Date: December 12, 2021

Bible Text: Luke 3:7-18 |

Nothing says “joy” like “You nest of poisonous snakes!  Who warned you to run and hide from the coming storm?” What does this have to do with joy? We lit the pink candle, didn’t we? 

Ol’ curmudgeonly John the Baptist... Putting it diplomatically, he’s pretty abrasive. He makes an appearance in the lectionary every Second or Third Sunday of Advent whether we like it or not. I said some version of this two weeks ago when the lectionary confronted us with “Apocalyptic Jesus”: there’s a stark contrast between holiday cheer and the themes of Advent, the tinsel-y season in the non-Sunday parts of our lives on one hand, and the fairly somber rhythms of the church year leading into Christmas. I choose to believe that there’s wisdom in this dissonance. Advent gets to the heart of the matter in ways that the consumer-driven season tries to gloss over or even, worse, numb us.

Let’ think about John for a moment, “JBap” as someone in a Facebook forum dubbed him the other day. JBap is as unconventional as they come. I’ve mentioned it before, but some artist on Etsy came up with “Snarky Advent Cards” with a drawing of John the Baptist on the front. He looks out of his mind, frankly. Like most icons, there’s nimbus (the golden circle in the background of his head, signaling holiness) and he’s looking unkempt, to put it lightly, with wild and wooly hair. He’s emaciated from subsisting off locusts while in the desert wilderness, holding that axe (the one “lying at the root of the trees”), and donning that camel’s hair. His eyes are manically wide and his prophetic finger is pointed right at you, the reader. The add on Etsy reads:

Nothing says Christmas time like John's quip, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come?" These Advent greeting cards are perfect for those belligerent High Church snobs who insist on only playing Minor key Advent dirges and no Christmas carols before December 25. Two cards to choose from: John the Baptist - Inside of the card reads, "May your Advent be broody and penitent."

Penitent. Penitent is one of those loaded church-y words that’s been buried under a pile of abuse and misuse. A related word, repentance, appears in other English translations of this passage where John bellows to the crowds who flocked to Jordan’s banks: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”  

What does that mean? And how do we do it? And does it stick? Do we only do it once and then never have to think about it again? Or isn’t it just as simple as saying you’re sorry?

It does entail admitting wrong or saying you’re sorry, but it goes deeper than that. The heart of the word repentance means turning around, starting over, taking another direction, choosing another course. The word in the Greek, metanoia, literally means “change mind.” But it goes deeper than just changing one’s thinking to changing one’s heart. One’s life. 

We’ve all probably done that in some way, right? Started over. Gone in a new direction. Conversion. 

U-turns.

But the next question is, why? Was it just for the sake of change? To do something new?

Or was it because we became deeply aware that things were out of order, in some way—

that relationships and systems and the part we played in them were out of whack, not quite right, and that this lack of alignment was problematic. 

That’s the key with repentance. Repentance pushes us to make changes because things have become out of step with what God desires. Repentance turns us away from something not in line with God’s vision for our lives, or for the lives of our neighbors, or for humanity, and calls us towards God’s vision of wholeness for all creation. 

If that sounds “big picture” it’s because it is. Repentance is how we begin to repair the world. 

To get at what I mean by that, there was a local story that caught my eye last week. Gabby Giffords, our former congressperson and leading national gun violence prevention advocate, had her bat mitzvah (Jewish coming-of-age ceremony) at the age of 51. Her grandfather was a rabbi, so for years she had been studying Judaism to get in touch with her roots. Look the article up; it’s a beautiful and profoundly moving story. And given all that she’s gone through, it’s downright inspiring! 

Rabbi Stephanie Aaron with the congregation of Temple Chaverim said that:

[Giffords] got as much out of studying with the women as they did from studying with her… Giffords’ friend and yoga teacher was part of the group, so they began each session with a chanted prayer but Aaron also incorporated mussar, an ancient practice incorporating self-reflection and meditation.

“Gabby was always focused on tikkun olam,” Aaron said, describing the Jewish concept of repairing the world as an equation. “Every time someone repairs something in their soul, they’re repairing something in their world and vice versa.”

To repair the world, one way of living at a time. Repentance is a tool for that, a first step for that. 

Like I said before, repentance is a loaded word, and a misunderstood one at that. But it’s ultimately life-giving. Honestly, I think it gets a bad wrap because of how people warp it for their own self-serving ways or use it as a tool for shame. I’ve said this before when John the Baptist makes an appearance in the lectionary, usually in Advent and Lent, but I can’t not think of those street preachers I’d see back in Georgia, one in particular who’d stand outside Sanford Stadium at the University of Georgia with a giant sign hoisted on his back with a list of everybody he considered a sinner. 

John the Baptist isn’t that guy, going around nitpicking others’ transgressions. He’s not like Santa Claus, “making a list and checking it twice / trying to find out who’s naughty or nice.” He’s talking about the “Creator’s good road” or the rule of God/realm of God into which Jesus leads us. He’s calling for deep transformation— beginning here, in the heart, and working its way out toward the wider human community. 

“What should we do?” the crowds plead with him. He’s got an answer for everybody. If you’re a soldier, quit extorting people and intimidating them. That’s a completely new way of life for an occupier, a representative of an empire! If you’re a tax collector, a Jewish person colluding with that same empire — we’re not talking about a reasonable 10%, 12% tax bracket here, but rather a truly oppressive, crippling system — only take what this outrageous system is asking of your neighbors. If you work for evil itself, at least don’t skim off the top. 

Repentance is personal, for sure, but given how we’re all connected, it has social implications. The gospel calls us to both person and social transformation. An overhaul of systems begins with people taking responsibility for their stake in them. All the “isms” that afflict us and rob God’s children of dignity, access, basic necessities, and even their lives have individuals who are wittingly and unwittingly participants in them. We’re in need of repentance, deep repentance of so much. 

Someone on the river's edge pipes up from the back, “Well what if I’m an ordinary person, not one of those guys?” John says, “You’ve got clothes and food, don’t you? Share them! Turn away from hoarding and toward generosity.” 

We hear in this passage that John gives specific examples to specific groups of people, and that no one is exempt from his exhortations. We all have things we need to examine and change in our lives. We all have a little “house-cleaning” to do. 

So with John in mind, as another exceedingly difficult year (that’s putting it gently) comes to a close, and as another year begins, as we in some measure try to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Christ, what “house-cleaning” is in order? 

What do we need to let go of? 

What habit do we need to kick?

How can we go deeper in our commitments? 

What attitude or way of doing things is no longer serving us well? 

What’s holding us back from following Jesus, in growing in our love for God and our love for others? 

What is in need of repair, of mending, within us and the world around us? 

Because the joy comes when we shed what’s no longer working for us, and our neighbors. The joy comes when we change our ways in order to bring about growth. Holy u-turns. 

Of course the joy may not come right away; after all, change is notoriously hard and takes time. But with the help of God’s grace, we’ll get to the joy: the joy that comes when we turn away from things that no longer bring about life; the joy that comes when we do the difficult, internal and external work of turning away from life-draining, life-stealing ways and toward wholeness; the joy that comes for all God’s children when we repent of harm and take steps toward the Creator’s good road.