In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“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. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
epent! It is a rather startling word to hear this time of year. It is not the message we hear from the Salvation Army bell ringers. It is not a word you will find written in Christmas cards from friends and family. Repent! I mean, really, who wants to feel guilty with Christmas only a few weeks away? Who wants to spend time reflecting on wrongdoings when there are nativity scenes to visit and presents to wrap?
The reality is that Advent was once a penitential season, a mini-Lent of sorts. It is why Advent and Lent share the same liturgical color—but those times are long gone. Today, the closest we get to the idea of penance is telling children that they will get coal in their stockings if they aren’t well behaved. Repent! Santa Claus is coming to town!
When the Baptist cried these words on the banks of the Jordan, it wasn’t because a jolly old elf knew whether you had been bad or good. “Repent,” John cried out in the wilderness, “for the kingdom of God has come near! Repent, for God’s justice is at hand!”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I first hear John’s words in this story, it sounds a lot like a threat to me. “Repent! Or the coal in your stockings will be the least of your concerns,” John seems to say—hardly a message that you would expect to draw large crowds. Yet, he does just that. People flock from all the surrounding towns to hear John preach. From every walk of life and from all over the countryside, people come to be baptized by him in the Jordan. It is a sign for us that there is something more going on here than simply the confession of sins.
When you think about it, repenting does mean something more than simple confession. Sure, part of repenting is an admission of wrong actions, but it is also an expression of a desire to turn towards something new and different. Embedded in the cry to repent is a call to turn away from the way your life was before and turn towards a new way of being. When we repent, it is because we want to change directions; repenting means re-orienting our lives.
Now John very clearly had his own vision about what the coming of God’s kingdom would look like. It was a vision that included winnowing forks and unquenchable fire. And his message we have received from scripture is much deeper than simply avoiding the judgment of an angry God. “Repent,” John cries out to us, “and turn your attention towards the kingdom of God, which has come near to us! Repent and re-orient yourself towards God’s justice; become attentive to God’s justice!” People came to John to be baptized in droves not because they wanted to confess their sins, but because they wanted to be awakened from their slumber. People came to hear John preach because they longed to be attentive to God’s grand entrance; they wanted to be ready for God’s arrival.
The problem is that God’s justice is rarely what we expect and the kingdom of God isn’t as we typically imagine. Just as John clearly thought he knew how God’s justice would look, so too the people who gathered around him were ready for fire and brimstone. After generations of oppression and poverty, they were ready for some fireworks.
But we are called to repent and turn ourselves towards God’s justice. We must orient ourselves towards God, for God was not shepherded into the world with the flash of lightening and shaking of the ground as John might have hoped. God entered the world in the most unexpected of ways—as a child—and Christ’s justice was not found in the unquenchable fire. Christ’s justice was found upon the cross. In Advent, we are called to repent so that we can turn away from the justice we expect from God and become attentive to the justice that God works in creation. We must repent so that we can re-orient ourselves away from how we think God should work in the world, and learn to watch for how God does work in the world.
The work of repenting and turning towards God’s justice is not easy, for there is injustice in this world. There is evil, and there will be times when our hearts will burn with anger. There will be times when our hearts are on fire with righteous fury. There will be times when we struggle to distinguish between justice and vengeance.
And you know what? That is okay. There are things that should make us angry. There are things that should make us furious. There are things that should make us cry out for justice. The mark of our Christianity, the sign of our faithfulness is not that we never feel anger. Our identity as Christians is not found in the absence of emotion when faced with evil and the brokenness of the world.
No, my friends, we will be known as Christians when we chose to turn away from the bitterness and anger we feel, when we learn to turn away from our desire for human justice, and turn instead toward God’s justice. The Baptist’s cry calls to us all, “Repent! Turn around! For the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” Our faith does not ask that we feel no anger at the evil in our world. Our faith calls us to re-orient ourselves to the Kingdom of God, which has come near to us.
This is what it means to re-orient ourselves towards God and to be attentive for God’s entrance into the world this Advent. For God’s justice doesn’t come in the way that we expect it; God’s justice comes in the way that builds that Kingdom of God in our midst.
This isn’t just an Advent stance either, to be cast aside as soon as Christmas arrives—this is the work of being Christians. John stood in the river and called people to repent as he baptized them. So too are we called in baptism to repent, turning away from the things that distract us and orienting ourselves towards God. In baptism, we are given a new direction and a new commission. In baptism, we are turned around towards God and sent into the world to be agents of God’s justice. This Advent, let us heed the Baptist’s call to repent. Let us learn to watch for the unexpected ways that God is entering into the world. Let us be ever attentive to the Kingdom of God that has indeed come near and is being built in our midst.
Preached by Adam Yates