Repent!

The Third Sunday of Advent, Year C.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

Luke 3:7-18

Every year at about this time, our collective memory undergoes a strange phenomenon. Like clockwork, at the beginning of December we seem to forget what had been so dear to us the previous year. Once again, we are struck by a peculiar seasonal amnesia, lost and adrift in the wilderness, our guiding light obscured by mental fog. Thankfully, as soon as hope is nearly lost and we fear we will forget entirely, a voice cries out in the wilderness, asking the real question. The great prophets of our age, television Christmas specials, come together in a heavenly chorus. For 5-7 minutes in-between the 15-minute commercial breaks blasting us with gluttonous consumerism, they charge us with the true question: “What is the meaning of Christmas?”

I’m not entirely sure what it says about our society that so much of our media believes that none of us know what the true meaning of Christmas is. With all the specials, cards, songs, and pervasive sense of impending doom trying to keep up with all our holiday obligations, how could we possibly forget? How could there be any confusion when we have low-budget, feel-good holiday programming that in the very brief moments between the commercials screaming at us to buy cars, gadgets, and jewelry, proclaim the true reason for the season: Family…or something! Maybe peace? Wait no…its belief! …in Santa? …or maybe it’s belief in the goodness of humanity. You know, even though they ask the right question, they still remain perplexed.

Alright, considering the confusion and disagreement among them, I see why they feel the need to ask every year. But we can do better here right? At least all of us know that this isn’t even the “Christmas” season, it’s Advent! Now that we cleared that up, we can finally relish in the true meaning of Advent. This special time of year where we put aside our differences and pretenses, seeing our common humanity for what it is. We turn to ourselves, family, friends, and neighbor, and with a twinkle in our eye and warmth in our heart we, shake our fist at them and cry “You brood of vipers, wicked sinners! Repent and return to the LORD!”

Indeed, it is that time of year where we are called to cherish our family, be kind to our neighbor, but most importantly, bemoan and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness. And how refreshing it is that instead of a commercial break this morning, we hear the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness, begging us to turn back from our heathenish ways.

The contrast between John the Baptist’s teachings this morning and the usual holiday special fluff is nothing short of comical. Though it has always bothered me that for all the interest in the Bible this time of year, John the Baptist never gets his story adapted for pageants and daytime television. Perhaps the story of a camelhair clad apocalyptic teacher telling people that the Son of Man is coming with His winnowing fork, tossing the unrepentant into unquenchable fire doesn’t lend itself well to boosting toy sales. Or maybe the test screenings didn’t go over so well with the suburban audience. But mass appeal was never something John worried too much about. Instead, he prepares the way, proclaiming to the people the reason for the season: Repentance.

It’s tempting to write off the harsh words we hear from John the Baptist this morning, and it can seem ridiculous that Luke concludes that calling us a brood of vipers and unfruitful trees ready to be thrown in the unquenchable fire is “good news”. Yet to focus on the judgement misses the heart of John’s message. The good news is that the LORD is coming, which is great news for the oppressed, needy, and lowly, but terrible news for the oppressor, the exploiter, those who sell the poor for a pair of sandals. When John proclaimed that the valleys would be made straight and the mountains made low, he is reminding us that the coming of the LORD restores balance and fairness to an unkind and unfair society.

But where do we fit into this message? Are we to rejoice at the LORD’s coming, or should we be afraid? Each of us is stained by sin; unmerited privilege, exploiting the poor, putting our own desires over the LORD’s desire for justice and righteousness. Yet at the same time we love God and our neighbor. We want to be better, for our world to be better, we believe that the Son of Man came to this world not to condemn it, but to save it. What should we do?

“Repent!” The Baptist cries.

We ask the same question as the crowds, “What then, should we do?” It is in this moment that we so desperately want it to be like the holiday specials. A comedic misunderstanding, a dramatic third act repentance, a quick fix, everyone hugs and the credits roll. But that’s not the story that we hear today. John’s answer is almost offensive in how ordinary it is: share, make sure everyone has what they need, those in authority do not use that power to exploit and extort your neighbor, when you have what you need, be content and not envious or gluttonous. That perhaps is the most challenging part of repentance. Most think it is a dramatic moment of turning around. A “come to Jesus” moment that instantly transforms and makes straight the highway for our God. Everyone hugs, credits roll.

But that is a shallow and false repentance, an instant gratification that explains why there is collective amnesia about the meaning of this season. Repentance is the transformation of the ordinary. Having the courage and endurance to keep returning to the path of justice and righteousness day after day, year after year. It’s recognizing beyond the warm fuzzy holiday feelings the dignity of every human being. It is keeping the covenant, living into the citizenship conferred at your baptism. It is recognizing that lifting up the valleys and bringing down the mountains happens in ordinary places. It is taking every opportunity to be the Gospel. It is living in such a way that all know you are Christian by your love.

Repentance is much like these lovely blue paraments and vestments. Long ago, in Advent and Lent, the church and the clergy would wear black. Black being the color of regret, shame, and mourning. Yet as the years went on and the paraments and vestments were worn generation after generation, they began to change. As time went on and the black was brought into the light and lived among the people, the color began to fade. Turns out, due to the dyeing methods, the vestments and paraments had never been truly black, merely an exceedingly dark purple or blue. Over time the light faded the darkness away and the true colors of the dye came through. What was once regret, shame, and morning, simply by being used, loved, and kept for generations, transformed into something beautiful. Amen.

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