As we come to our Gospel reading, the warning and forsaking part is clear. The very first word out of John the Baptizer’s mouth is “repent,” and everything else he says follows from that.
The joy in our passage is considerably less clear.
We know we are supposed to repent. In our baptismal covenant, we promise to repent and return to the Lord whenever we fall into sin, and we know that happens a lot. But even if we have to repent, we don’t have to like it. We don’t have to find joy in repenting.
And John doesn’t make finding joy very easy. To my way of thinking, John comes off as a big crank. His crankiness may be justified, but still, is John the Baptizer the kind of person you want to meet at a Christmas party? He looks nasty. I am sure he smells terrible. And he calls people a brood of vipers! Reacting to our passage, one person last week told me that, if she met John on the street today, she would probably think he was a crazy homeless person. But even if John were well-dressed and a little less cranky, his message of repentance sounds grim. It is depressing to meditate on our failures, and we don’t usually thank the people who bring them to our attention.
But at least our experience repentance is private. My image of public repentance comes from those times when some prominent person has been caught doing something shameful and embarrassing. There is a script for what follows. He, and it usually seems to be a “he,” goes on camera, confesses whatever it is he has done, breaks down in tears, and asks for forgiveness from his family and the American people. Even when the repentance is sincere, and I am not convinced that it always is, the whole episode feels distasteful.
All this is to say, repentance seems to be about as far from joy as it is possible to be. And yet our prayer connects repentance and joy. And this season connects repentance and joy. This is a season for preparing to celebrate the birth of our Lord. And that preparation includes both repentance and joy.
So what do we do with that?
Part of the answer comes from a better understanding of what repentance really is. Jesus offers us that better understanding—in lots of places, but one of the clearest is in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), which we are discussing in our Advent Bible Study.
You probably know the parable. A son goes to his father and asks for his inheritance in advance. The father gives his son the money, and the son goes to a distant country, where he squanders it all in dissolute living. At his lowest point, the son envies the pigs their slop. I have never fed pigs, but my impression is, their slop is nasty. If you want to eat pig slop, you have sunk low.
Eventually the son realizes he has made a big mistake. He decides to return to his father’s house, to acknowledge that he has sinned against heaven and before his father, and to beg his father to take him in, no longer as a son, but as a servant.
The prodigal son has sinned, and is repenting. And his repentance looks about as joyful as mine usually is.
Now pause for a minute. If you were the father in that situation, how would you respond to the returning prodigal? My children are not here, so I am safe in saying, I would not be particularly warm.
I would expect to see some real repentance. I don’t know that I would make my son into my servant. But I would be waiting in my office. I would have my stern face on. I would wait for an apology. And I would want him to sweat a little. I would take my sweet time before saying anything in reply.
If God were like me, repentance would be a drag. We would have to do it, for sure. But we certainly would not ever take joy in repenting.
Thankfully, the father in Jesus’ parable is considerably more generous than that. He rushes out to meet his son while his son is still far off. He throws his arms around his son, and kisses him without waiting for an apology. The son launches into his rehearsed speech of repentance, but the father brushes it aside. Instead, the father has a servant bring his son clothes, shoes, and a ring. And the father throws a big party.
That is Jesus’ picture of how God responds to our repentance.
Repentance does NOT mean feeling guilty. Repentance certainly does NOT mean beating ourselves up. Repentance means—this is the word Jesus uses in the parable, “coming to ourselves,” remembering who we are and who God is.
A big part of repentance is acknowledging that we do often fail to live as God would have us live. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and yet we do not reflect God’s love in our thoughts, words, and deeds, in the things we do and the things we left undone. That is an ugly reality, and we have to face it. As long as we refuse to acknowledge how far we have strayed, we remain stuck in the far off country looking longingly into the pig sty.
But when we are lost, when we are hanging out with the pigs, the message of the prophets to repent and return to the Lord comes as great good news. God knows we are lost. And God invites us to come home.
That is what repentance means: going home to receive God’s welcome and God’s embrace, joining the party that God throws on our behalf. John the Baptizer may be a crank. But his message of repentance is our invitation to intimacy with God, to life as we are created to live it, to true and lasting joy.
The odd thing is that we don’t hear John’s message that way. The odd thing is that we prefer life with the pigs in the distant country to life with God.
And so John keeps going. After commanding us to repent, John gives us the best news of all. John tells us, “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me….He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
God is coming into the distant country to get us. God is coming to live in the sty with us in order to make sure that we get the message: God wants us to come home. And God will do whatever it takes to get us there.
And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, I give thanks for John’s message of repentance. I give thanks for John’s promise of the one who comes after him. I give thanks for God’s inexhaustible mercy and love. And I give thanks for the invitation to true life with God. May we use the remainder of this season to prepare ourselves to accept that gracious invitation.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.