Transcribed from the audio.
Gracious God, help us to always seek the truth, come whence it may, cost what it will. Amen.
In this holiday time of year, we are blessed with an increase of invitations to gather with those whose company we enjoy—in open houses, in dinners with families and friends. I’m always amused when social media gets in the middle of that and invites us to consider a fantasy dinner. Who are the 10 or 20 people that we would most desire to invite to dinner and spend time with? Historical or contemporary, who would be on your list? Well, in looking at the results of those surveys, there are some that are fairly typical, who pop up for the fantasy dinners: Einstein, Shakespeare, da Vinci. Jesus even gets in there occasionally. But as you ponder your fantasy dinner, make it 10 people, make it 20 people, did anyone choose John the Baptist? He didn’t make my list either!
But, just like clockwork, in Advent, as we are merrily making our way to Bethlehem, here comes John the Baptist—leaping out of Scripture and singeing our fingers if we linger on the pages a little too long—with the message of repentance, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Now, think about that for a minute. Think about him as a dinner guest. He goes on, if that’s not enough, he goes on and offers a few sharper words for those of us who would presume to be religious leaders: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Now, why in the world would I want to sit next to John the Baptist, who likens me to a snake and would ask for an extra helping of honey and bugs? That is not my fantasy dinner companion.
Frederick Buechner said that “There is no evidence to suggest that anyone ever asked a prophet home for supper more than once.” But folks, look at the Scriptures. While he may not be on our top 10, Scripture tells us that people flocked to hear what John had to say and to be baptized by him. It wasn’t just a couple of crazy groupies. Scripture reports that people from Jerusalem, Judea, and along the Jordan all flocked to hear John the Baptist call for repentance and to be baptized with water. What did they know that we in our time and in our context are missing?
I’d love to explore with you for a few minutes this morning what John has to say to you and me today. What do we need to hear? What do we need to receive? And, more importantly, what do we need to respond to? Could it be that the people in John’s day were much clearer about their need for a Savior and they were prepared to do anything to fully receive the gift that God intended for them? They didn’t want to miss it.
So, looking at John in context: John appears in all four gospel accounts and it is clear from Scripture that John is God’s chosen messenger to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. A key part of that preparation is repentance. I think most of us when we consider repenting look at it as a form of contrition: guilt about things we have done or things we have left undone. And it is that; but it’s much deeper and richer than that.
In his book Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg goes to the biblical understanding, the richer and deeper understanding, of repentance. Looking at Hebrew Scriptures the Hebrew word for repent is ‘shub.’ It means literally to turn, to return to God—not just a little detour in the path that we’re already taking. No, to completely turn and return to God. The New Testament understanding is that we go beyond the mind that we have. What does that mean? Borg posits the view that the mind that we have has been acquired by the socialization of where we are in time and space. That the enculturation of our society and our experience of what we learn shape the mind that we have. And that when we’re called to go beyond the mind that we have, we are called to see in a new way, to see in a way that is shaped by God, distinctly known to us through Jesus Christ.
Seeing in a new way. So that repentance is turning, returning to God, and seeing in a way that is shaped by God in Christ. Yes, it’s contrition, but, it is at its core change, deep and profound change. I think in our society so often we want to do the quick fix that looks like we’ve made a change or made a difference but not going down deep, down deep for fundamental change and transformation. I liken it to learning that you’ve got an issue with your tooth and your response to that is to seek a nice, really pretty porcelain veneer. The tooth looks good; looks like you changed; it’s incredibly healthy and perfect looking, but underneath that veneer remains infection and decay, not change—a cosmetic glossing over. The real restoration and health occurs only when we’re prepared to literally do a root canal and get to the root cause of what needs healing and restoration.
As I was trying to get more concrete about seeing in a way that goes beyond the mind that we have, I found a glimpse of that in Krista Tippett’s most recent book Becoming Wise: an Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Krista Tippett is the host of the Peabody award-winning NPR show On Being. Over the past dozen years or so she’s interviewed over 400 people, some very famous, some not so much. In what she calls generous listening, she has looked for threads and common themes that attempt to get at and address some of the core basic questions in life. What does it mean to lead a good life? How are we to treat one another? How are we to live a life of meaning? In her book she lifts up five core tenets or virtues, if you will, through which she explores different lens of answering and addressing those questions. The five tenets are: words and language—what we say matters and how we say it matters; body and flesh; love; faith; and not surprisingly for a Christian, she ends with hope.
And I will tell you, that particularly as I reflect on the year past and all the challenges of this past year in every way that we might define them, I went first to hope. Perhaps you’re looking for places where you see and find hope as well. In that chapter she touches on the work of research Professor Brené Brown who has spent much of her research looking at what makes for wholehearted living. What gives people courage? What helps them with transformation in all of these things? And believing that there have to be some central core things that are common, common threads, with people who evidence wholehearted living.
She was stunned to find after all her research and all the data, over 11,000 bits of it, that what she discovered was counterintuitive. The people who evidenced spiritual courage and personal wisdom had in common vulnerability and struggle. Isn’t that counter to what our culture would tell us? Aren’t we told to equate vulnerability with weakness? And yet it is in that opening up, to go beyond the mind that we have, that new things happen, that transformation can occur.
As she looked at her own life and was making a list of things that she considered core tenets in her life, core characteristics, what she saw didn’t bear a lot of relationship to what she was seeing as common threads for wholehearted living. On her list were perfectionism, judgment, exhaustion as a status symbol, productivity as a measure of self-worth, a quest for certitude. And she knew she needed to repent, to turn back to God and to see in a new way shaped by God in Jesus Christ. Counterintuitive. Transformative.
One last reflection on repentance. In her book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes about how she loves going to schools and teaching children about the Psalms because there is a clarity and honesty in the Psalms that resonates with children. They see in the Psalms the wide variety of the human experience and see that it’s okay to be angry, even angry at God. She encourages them to write their own psalms and poems. She said they know all about what it means to be alone and afraid, to feel small and powerless, to be frightened, to be angry. She said that children who are picked on by their older brothers and sisters have perfected the “cursing psalms,” they have that down.
But it’s one boy in particular that she lifts up. This boy wrote a poem called “The Monster That Was Sorry.” In the poem the boy talks about how he hates when his father yells at him. He hates it and he has these strong emotions that come as a result of that. In the poem he talks about, in response to that, wanting to throw his sister down the stairs, wreck his room, wreck the town. And at the end of the psalm, he returns home, and he says, “I sit in my messy house and I think I shouldn’t have done that.” What a metaphor for the season of Advent, as we look at our own messy houses and the preparation that we need to fully receive God’s greatest gift of God Incarnate.
We have three weeks to Christmas. I can only speak for myself. There’s never been a time when I’ve been clearer of my need for a Savior and to receive all that God intends for me and for you. And I hope in the next three weeks, with intention and hopefully courage, to get rid of some of the stuff in my messy house that would keep me from receiving, hearing the word of repentance, turning back to God, seeing in a new way shaped by God in Jesus Christ, to be vulnerable, to be open, to open up space so that maybe— just maybe—God would find a place and be pleased to dwell there. Even in my messy house. Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Come, Lord Jesus, come.