Sunday, December 05, 2010

Repentance is Transformation

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
The Chapel of the Incarnation, Gainesville FL
December 5, 2010

Year A: The Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

Repentance is Transformation

Obviously, something has gone very wrong.

Obviously, something has gone very wrong with our economy. I’m sure we were all disappointed – but not surprised – to learn that the unemployment rate inched up last month.

Obviously, something has gone very wrong with our political system. It’s become a cliché to describe our country as “polarized.” Two years ago a wave of Democrats were elected to Congress when President Obama was elected. And, sure enough, a month ago the Democratic tide went back out and a Republican wave poured into the House and Senate.

Obviously, something has gone very wrong among the American people. There’s profound and often bitter disagreement on a whole bunch of hot-button issues, ranging from heath care reform to tax cuts to global warming to gays serving openly in the military. Maybe worst of all, we seem to be unable - or unwilling - to listen to people with whom we disagree.

Actually, the only thing that most Americans seem to agree on is the fact that something has gone very wrong. I looked at some recent national public opinion polls and – no surprise - in all of them the vast, vast majority agreed that the country is on the wrong track.

We may disagree on the causes and the details and the solutions, but we all sense that something has gone very wrong.

So, maybe during this difficult time in our country and world we can especially appreciate an insight that lies very close to the heart of Judaism and Christianity. From the start, people of both faiths have recognized that, for us humans, something has gone very wrong.

Jews and Christians have understood that we were not meant to live in a world with so much pain and suffering and loss.

The story of Adam and Eve (which we will hear later on during our Lessons and Carols service) best captures this recognition - this deep understanding – that for us humans something has gone very wrong.

The story of Adam and Eve tells us what we already know in our hearts. We know that God made a good creation. We know that human disobedience messed it up and continues to mess it up. We know that we used to feel very close to God and God felt very close to us. But then we turned away from God and even tried to hide from God.

And over and over God tried to seek us out, tried to find us, tried to rebuild the relationship that had been broken so painfully.

One way God tried to seek us out was through the prophets. Over and over, the prophets called the people back to faithfulness – with decidedly mixed results.

Which brings us to today’s gospel lesson and the last in this long line of prophets, John the Baptist.

The four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – all give a good bit of attention to John the Baptist. Some of the details vary, but all four agree on John’s basic character and the content of his message.

John, probably very consciously, modeled himself on prophets of the Jewish past. His outfit of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist echoed the Prophet Elijah.

His food of locusts and wild honey would have been a sign of his total dependence on God. No hunting or farming for John – just faith in God.

Like many of the earlier prophets, John was very critical of the religious establishment. In today’s lesson we heard John greet the Sadducees and the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers.” John calls them children of snakes – definitely not a compliment!

John’s no fan of the religious establishment. John warns the religious establishment that their heritage and positions of prestige would be no protection from God’s wrath.

During that very tense time in Jewish history, John’s fiery message would have threatened both religious and political leaders.

Living under Roman rule was not easy. The Jewish religious establishment had to be careful not to anger the Romans and at the same time maintain authority among the people.

The people were waiting for someone to break things open. Some were waiting for a prophet. And many were waiting for more than a prophet. They were waiting for a messiah, God’s anointed one, to restore the greatness the people of Israel had known a thousand years earlier under King David.

Living and preaching out in the wilderness, John the Baptist must have seemed like the real deal. So, no surprise, many went out to hear his message. They came from all walks of life to be baptized by him in the Jordan. Some were so taken by John’s life and words that they became his disciples. Many scholars think that a young Jesus of Nazareth himself was one of John’s disciples.

So, John would have been recognized as a prophet. And some would have thought – would have hoped – that John was the messiah.

Of course, the authors of the gospels make it very clear that John is not the messiah. The gospels insist that John’s the one who was to prepare the way for Jesus the messiah. In today’s gospel lesson, Matthew describes John’s secondary role by quoting from the Prophet Isaiah:

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

John’s job is to prepare the way of the Lord. And just how are we to prepare the way of the Lord? John’s message is very much like Jesus’ own message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But, what does that mean? What does it mean to repent?

When most of us hear the word repent we think of saying we’re sorry for some wrong we’ve done and pledging to change our ways. And that’s true enough, as far as it goes.

But for both John and Jesus, repentance means much more than just saying we’re sorry and trying to do better next time.

Repentance means total transformation. For John, and for us, this total transformation is acted out in our baptism. Because of how and to whom most baptisms happen in church, we may forget that baptism is about total transformation. John’s baptism wasn’t a little water poured out delicately onto the head of an adorable baby dressed in white frilly clothes.

No, John’s baptism was a dunking – it was a near drowning – so the old self would die underwater and the new transformed person would rise up, gasping, breathing in the air of new life.

Repentance is transformation. In baptism our transformation has begun.

Something has gone very wrong in our world, in our country and in our lives. Advent may be a season of waiting, but the good news is that in baptism our repentance – our transformation – has begun.

We can see the shape of our transformation in the words of the Baptismal Covenant – the part of the Baptism service when, with God’s help, we promise to continue our transformation that begins in the water of baptism.

Repentance is transformation. In baptism our transformation has begun.

In the Baptismal Covenant, we promise, with God’s help, to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

We promise, with God’s help, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as our self.

We promise, with God’s help, to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.
In baptism our repentance – our transformation – has begun.

And the more we allow God to transform us the more the world will be transformed. The more the world will look like the world that God always intended. The more we allow God to transform us, the more what has gone wrong will be made right.

The more we allow God to transform us the more that Isaiah’s dream of the transformed world will become reality:

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

So, on this Second Sunday of Advent as we look back at Christ’s birth and look ahead to Christ’s return, let’s give thanks for John the Baptist’s call to repentance and especially let’s give thanks for the gift of baptism.

And, most of all, let’s remember that in baptism our transformation – and the transformation of the whole world – has begun.