December 10, 2017
Teshuvah 2017: A Practice of Renewal and Repentance
So this Baptizer wanders the wilderness, up and down the banks of the Jordan River. And we don’t know how long he’s been out there or why he set out in the first place or whether he talks to himself, all the time. But we do know his family a little bit: his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, how John was miraculously conceived in their old age. When they’d given up trying.
And we do know that he’s grown up now. And we know that John survives out there, in the wilderness, on a diet of locusts and wild honey. We know that the Word of God comes to him there, in hollowed out caves, on stony hillsides, alone and alert. Sometimes you’ve got to go to a strange and deserted place to hear a wild and revolutionary word. Sometimes you’ve got to go to the edge.
And it must be, it has to be a beautiful word. The Word of God John hears out there. Because soon he’s calling to any and all who will listen: “Wake up!” he cries. “Wake the heck up!” You hear all this in the text, right? This Word of God in the wilderness is urgent and alive, it’s abrasive and raw, it’s seismic in the way of earthquakes. It will not be denied. “Wake the heck up!” he cries.
John hears the voice of Isaiah, the voice of the great Hebrew prophet, calling God’s people home from exile, from disappointment, from defeat. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low...” One of my teachers likes to say that he’s not a Baptizer, John, he’s a bulldozer. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low...” John’s a bulldozer. John’s God is making a Way out of No Way. Leveling the mountains, filling in the valleys. So “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” John’s God is Love. John’s God is Big. John’s God is universal and global and radically, undeniably inclusive. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
And before long, they’re coming to him at the river’s edge. From the Holy City, Jerusalem, and all over Judea. All of them. Word’s getting around. John’s God is Big. “Wake up!” he cries. “God’s time is now! God’s time is now! Wake the heck up!”
It turns out that the Church has long imagined Advent—much like Lent in the spring—as a penitential season. And what we mean by that is this: that Advent is a season for deep and deliberate truth-telling; that it’s a season for sincere and courageous confession; and that it’s a season for reflection and repentance. Advent requires a kind of soul-searching, life-assessing spirit. Truth-telling. Confession. Repentance. And all of THIS is what makes space in our souls, and space in our homes, and space in our churches. For rebirth. For Christmas. For Jesus.
And that’s undoubtedly why John shows up here, on this Second Sunday in Advent, every year. You prepare the way for Jesus by examining your life, by choosing the truth, as strange and unsettling and unnerving as the truth may be. And you turn toward Jesus, toward the bitty baby God, by turning toward the Light in every way that you can. Even, and especially, when it’s hard. Even, and especially, when it hurts. Prepare the Way of the Lord: in your heart, in your flesh, in your life.
And John gets pretty specific. He gets down into the weeds a bit, with the crowds that come from the city. And so these questions. When you have two coats, do you SHARE that extra coat with the brother in the street? When you have more than you need to eat, do you INVITE the hungry to your table? And how about this one: Do you complain about your life, about the conditions of your life, about all the ways the world’s done you wrong? Or are you satisfied, are you GRATEFUL for what you have, for who you are, for every breath you take? These are the kinds of questions John’s asking out there. They’re the kinds of questions that provoke truth-telling. And confession. And repentance. So you turn toward Jesus by turning toward the Light. Prepare the Way of the Lord!