. Now, we wouldn’t think too unfavorably of him still, those behaviors weren’t what God wanted of him. Even though Ted was a good person, he still needed to turn back to God time and again. If he waited until he did something really awful, God would likely think, like stated in the OT prophetic book of Amos, that he had ‘not yet returned to God.’ There is an old song, “Come Ye Sinners Poor and Needy,” and one sings: “If you wait until you are better, you will never come at all.” For our purposes today- if you wait until you think you need to ask for forgiveness, you may never turn back to God at all.
Perhaps this message would be more fitting for the First Sunday of Advent. However, Rodger and I were on Thanksgiving vacation with my family in PA. Last week’s Revised Common Lectionary- you will remember is a tool used by many denominations and churches to go through the main stories and points of the Bible in a 3 year cycle. Last week’s New Testament passage was the passage I am using today, from the Gospel of Luke, although I am using the Gospel of Mark’s version. While listening to the pastor of the church I grew up in, Glenshaw Presbyterian Church in a suburb of Pittsburgh, I was thankful to hear the message of the need for repentance which John the Baptist reminds us to do, during this advent season.
The minister reminded me that Mark’s Gospel has the message of our repentance first in our journey with Jesus toward salvation. This Gospel reminds us that if we first repent, we will more clearly know that God has offered us salvation and that we can be changed by that repentance. John the Baptist is an Advent character we don’t add to our nativity scene or read about very often at this time of the year.
Really, it is little wonder that we actually prefer not to think about John the Baptist at this time of year. He was somewhat anti-social living in the wilderness, he was hairy, and he was definitely weird eating locust and honey (yuck!) and wearing scratchy camel hair clothes. He tended to repeat himself over and over, again and again: Repent! Repent!, rings in the listeners’ ears. Well, John clearly just doesn’t get it- Christmas is a time to be jolly we are told, through Christmas carols, cards and decorations. We may think- isn’t repentance for Lent and surely not for Advent and Christmas? Instead of taking the time to repent, we like to take the time to go to parties or have parties, for shopping, for wine, for nuts and cakes and cookies, and for complex and rather expensive decorations for our homes. Yeah, John is certainly a spoil-sport.
Advent isn’t when we shine our best as Christians. We don’t particularly like to wait (especially as we look for those hidden Christmas presents in the house) and we aren’t that keen where repentance is involved. We prefer to wrap ourselves in the illusion that we are good people and don’t need to repent, similar to the examples of Linda and Ted. Well, in general, we may be good people but we still need to hear John’s message of ‘repent, repent’ at the beginning of our Advent journeys for it leads us to the birth of our salvation, the Christ child, Emmanuel meaning God with us. God wants us to always turn back to our gracious Lord, time and time again. During Advent, we tend to forget that getting caught up in good feelings, filled tummies, and contented sighs.
When John would loudly broadcast his message to “Repent!”, the gospels translate that word from Aramaic to Greek. The Greek is not quite as harsh as the Hebrew word for ‘repent’ but is still a concept full of meaning. Repent, in Greek, means a “change of mind, a totally new way of seeing.” It requires that we are taken out of our comfort zone to let go of our small-minded, rigid way of viewing everything and remember that we are not the center of the universe. As we repent, we figuratively turn back around to our God and the Lord’s way of doing things as taught to us by Jesus Christ. A great image for how we emerge from our time of repentance before God is like a butterfly morphing out of its cocoon. It appears out of the gloom into the light from its former state of a homely caterpillar to a beautiful, colorful, alive creature of God.
In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist reveals the light of the world to those who need to turn back to God involving all people, good and bad or evil alike. In Mark’s Gospel, John is the one preparing the way for the advent of Jesus into others’ lives. Our morning verses 2-4 state: As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Followed by, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That notion is taken from the Prophet Isaiah’s book of the OT from chapter 40, a portion of which Rodger read for you this morning. Isaiah 40 is a key passage for the Advent season for it calls us to prepare the way to receive our Lord into our hearts, minds, and lives anew. We need to hear that message again and again, not because we want to beat up on ourselves, but because it is a natural part of preparing ourselves to come before the child of light who is pure and full of truth.
In our responsive Psalm reading today, Psalm 85, we are to take note that the forgiveness we seek through our times of repentance comes from God alone. While the Psalm does announce the forgiveness of sins and in breaking of a saving God, it also reminds us that our loving, merciful God is the one who lifts up our sin and then covers it while throwing it away. Verses 4-6 were left out of our Psalm lesson. They are taken out of the lectionary reading of the Psalm too but also they make it a little too long. However, those verses are an important part of the Psalm because they remind the listener to return to God again and again. Ancient Israelites constantly turned away from God and, when we are truthfully honest with ourselves, we do too. Repentance reminds us that we belong to God and it is our forgiving Lord alone who forgives us and makes us into new beings, much like a butterfly.
In this day of violence and hatred, illness and grief, we too cry out to God for deliverance. At the same time, we remember John’s cry to repent. When we put the two notions together, we know that God hears us and responds to our pleas of deliverance as we actively and often repent. People of God, we don’t always know of what we repent. Sometimes only God knows that as God’s Spirit touches our spirits. God does deliver us, perhaps not as we imagine deliverance but always from our sin, especially as we lift up that wrong-doing asking for forgiveness.
While this may seem like a downer of a message- it really isn’t. It is simply a natural process of our advent preparation and God will gratefully acknowledge us as we ask for forgiveness, repent, and will break into our lives with salvation and great joy, time and again.
Praise be to God’s most holy name! Amen.