John the Baptist is one of those characters that you remember. He eats bugs, and wears ridiculous things. He’s also one of those characters that, as a pastor, you get to preach on every single year. Every Second Sunday of Advent, we have John preaching in the wilderness. John is such a rich character with a deep and nuanced message, there are many ways you take a sermon on him. I choose to do something a little unusual for me this year, and focus in on just a couple words: repentance and judgment.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent can be found here: Advent 2 readings
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
John the Baptist is kind of like the Ebenezer Scrooge of Advent. Just when we’re getting into the spirit of things, lighting candles, singing Advent hymns, here comes John with a bah humbug and a horrifying announcement about burning in an unquenchable fire. John is definitely not the guy you want to invite to the Christmas party. He makes everyone uncomfortable, not just with the way he dresses and what he eats, but with the way he just says things. He tells it like it is and he doesn’t care if it offends people. Don’t ask John if he likes your new haircut or outfit. He’s not going to be nice just to spare your feelings—he’ll tell you if he thinks you look terrible.
Unwelcome guest though he may be, John the Baptist bursts onto the scene every year on the Second Sunday of Advent to give us some difficult truths that we need to hear. To tell it like it is. Jesus’ cousin, John is a prophet who understands his purpose: to prepare the way of the Lord. To prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. He does not use his platform to promote himself, but rather to point to Jesus, to get the people ready for God’s chosen one.
And so here John is, in the wilderness, that great testing ground of God’s people, getting people ready by preaching judgment and repentance. I want to really dig in to both of those words, because they both carry a lot of baggage and assumptions. And the two are very much tied together for John. Jesus is coming to judge the world, says John, and so we are to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Often, we think repentance means feeling sorry, or feeling guilty, or feeling ashamed. And sometimes church, religion, has been used to make us feel that way, to make us feel like we’re not worthy, or we’re broken, that we need to be ashamed. And then, once we feel repentance, we confess, we ask for forgiveness, and we move on.
But repentance actually has very little to do with what our feelings are, and much more to do with what our actions are. Repentance doesn’t mean to feel sorry or to feel guilty. The word that John the Baptist uses for repentance is metanoia, which means to turn around. To turn around. To reorient ourselves. Repentance is not feelings of regret or guilt, repentance is making changes, doing things differently moving forward. Confession is a part of that, but it is just the first part. Confession is acknowledging the ways we haven’t been living as God wants. Repentance is honestly trying to do something different in the future.
Think about, for a silly example, if you’ve stepped on someone’s foot. You can apologize for that, but unless you pick your foot up, that apology doesn’t mean very much. Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. It’s picking up your foot and trying not to step on that person again.
And John the Baptist calls all people to repentance. No one is exempt. What do we need to repent from? What things in our lives, in our world, are not life-giving? What things are not aligned with Christ? What stops us from being the people God created us to be? The people God so wants us to be?
Perhaps sometimes the things we need to repent from are our feelings of guilt and shame that keep us from living life fully. Our own self-doubt, that nagging voice that tells us we’re not good enough: that keeps us from being the wonderful, beloved person that God created. Our fears and our anxieties that keep us from fully embracing life.
Our prejudices, our self-righteousness that keep us from fully experiencing the community God intends for us. Our greed. Our self-centeredness. Our apathy. These are things that we need to repent from, not only because they hurt others in our lives and in our community—and they do—but also because they hurt us. They keep us from experiencing life the way that God intends.
John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by repenting of all the things that get in God’s way. To prepare for Christ’s reign among us by turning away from all these things that impede God’s love and justice and hope in our lives.
But then there’s that scary, disconcerting piece about judgment. The bad trees will be cut down and the chaff will burn in the unquenchable fire. Judgment, just like repentance, is another loaded word. We hear it, and we think: condemnation, wrath, punishment. Words we don’t like to think about when we think of God.
To judge something, though, in its most basic sense, is to see it clearly. To discern the truth about it. What if John the Baptist is promising us that Jesus is a Messiah who will really see us? Who will know us clearly? What if being judged is a good thing?
Jesus sees us, God sees us, and sees the truth about ourselves. Truth that we sometimes like to hide, even from ourselves. God sees the wonderful fruit that we bear, the lives we touch, the love we share, the justice we work for in the world. And God also sees the ways we sometimes bear bad fruit, through words we shouldn’t have said, times when we didn’t speak up when we needed to, things we wish we could do over.
We are none of us all wheat or all chaff. We bear within ourselves a mix of beauty and brokenness. Can we imagine that Jesus’ winnowing fork is an instrument of love? That Jesus sees, and wants to free us from, the things that keep us from being God’s people? The parts of ourselves that we know are hurtful, that only give pain? That, in separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus is seeking to burn away the parts of ourselves that hurt us? That hurt the world.
Repentance isn’t something we do alone. Repentance is trusting in God’s power to see us, to love us, and to reshape us. To guide us to new ways of being. To bring us from hatred to love. From prejudice to inclusion. From fear to trust. From despair to hope. No wonder John preaches in the wilderness. That place where God’s people first learned how to be God’s people.
God rescues the Israelites from Egypt, but even after that, after God has claimed them and saved them, they still need to learn how to be God’s people. In the wilderness, the people are changed. They learn God’s ways and God’s hopes and dreams for them. They didn’t do it so that God might love them—that was already evident—but because God loved them. And they didn’t do it alone. God guided them all their way.
There’s a voice in the wilderness crying: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is calling us to be shaped and molded by the love of Christ. To be reformed and renewed as God’s people, bearing good fruit to a weary world. Prepare the way of the Lord, that God’s love and justice may enter in. Amen.