The words that we heard in Luke’s Gospel are the same message we hear every year during Advent.
The reader and listener find themselves with John in the wilderness after being told about the world around them. And, John is proclaiming that the particular world in which Luke has just placed us is about to change. To be ready for that world to change, people must themselves transform and change.
John invites people to do this by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That call went out to the rulers, the clergy, the teachers, and everyone else, that they should examine themselves and their lives and acknowledge their sins, their failures, their self-righteousness to God and be baptized to receive God forgiveness. Now note this was not John’s forgiveness. It was God’s forgiveness mediated through John’s baptismal cleansing.
EXCUSE ME, John the Baptist why do you always have to come in and burst our bubble? We are busy shopping, decking the halls with boughs of holly (even if we are no longer donning our gay apparel) and deciding what we should use to stuff our stocking and our Christmas goose. And along you come, the madman, talking about sin, about changing our ways, about repenting. And we thought the Grinch stole Christmas!
Yes, once again thanks to good ole John we are called to the same recognition of our sinfulness, our failings, our self- righteousness; not in the abstract, or in some “spiritual” never never land, but in the concrete daily acts of our lives. In other words: REPENT! Why is it that?
Repentance is not a word that flows easily off of the lips of good “Church Going Folk” like you and me nowadays. Perhaps, it is because we believe that the concept of repentance smacks of fundamentalism, and we associate it therefore with the fanatic on the corner. Not unlike the unkempt, tacky, eccentric John the Baptist, who Mark tells us wore camel’s hair, it assuredly did not have a Brooks Brothers label. And his taste was all in his mouth, into which he poured a vile concoction of locust and wild honey. It was he who was the prophetic precursor and the holy harbinger for Jesus Christ urges us to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand.
But amazingly enough, the idea of repentance is inextricably woven into our liturgy. It starts at baptism. The priest asks the candidate: “Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?” And later asks: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if “repentance” is too churchy a word try “turning around,” which, if I remember correctly, is the literal meaning of the original Greek word, metanoia. Or, if we are more at home with the language of psychology or pop culture, try “behavioral modification” “attitudinal adjustment” “paradigm shift.”
Whatever you call it, do it. Try it. Mend a fence. Bury a hatchet. Apologize. Pay attention to your child. Re- discover fidelity. You fill in the blanks. Come clean. Get responsible. Seek God’s forgiveness, and then recommit to the people whom God has given you to love- - - “your families, friends and neighbors, and those who are alone.”
Only when we know the reality of our need for repentance and for the action and the grace of God’s forgiveness in our own lives, can we be in any way prepared to understand the reality of Jesus coming into the real world, into flesh exactly like ours.
Archbishop Rowan Williams mentions in an Advent sermon included in his 1995 book of Sermons and Reflections entitled “Ray of Darkness,” We are perpetually “on the eve” of God’s coming, knowing and not knowing what it will be. Advent insists we stay for awhile in the tension of being “on the eve”. . .
The Advent tension is a way of learning again that God is God: that between even our deepest and holiest longing and the reality of God is a gap which only grace can cross. . .
If we are looking for some “spiritual” way that by – passes or devalues the importance of repentance in our day by day acts, then we have no business looking forward to the feast of the “incarnation.” For this feast is about the “en-fleshing” of God in a person, at a particular place, in a particular time. A God who in face of Jesus, has born all our sins and sorrows and has announced to us just as it was told to Jerusalem in our reading from Baruch that the slavery of sin is past: the punishment is over. People who had once been subjugated are now ready to be set free.
Therefore, take off the old sin - stained garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beautiful baptismal garb of the glory of God. Live in the gracious light of God glory, with mercy and righteousness that come from the Almighty. For the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Let us pray: Then cleansed be every breast from sin,
Make straight the way of God within;
And let each heart prepare a home
Where such a mighty guest may come.
~ Fr. Joseph Alsay, St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church