Sermon: Advent II
The Repentant Life (Matthew 3:1-12)
The Lord be with you.
John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” One of our most beloved stories at Christmas time is a tale about repentance — Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s about the repentance of a man named Ebenezer Scrooge.
On the first page of A Christmas Carol, this is how Scrooge is described:
Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.
But listen to how this mean, crotchety old man is described on the story’s final page:
[Ebenezer Scrooge] became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. …and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.
That is what you call a total transformation. A complete turnaround. And that, my friends, is what repentance is.
Repentance means I am walking south and then I stop, pivot, and start walking north. Repentance means I’m taking the elevator down when I decide to stop its descent, push the button, and start going up. Repentance means I change my loyalties and start rooting for the Red Sox rather than the Yankees, the Cubs rather than the Cardinals, Purdue instead of IU. A person who repents stops voting for the political party he’s supported his whole life and starts voting for the other party. The repentant person makes a U-turn and starts going in the opposite direction. To repent means to make a 180. It means to do an about-face. It’s not just altering my course, it is reversing course.
To use the example of Scrooge, it means to stop being “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” and to start being “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
Repentance is an action word. Many of us think of it as a feeling word, but it’s not. When we hear the word repentance we think of feeling sorry for our bad choices, our sins. That is not repentance, that’s regret, that’s remorse. Such feelings may accompany repentance but they themselves are not repentance. Repentance is not so much about tears as it is about turning around. It means to stop, reverse course, and start going the other way.
When John and Jesus came on the scene, they preached repentance. This word had a specific meaning in their context. They were speaking in the tradition of the prophets, who used a similar word — “return.” In preaching about what the Jewish people must do to return to the land from exile, the prophets said Israel must return to the Lord.
- Israel had been following other gods — they must stop, turn around, and start following the Lord.
- Israel had been putting their trust in military might and in alliances with other nations — they must stop, turn around, and start trusting in God to protect and care for them.
When John and Jesus came along, many of the Jewish people had returned to the land, but they were still, in a sense, in exile. The Romans ruled over them and the land was under Caesar’s control. Various Jewish groups advocated different ways of dealing with this. At the risk of being simplistic, there were four primary approaches.
First, there were groups like the Sadducees, the elite keepers of the Temple. Though they were very conservative religiously, they were willing to compromise with the Romans in order to keep peace so that they could be allowed to continue their religious practices without interference.
Then there were the Pharisees. These were the devout religious leaders in Israel — the “evangelicals” if you will. They emphasized studying the Torah and maintaining ritual purity in daily life as the way for Israel to remain in God’s favor.If Israel would keep the Law, God would intervene and reestablish them as a nation.
Some groups went further, like the Zealots, who were revolutionaries. They advocated the violent overthrow of the Roman invaders.
And then there were sects like the Essenes, who dropped out of ordinary life and society. They forsook the world and built monastic communities where they completely separated themselves from the world.
This was the situation when John and Jesus came along. The people of Israel were longing for God’s kingdom to be reestablished. They were yearning for an end to their exile. They wanted God to overcome their enemies and restore his throne in Israel. And these were the four answers being suggested:
- Let’s just compromise with the Romans so they’ll let us keep worshiping at the Temple.
- No, let’s focus on keeping the Law and being pure so that God will intervene and bless us again.
- No, that’s not enough! We must overthrow Rome by taking up arms against them.
- No, none of that will work. We’re should just abandon the world altogether to worship, study, and pray. God will do it himself, he doesn’t need our help.
In today’s Gospel, when John says “Repent!” he is telling the people and the leaders of Israel that none of these strategies will work. God’s Kingdom will not return to Israel via these means. They must stop pursuing these agendas and to look elsewhere for their hope.
Specifically, they are to look for Jesus and they are to follow him. The way out of exile is to repent — to stop trying to restore God’s favor by the means they were using, and to start following God’s King who is about to appear — Jesus.
Let’s bring this down to us today. We all have ideas about how to have God’s blessing in our lives. We develop strategies to win God’s favor. We come up with agendas for overcoming our problems and our trials so that we will get through this world as good people with good lives who might make this world a little better along the way.
And to be honest, much of the time we do all right. At least from our perspective. We’re not Scrooges, well, most of us anyway. We don’t see the need for a total turnaround, an about-face, a complete change in direction.
But when we hear the Gospel as it comes to us today, perhaps we need to remember what our brother Martin Luther said in the first of his 95 theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not just about big, life-altering change and transformation, it’s about the daily choice to not go my way, but Christ’s.
And in the light of John the Baptist, perhaps we should remember our baptism, of which Luther said: Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
In other words, every day is a day to wake up and determine, by faith, that we are going to follow Jesus rather than any other agenda or strategy that we might come up with ourselves. Daily, we determine to live the repentant life, dying to ourselves and rising with Christ, turning back from our own wisdom and listening to Jesus.
As another scripture says:
Trust in the Lord with a whole heart
And do not lean on your own understanding
In all your ways, acknowledge him
And he will make your paths straight
That is the repentant life.
Now may the word of Christ dwell in us richly in all wisdom.