ADVENT 2, Yr A. Dec 8 2019
He is a man unlike any other. A man with a unique sense of fashion and a most original paleo diet. And he is out there- doing his thing.
Of all the biblical characters in the New Testament, next to Jesus, John the Baptist is my favorite. And on this second Sunday of Advent, we find ourselves on the banks of the River Jordan with non other than the man himself, John the Baptist. He is the herald and all the Gospel writers agree that there is no Gospel of Jesus, the good news of God cannot be realized without John the Baptist. Described by Jesus as the greatest of prophets. John took his mission, which was to declare the imminent arrival of the coming Messiah, very seriously.
From what we read about John the Baptist, John was fearless. He was not afraid of Herod or Herod’s wife, who in the end arranged to have head.
He was totally devoted to the One for whom he came to prepare the way, saying to his followers, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.” This wild figure dressed in camel’s hair would more likely be depicted as a cartoon image holding a sign that reads, “Get ready, the end is near!”
So there is John the crazy, wild looking guy out in the wilderness – far away from the places of power. He is a prophet in the classical sense. Not a predicter of the future but the voice of God. Calling the people to repentance. John proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I want to focus for a moment on two aspects of that phrase Repent and kingdom of heaven. Now the crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions line up to hear John and to be baptized in the Jordan. Why do they flock to hear John? Perhaps they have become disheartened by the quality of their lives and welcome the call for change.
If we look deeper into a Jewish understanding of the word, “repent,” to repent or to return, is to follow the prepared way of the Lord. It is to return to a path that leads us back to reconnecting with the God who made us and loves us beyond our understanding.
To repent doesn’t mean to simply be sorry. In the New Testament, to repent means to begin seeing differently, to begin thinking differently, both of which lead to acting and living differently. To repent is to change, but not for the sake of change itself. Rather, when we change, we start to LIVE differently, because as we enter a new mindset or as we develop a new way of seeing, we become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s dream for all creation.
And what is God’s dream for all creation? The answer to that question can be found throughout Scripture. But notably from our other prophet Isaiah – God’s dream is for the world to be a place in which peace and equity – rather than fear and hatred – rule the day.
Where the wolf shall dance with the lamb, the lion will eat grass with the cow- it is the description of a world turned on its head. And it is turned on its head because of power of God and THIS is the world that God dreams for us.
God dreams for the world to be a place where we view each other with compassion and with love, where all of creation is full of the mercy and the peace of God. Dr. King dreamed of the Beloved Community. Such a dream is one that God calls us to live into not next year, not ten years from today, but right now. – for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And that is the why of repentance. John does not just shout, “Repent!” and that is the end of it. We need a why to go with the what of repentance. For those of us who follow God in the Way of Love, it is Jesus who defines our new mindset and a new way of seeing the world and the path that leads us back to God. Deciding to try to live and love like Jesus is what Christian repentance is all about.
So many of us have been taught to believe that when we hear the word “repent” it is because we have done something wrong, that we have sinned and are in need of a change of heart, mind, and body in order that we might live a new life. Such Repentance is weighed down with the burden of guilt and shame.
Again, repentance is about shifting our way of thinking back to God. So then, what if we choose to hear John’s call of “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near”- not as an ominous threat of impending condemnation, but as an invitation to live into God’s dream?
In this advent season, we sing Come O Come Emmanuel- That word Emmanuel, means “God with us”. We pray for the coming of God in our midst. This is a season of preparation it is a season and a time that is devoted to trying to see the world differently, not as WE think we should see the world, but as GOD sees the world.
As children of God, we need to hear and heed the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness – the voice that reminds us of God’s dream. We need to take the time to seek God’s vision for us – to ask, “What does God want us to be and to do?” God invites us all to dream BIG and to dream something beyond what we can presently see – the poor, the suffering, the imprisoned, the refugee, the homeless, the hungry, those who have lost loved ones through acts of violence. These are dreams by which to set a course. God does not ask us if we are there yet, but rather whether we are headed in the right direction.
Following Paul’s counsel, we who have glimpsed God’s dream must now share that hope. Like John, we must strive to renew the hopes of an exhausted world. With practice, we can be like Isaiah, who can see beyond the mess and dream of a world in which all are ready for the arrival of God.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” - “Repent, live into God’s Dream.” This is John the Baptist’s invitation for us to come home and to be the people God has created us to be. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.