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What Is Repentance?

Sermon for 8 December 2019 (Advent 2 Year A)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72.1-7,18-19; Matthew 3.1-12

Title:               What Is Repentance?

“When [John] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance’” (Matthew 3.7-8).

My dear friends, what does it mean to repent? Do you think you know what it means to bear fruit worthy of repentance?

It is very good to be here with you in this season of Advent. This is a time of preparation, a brief season set apart to remember the problem of humanity, and to remember why it matters that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

And so each Advent we return to the prophets, to those inspired ones who are unafraid to highlight the universal condition of being human: we are restless, we are afraid, we feel lonely, we are lost, we are uncertain of our purpose in life.

Everyone feels this gnawing sense of unease on some level. This is the price of consciousness, the inevitable cost that comes with being aware of our own existence.

Now, it doesn’t bother most of us too much, as long as we can remain distracted and busy. And this is where each generation gains more and more advantage. As time rolls along, we uneasy humans create ever more ways by which to entertain and to distract ourselves.

But what does the average person do when this restlessness, this unease, this discomfort grows too strong within? There are two common methods for dealing with this pain.

One is the path of violence. When the pain within becomes unbearable, some respond by forcing those around them to share in this pain, or else by silencing the pain and ending their own lives. Thankfully, those who choose this path of violence are few.

Instead, the vast majority choose the path of pleasure. Most of us are on the constant lookout for anything – or anyone – that will make us feel better. New clothes, a new hairdo, the next massage, another movie, dinner at the best restaurant, another drink, another pill, perhaps more money, or a new relationship, binge-watching the new show, more success at work, winning the next election, taking another vacation.

And so it goes, on and on and on. Always searching for the next round of pleasure to make us feel just a little bit better.

Into this endless malaise in which we humans live, the voice of the prophets speak with power from a different source.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”

As the last in the long line of Hebrew prophets, John stands up at the outermost periphery of the province of Judea and he calls the people out to repentance.

But what does this even mean? What does it mean to repent?

Repentance has become a technical term within the Church over the last two thousand years, but that’s not how it started. John the Baptizer and his cousin, the Lord Jesus – both of them used this word as the foundation of their preaching.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The exact same words are used in Matthew’s Gospel as the first message delivered by John the Baptizer AND by Jesus the Messiah (cf. Matthew 3.2 and 4.17).

But to repent was not a religious word in those days. Not like it is today.

For them, repentance was a regular, everyday word – and not because people back then spoke in a special kind of “Bible” language, but simply because “repent” was part of everyone’s vocabulary.

By contract, can you imagine sitting in a meeting at work, perhaps you are listening to a report of disappointing sales in response to a recent advertising campaign, and you say, “You know what? We need to repent right now!” – can you imagine saying this in that context? Wouldn’t everyone sneer at you like some kind of wierdo?

Of course they would! Because now this word represents something quite particular. It refers to a religious action. But it didn’t used to be that way.

This dawned on me during our trip to Hawaii. On the long flight back and forth, I brought along an old book called “The Apostolic Fathers.” I have read bits and pieces of this collection over the years, but I never had the time to read them straight through.

So while people on the airplane all around me were watching movies and playing games on their phones, I was reading these letters and sermons from the first generation of Christians after the apostles. And it was great! I love these ancient texts.

(Sure, I know I’m odd, but I’m okay with that.) Anyway, I was reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp which describes the execution of the first notable martyr after the New Testament. And as the story goes along, Polycarp is dragged into the arena where he is confronted by the Roman official who says, “Swear by the genius of Caesar! Repent…I have wild beasts; I will throw you to them, if you do not repent!” (The Apostolic Fathers, edited and translated by Michael W. Holmes, Baker Academic, 2007: page 316-317).

And that’s when it dawned on me! Here is the pagan Roman government official demanding that the wise old bishop repent. And he is certainly NOT talking about confessing his sins and returning to God!

So I dug a little deeper into the original Greek text and realized that repentance was a common everyday word to these people – not a special religious word, like it is today.

To repent quite literally meant to change your mind, or more simply just to change.

So John stands up at the edge of Judea and tells the people that it is time to change. But remember that he brought this prophetic message to the people of God, not to those outside of the covenant community. He was speaking to the insiders, to those who already cared about their faithfulness to God. And THAT is why his message struck home.

The great existentialism philosopher and Christian teacher of the nineteenth century, Soren Kierkegaard, once told a story about an imaginary town made up only of ducks.

And in this town, on the first day of each week, the ducks waddle out of their homes and waddle down into the center of town. These ducks gather in one special building where they squat side-by-side in orderly rows. And soon, the duck choir enters the building and moves to their seats, followed by the duck minister who stands in front of the ducks and reads from the duck Bible. (Each species, of course, has their own version of the Scriptures, as we all know!)

And soon the duck minister addresses all of the ducks gathered together and says to them in a loud voice, “All you ducks, listen to me! God has given you wings! With wings, you can fly! With wings, you can mount up and soar like eagles! No walls can confine you; no fences can contain you. For you have wings given to you by God, so that you can soar up into the highest heavens!”

And to this all the ducks respond together in one loud voice and say, “AMEN!”

Then they all stand up and waddle back down the street to their home, until the first day of the next week when the very same thing happens all over again.

(Let Me Tell You A Story by Tony Campolo, W Publishing Group, 2000: page 81-82).

John the Baptizer saved his most vicious verbal barbs for those groups known as the Pharisees and the Sadducees. To these leaders of the people, John said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Which is just an old-fashioned way of saying: Don’t be a bunch of hypocrites! Make sure that you walk the talk, that your actions are in line with your commitments. That the change you commit to in your words is matched by the actions in your lives.

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. In Kierkegaard’s terms, this means don’t be like the ducks who say a hearty AMEN each week, but never actually change to become what God has created them to be.

This is why WE must hear the message of the prophets each and every Advent, because WE need to change our minds and our direction until we actually do what God has called us to do. Until every hint of hypocrisy is gone from our lives.

For you see, violence clearly is not the answer to our human dilemma. But neither is the constant pursuit of pleasure. As much as I enjoyed being in Hawaii for the last two weeks – and, I’m telling you, it really was wonderful! – I know that escaping to the islands and spending more time there would not make me happier. And it would not solve any of the problems in my life, nor would it solve any of the problems in our world.

So what is the solution that God has opened before us? It is the path of repentance.

But – again – what does it actually mean to repent? It means to change: to change our minds, to change our direction.

To walk this path of repentance with God means to live in a state of perpetual openness, refusing to be stuck in a rut or overly confident in our own positions, or confined to old answers that no longer answer the questions of our day.

You see, the true path of repentance is the path of change, and it has no end until we all stand together in the full light of God’s glory.

To repent is to listen, to watch, to observe, to learn, to grow, to become all that God has intended us to be, and never, ever to give up or to quit.

THIS, my friends, is the solution to our human dilemma. THIS is the way to a life of integrity and fullness. Walk this path with Christ and you will experience new life that never, ever ends! Amen.


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