If you’re paying attention to the rhythms of the church year, you’ll know today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent, of course, is the church season when we wear blue, light candles on a wreath, and open tiny boxes to eat the tiny chocolates inside, all while stubbornly refusing to listen to Christmas carols and being smugly satisfied that we are doing the Liturgical year the right way, not letting any spare merriment sneak into the short, dark days of December.
I was talking this week with other parents who have children at home about how hard it is to keep Advent as a period of waiting and preparation when everybody else has been covered in twinkle lights and tinsel since Halloween. My younger son has been singing a medley of Christmas songs he learned in music class, my older son has been practicing Good King Wenceslas on his violin for a concert this week. A Charlie Brown Christmas has been broadcast for the year and is probably already back in storage. And if you want to wait until Christmas Eve to put up your Christmas tree, you better be using an artificial tree because there are no good live trees left on the lots after about the 18th. Popular culture tells us to spend this month consuming as much as possible, and we can worry about budgetary and dietary repentance on January 1st.
But John the Baptist comes to us now saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” We always get John on Advent two, and as one of the commentaries I read this week said, John is always weird. A more generous commentary calls him “colorful.” He’s out in the wilderness, for one thing. And he’s wearing camel hair and leather and eating locusts, for another. I admit I don’t know everything there is to know about Biblical fashions or food trends, but I am a reader and all readers know that if an author starts talking about clothes and food it is because those clothes and foods are unusual in some way. John’s wardrobe and diet are meant to evoke the austerity and self sacrifice of the Hebrew prophets. It’s no surprise then that people of the time would wonder if John was the second coming of Elijah. The Gospel writer was clearly trying to give readers the impression that John might be Elijah.
If John is meant to be one of the old school prophets, and maybe Elijah himself, then it’s important that we’re clear on what the Hebrew prophets did. They weren’t doomsayers. They didn’t predict the future. Their gift lay in being able to see a situation clearly. They looked at what was happening around them and could see where things were headed because if you were seeing clearly you knew there was no other way it could go than the way it had gone every other time things were headed that way. That was how things were and how they kept being. If the Hebrews wanted a new thing, they needed to listen to the prophets and get out of their old ways.
John’s clothes weren’t the only unusual things about him. John was baptizing Jews. Baptism, in John and Jesus’ day was a thing for converts, not for those were were born Jews. John was saying that the Hebrews who for so long had prided themselves on being sons of Abraham, God’s chosen people, were no better off than the Gentiles. They needed the same baptism, the same new thing, that the Gentiles needed.
John is calling on believers to repent. Most of us have heard that the word repent means “to turn around” and for the Hebrew word “shuv” that is the literal translation. The Gospels were written in Greek, and the Greek word translated as “repent” is “metanoia” which taken literally means “A change of mind.” In context both shuv and metanoia mean the same thing: taking a clear look at how our thoughts and our actions are rooted in the old things and turning them toward God. This is no simple expression of regret that wipes our transgressions from our records, as John makes clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees he suspects have come for a quick fix. No, John tells them they must bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Aren’t we as likely as any Pharisee to look for the quick fix instead of truly turning around? Aren’t we as likely as any Sadducee to stay mired in the past instead of allowing ourselves to have a change of mind, to see the new Kingdom that is coming?
John tells us that we must bear fruit worthy of repentance. Isn’t that what we’re doing during Advent? Getting out into the wilderness to “prepare the way of the Lord, to make His paths straight.”?
John tells them “do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.” John tells us, do not presume to say to yourselves “I have the right skin color, the right bank accounts, the right gender, the right education, the right neighborhood, the right religion. I will be okay.”
Our old privileges might be enough for us to be okay in this world, but they have no value in the Kingdom of God, not even the part about not singing Christmas carols during Advent. What matters in the Kingdom of God is that we bear fruit worthy of repentance.
We heard about one such fruit from Paul today in the Letter to the Romans. The reading this week catches the end of a long letter and the last thing Paul urges them to do is to live in harmony with each other, Gentiles and Jews alike. They should welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed them. That kind of harmony was a new thing, a change of mind, a turning around. It required self-sacrificial love from those early Christians. It required that they love the people who didn’t look like them or live like them or know the same stories or sing the same songs, and not just love them from a distance but live in harmony with them under one roof. That’s what the Kingdom of God looked like to Paul. Notice Paul didn’t say that the early church in Rome was succeeding at that task, only that it should be their goal, supported by the encouragement of the Scriptures and the example of welcome Christ gave them. They should study those Scriptures and have hope
This Advent, what if we didn’t just light candles and open tiny boxes to get at the chocolate inside? What if we didn’t keep Advent only through a stubborn refusal to play Christmas carols until December 25th, and loud complaining about how the Twelve Days of Christmas weren’t meant to be a shopping countdown? What if Advent were more than a month of “Not Christmas Yet”?
What if, instead, we tried to be like the prophets of old, and take a clear look at how things are and where they are headed, and encouraged by the Scriptures, we allowed ourselves to hope? What if we made an honest assessment as a church and as individuals, of the things we are doing that are rooted in idolatry, violence, injustice, exploitation, slavery, and scarcity, and then asked ourselves how can we change our minds, how can we turn ourselves around to be rooted in God’s laws of love, peace, justice, dignity, freedom and abundance? How can these Advent candles light our path to God? How can we, in these dark, short days of December, bear fruit worthy of repentance?
*In preparing this sermon, I relied heavily the commentaries posted on Working Preacher.
Advent 2, Year A
Revised Common Lectionary
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19