The Prophetic Word of Hope

I don’t have the time or the energy to work through the entire Old Testament to prove it, but somewhere in the synapses of my mind there is a tidbit of information that says that every time a prophet declares God’s judgment, there follows a word of hope.  There is always the promise of restoration.  There is always the assurance of a faithful remnant.  There is always hope, which in this day and age of fear-mongering, might be the most prophetic word of all.

Hope is Paul’s prophetic word to the Christians in Rome in this Sunday’s New Testament lesson. Despite what appears to be some minor persecution and perhaps more significant infighting between Jewish and Gentile Christians, Paul uses this second to last chapter of his letter to encourage the fledgling Church.  To the Jewish converts, he notes that the Old Testament Law, though brought to its perfection in the Law of Christ and no longer necessary, was written “for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.”

To the Gentiles, he offers the assurance of inclusion in God’s Kingdom, “For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

And to the whole church, in 1st century Rome, 21st century America, and everywhere in between, he offers the blessing of hope, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Christians are a people of hope.  We take seriously the idea that God’s plan is good and perfect.  We believe that the moral arc of the universe is bent toward justice.  And we work tirelessly, oftentimes without much success, alongside God to bring about the future that has been promised.  We do so because we have hope.  In a world that oftentimes feels hopeless, or as our Presiding Bishop is fond of saying, “the nightmare this world often is,” we stand for hope, we believe in God’s dream, and we work to show God’s love.  Hope is the work and the word of the prophets.

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Bear Fruit

In John’s Gospel, it comes from the lips of Jesus at dinner with his disciples during in his final hours.  “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”  It comes as part of his final instructions; Jesus is imparting his most important lesson at a critical hour, and his word is “bear fruit.”

In Matthew’s Gospel, where we will find ourselves for the duration of Year A, the same admonition comes near the beginning.  This time, it isn’t Jesus who is offering this important lesson, but rather his cousin, John the Baptist.  The NRSV translates it prett close to the Greek, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” but I’m finding myself partial to the New Living Translation because it parallels nicely with the Johannine Last Supper, “Prove by the way you live that you have really turned from your sins and turned to God.”

At Saint Paul’s we often ask the question, “if we closed our doors today, would anybody notice?”  Other times, people are asked about their personal lives, “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be evidence to convict you?”  Both are kind of cheesy ways of raising awareness of an issue that was at the heart of the ministries of both John the Baptist and Jesus: Are you bearing fruit?

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Does your life look any different than the lives of those for whom their god is their belly? Is the call to repentance, literally to change direction, evident in your life?  Or, in a country where it is quite easy to be a Christian and where the Church is rather intimately tied into the culture of the empire, is your life simply about the pursuit of selfish goals and desires?

A tree bears fruit.  It is simply what it does.  However, it can only do so in the right conditions.  Bearing fruit requires fertilization, the right amount of rain, proper sunlight, and the occasional pruning.  The same goes for the life of faith.  Are you studying the Scriptures?  Are you taking time for prayer?  Have you learned to listen for God’s voice?  Is God asking you to repent, to give something up, or to take something on?  Are you bearing fruit worthy of repentance?

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.

John’s Job

If you’ve hung around this blog for any length of time, you’re bound to have read these words, “the life of a prophet isn’t easy.”  The job of a a prophet is to act as the mouthpiece of God.  Sometimes, prophets get to share hopeful news.  Take the lesson from Isaiah 11 as an example:

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.  The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 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.”

Words of comfort and hope didn’t come easily to the prophets of old, however.  Instead, the regular duty of the prophet was to warn people to “flee from the wrath to come.”  Usually, prophets found their way to the power centers to warn the rulers and their people that they had failed to live up to expectations, and that God was angry and planning some sort of divine punishment.

That’s the world that JBap finds himself living in: a world where politics and religion had become awful bedfellows; where the powers-that-be made sure the have-nots stayed in subjugation; where worship of the LORD had been turned into a money making operation.  A world not that unlike our own, come to think of it.

JBap’s job was different than the other prophets, however, because JBap got to proclaim the coming of the Savior.  Sure, he had his moments of fire and brimstone – “you brood of vipers!” – but, John’s job was to bring people to the place where they were ready for a change.  “Repent!” John proclaimed, “Repent! For the Lord is about to do something spectacular and you’ve got to be ready to see it.”

John’s job, in the end, was to make sure the people were ready to see Jesus for who he really was.  His task was to open the eyes of the spiritually blind so that could see Jesus not merely as a Rabbi or a miracle worker or a revolutionary, but as the Son of God, as the Lord, as the Messiah.  Which, when you think about it, is probably a much harder job than the other prophets.  When the Babylonians are trampling everyone around you, the prophet saying “we’re next” is pretty easy to believe, but when the prophet is proclaiming a savior for the nations, well, that takes a little extra effort.

John’s job was not an enviable one, but thanks be to God, he was faithful to the task at hand.

The Kingdom of Heaven

I mentioned on Monday that repentance and the nearness of the Kingdom of Heaven were both items of good news, and I suspect many of the regular readers of this blog agree with me.  However, I’m not stupid.  I’m not so “head in the clouds I’m not earthly good” minded to think that the vast majority of the world has been so abused by religious zealots that anything remotely resembling a call to repentance is cause for immediate Facebook unfriendship, but I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t done the same damage to the image of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are most certainly bounded by our inability to comprehend the spiritual realms, but we’ve worked so hard to make heaven sound like this

that we’ve totally missed the point of the Kingdom.  See, it isn’t about streets paved with gold, flowing with milk and honey, with a mansion complete with halo and harp for every believer, where we spend our days singing praises to God so as to keep us from dancing, drinking, or having sex.

No, the Kingdom of God is about something so much better than that.  In the 25th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet attempts to paint a picture of hope for a people in bitter despair.

Isaiah 25:6-8  6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

In this vision of the Kingdom there is

  • food
    • plenty of food for everyone
      • plenty of dang good food for everyone
  • wine
    • lots of wine
      • lots of the finest of wines
  • a full experience of the unimaginable love of God
  • a place where there is no fear of death
  • a place where relationships are perfect
  • a place where there is no guilt,
    • no disgrace,
      • no mistrust,
        • no anger
          • no tears

That, to me, sounds like good news.  A heck of a lot better news than gold streets and Gregorian chant.  Why?  Because that Kingdom can happen today.  As disciples of Christ, we can work to create a world where there is plenty of food and drink for everyone, where people are loved and respected as children of God: no matter what; where death isn’t feared because of the certain hope of the resurrection, where relationships are built on agape (self-giving love) rather than self-seeking, where we work to allay guilt, disgrace, mistrust, and anger.

With God’s help, that kind of world is available to us today.  That’s good news.

Repent!

“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”

The message of John the Baptist really is good news.  Of course, there are millions of Christians, like the owner of the bus pictured above, who wouldn’t know good news if it his them in the face, but the fact of the matter is that repentance and the Kingdom are both really good things.  I’ll deal more with the Kingdom of Heaven in the days to come, but for today, I’d like to spend a minute on repentance.

As most of you know, the Greek word for repentance is metanoia literally, to change one’s mind.  Contrary to popular opinion, repentance isn’t about feeling guilty about what you’ve done.  It isn’t about saying you’re sorry.  It is about choosing the Kingdom of God over and above the Kingdom of me.  Life is so much better when I’m living for someone other than myself.

I try to repent every morning.  I know that my first instinct is to live for me and my base needs everyday.  Thankfully, I have a wife and two great kids who remind me that life isn’t about me.  By God’s grace, I have a great vocation that forces me to focus less on myself and more on me.  Thanks be to God, I have a role model in Jesus who lived the way of the Kingdom, lived self-giving love, lived a life of self-sacrifice.  I try to repent every morning.  It doesn’t always work, but I try.  Thankfully, the one who came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire is really, really patient.

For the nerds out there, this Robertson Word Picture is really helpful.

Mat 3:2 – Repent (metanoeite). Broadus used to say that this is the worst translation in the New Testament. The trouble is that the English word “repent” means “to be sorry again” from the Latin repoenitet (impersonal). John did not call on the people to be sorry, but to change (think afterwards) their mental attitudes (metanoeite) and conduct. The Vulgate has it “do penance” and Wycliff has followed that. The Old Syriac has it better: “Turn ye.” The French (Geneva) has it “Amendez vous.” This is John’s great word (Bruce) and it has been hopelessly mistranslated. The tragedy of it is that we have no one English word that reproduces exactly the meaning and atmosphere of the Greek word. The Greek has a word meaning to be sorry (metamelomai) which is exactly our English word repent and it is used of Judas (Mt 27:3). John was a new prophet with the call of the old prophets: “Turn ye” (Joe 2:12; Isa. 55:7; Eze 33:11,15).