Repent! Merry Christmas! – a sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read it below.

There are a lot of ways to share your joy this holiday season.  Merry Christmas!  Happy Holidays!  War Eagle!  Season’s Greetings!  But, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near! Doesn’t seem to be one of them.  John the Baptist is kind of like that one float in the Gulf Shores Mardi Gras parade where a bunch of presumably well-meaning Christians carry signs that say “Turn or Burn!” and “Jesus died for you!” while someone shouts through a bullhorn things about sin and death.  I can’t help but wonder if they actually understand what is going on in the world around them.  I mean, shouldn’t Mardi Gras and Christmas be all about joy and happiness?  Here we are, sixteen days from Christmas, with John the Buzz-Kill shouting through a bull-horn, “REPENT!”  It just isn’t what any of us expect this time of year, and yet it is, of course, what this season is all about.

Advent is a season of expectation.  We expect the birth of the Christ child on Christmas morning.  We expect his second coming to bring about the culmination of history.  We expect Santa to come down our chimneys with a sack full of toys.  We expect good food, family fellowship, laughter and joy.  We expect the herald angels to proclaim “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”  We don’t expect John the Baptist to be standing beside a muddy river, stinking to high heaven of body odor mixed with dirty camel hair, with bits of locusts snagged in the smeared honey stuck in his beard, cussing out the Pharisees and the Scribes who seem to be at the Jordan River with pure intentions in their hearts.

This tension, between waiting for the joyful entrance of our heaven-born Prince of Peace and the call to penitence in preparation for his second coming, seems to have ramped up in recent years.  Many congregations, Episcopalian and otherwise, have moved away from the Purple hangings that are also used in Lent, opting instead for blue and rose colored vestments and liturgical appointments.  The goal, it seems, is to distance ourselves as much as possible from dour penitence.  I get that urge, and in fact, I’ve advocated for it over the past several years.  I think the Church is silly to stand in the midst of “the most wonderful time of the year” – the one place where Jesus and his message of grace still have a wide ranging cultural impact – and moan and groan that “Christmas is twelve days beginning on December 25th” or “Whatever happened to Advent” or “You can’t sing Christmas carols yet.”  For two millennia, the Church has been willing to alter its calendar to meet changing cultural trends, even our beloved Christ the King Sunday is less than 50 years old, and yet on this issue, we’ve stood our ground, standing scrooge-like in the midst of stores willing to bring “Joy to the World” through retail therapy saying, “Humbug!” to the idea of joy in the midst of Advent.  I have suggested that we should adjust the Church calendar to start the season of Christmas on the First Sunday after Thanksgiving and run it straight through until Epiphany on January sixth, but I don’t think we should eliminate Advent and its overtones of preparation, expectation, and yes, even repentance.  Instead, I would argue that Advent should eat into the interminable season of Pentecost beginning on the First Sunday after All Saints.  Or course, none of this will ever happen, but even as I argue for the change, I want to always be careful to say that Advent is important.  Preparation is important.  Expectation is important.  And yes, John the Baptist, Repentance is important.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”  As odd as this sentence is for us to hear during this time of year, it is important for us to remember that repentance isn’t about dour penitence.  Contrary to what our Mardi Gras float riding brethren would have us believe, the call to repentance isn’t about feeling guilty or sad or getting beat over the head by a Bible, the call to repentance is good news.  John Broadus, a nineteenth century Biblical scholar and Baptist Seminary Professor, called the translation of the Greek word “metanoia” into the English word “repentance,” “the worst translation in the New Testament.” “The trouble is that the English word ‘repent’ means ‘to be sorry again’… John didn’t call on the people to be sorry, [let alone to be sorry again and again], but to change their mental attitudes and conduct… This is John’s great [prophetic] word [for us] and it has been hopelessly mistranslated.”[1]  Metanoia means to change your mind.  By changing your mind, you change your conduct.  Despite what four hundred and two of years of the King James Bible would have us believe, John’s call isn’t about feeling guilty for what you’ve done.  It isn’t about saying you’re sorry like a toddler trying to get out of time-out.  It isn’t about divine punishment.  John’s call to repentance is about choosing the Kingdom of God over and above the Kingdom of me.  It is about loving the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength.  It is about loving my neighbor as myself.  And then, once I’ve changed my mind to live for God, it is about bearing fruit and building on earth God’s peaceable kingdom, where the wolf and lamb live together; where the calf, the lion, and the fatling are led by a child; where swords are beaten into plowshares; and where there is plenty of good food and fine wine for everyone.

The call to repentance is a call to kingdom living, and the kingdom of heaven is a place where we can fully experience the unimaginable love of God, and that is very good, dare I say, joyful, news indeed.  John the Baptist stands on the banks of the Jordan River as a herald, proclaiming the important news that God’s plan for salvation is about to be unveiled.  John the Baptist calls upon the people to live lives of repentance as a harbinger of the kingdom of heaven that is to come.  John the Baptist bids us to the water’s edge and invites us to think about what we are expecting from this season.

Do we approach Christmas only hoping to see a cute baby Jesus lying, meek and mild, in the manger?  Do we hope to have our sins washed away by a wave of God’s magic wand?  Do we need it to all be easy?  Or, do we approach Christmas eager to change our ways, willing to give up our own wants in order to help those who are in great need?  Do we seek to follow the Prince of Peace by taking the Christmas card slogan “Peace on Earth” to heart?  Do we accept the challenge of John’s message of repentance, all the while seeing the hope-filled joy that comes from living into the kingdom of heaven?

Repentance isn’t easy.  We are habitual self-seekers.  It requires nearly constant effort to change my first response from “what can I get out of this” to “what will serve the kingdom best.”  In fact, in my life, I find that I have to repent at least every morning.  I know that my first instinct is to live for me and my needs and wants every day, but thanks be to God for the faithfulness of John the Baptist who took on the unenviable task of calling for repentance.  Thanks be to God for the role model we have in Jesus, who lived the way of the kingdom, lived self-giving love, lived a life of self-sacrifice.  Thanks be to God that grace means I don’t have to feel guilty for falling short all the time, but instead, I have the chance to change my mind, change my actions, and try again.

Merry Christmas!  Repent!  The life of faith sees an opportunity for joy in both of these seasonal greetings.  Maybe there is room for Advent in the midst of Christmas.  After all, Advent is a season of expectation: for the Christ child, for the second coming, and ultimately, for the kingdom of heaven.  So, repent, my friends, for a merry Christmas is at hand.  Amen.

[1] Robertson’s Word Pictures for Matthew 3:2.

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