But immediately we are confronted with a challenge. John is a little hard to love.
When I was first trying to form pictures in my head of one or another of the great biblical characters, I used to ask myself if I would enjoy having a meal with him or her. The Baptizer does not pass that test.
His diet is part of the problem. He eats locusts and wild honey. Who wants to share a meal with someone like that?
But the deeper problem is John’s company. It seems unlikely John could carry on a normal conversation. Imagine asking John what he thinks about the Patriots’ chances this year. I imagine he would call the team a brood of vipers, denounce their sin, and warn us that God’s kingdom is coming soon. Partly that is because John would be a Falcons fan. But mostly it is because John is a grim personality.
Supper with the Baptizer doesn’t sound like a fun evening.
At least that is what I have always thought. But I have warmed to John this year, and a big part of the reason is our Old Testament reading. In his role as the messenger in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord, John fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. And Isaiah’s prophecy is clearly good news.
“Comfort, o comfort my people,” says God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins doesn’t at first sound very comforting. But it is. We repent, knowing that our penalty has been paid by Jesus Christ. We repent so that we can experience God’s forgiveness. We repent, confident of God’s love and mercy. Good news!
John’s task is not to make us feel bad. John’s task is to get us ready to meet our Lord who comes to us in love. Repentance is ultimately about love. Good news!
The etymology of the word “repentance” is helpful. Literally repentance just means to turn around.
The first time I took Nicholas backpacking, several years ago, we strayed onto the wrong trail. Nicholas suggested that we just keep going. After all, he argued, the trail we were on was bound to lead somewhere. And Nicholas was probably right. The trail probably did lead somewhere. The problem was, it didn’t go where we wanted to go.
It was a John the Baptizer moment. We could stay on our path and go to the wrong place. But if we wanted to get home, we had to turn around. We had to “repent.”
That is the key to repentance: recognizing that we are on the wrong path, that we are headed in the wrong direction, that we are not moving closer to God. When we are facing the wrong direction, God tells us to turn around, not because God wants us to feel bad but because God wants us to get where we need to go, which is Him.
We need to turn around for all kinds of reasons, big and small.
Here’s an example from my life. I recently started watching a television program that was engaging and even educational in its way. But it was also violent and highly sexual. I don’t think the program was sinful exactly. I didn’t feel guilty for watching it. But after a few episodes, I realized it was in some small way damaging my soul. I was not heading in the right direction. If I wanted to get back on track, if I wanted to do the Advent work of preparing myself to meet our Lord, I needed to turn around, to change my ways. I needed to repent.
I quit watching that program with some regret, but also with gratitude to God for showing me that I was on the wrong path and there was a better way, God’s way. The invitation to repent was good news.
This is a big deal. Sometimes we hear the invitation to repentance as bad news, as if we have to focus entirely on our sin, as if there is no road back to God, as if we are lost forever. We can get so wrapped up in our own sense of sin that we begin to believe that we are unloved and unlovable.
In those moments, we need to be reminded of the good news of repentance, the promise that Christ has paid our penalty, that God forgives us, that God loves us, that we can turn around. Ironically, in that case repentance means thinking less about our sin and more about God’s love and forgiveness. God’s love is what it is all about. Repentance means opening ourselves to God’s love. Repentance is good news for the sinner.
Of course, repentance can also be painful. And sometimes that may be what we need. Sometimes we do act badly. We do bad things, or, more commonly, we fail to do good things. We are guilty of sin. Repentance means facing our failures honestly, and that can hurt.
A friend of mine used to take an inventory of his body. He would start at his feet and work his way up to his head, asking himself if he felt any pain in each body part. I could not understand it. I thought, why would anyone look for pain?
My friend helped me to see two things. First, he was not creating pain for himself. He was just becoming more aware of pain that was already there. Second, he reminded me that pain warns us that something is wrong. If we ignore pain for too long, the underlying problem can cause serious injury. Better to be aware of the pain and deal with it before it becomes too big a problem.
Repentance is like that. We review our lives to see where we have gone astray. When we become aware of sin in our lives, we may well feel guilty. But we are not creating guilt, only becoming aware of it. And hopefully, by becoming more aware of our guilt, we can correct it somehow, we can turn around and get back on the right path. In those cases, repentance is a good kind of pain.
But then we move on. Because, as Isaiah says, our penalty has been paid. That is the good news of Jesus Christ, the good news of repentance, the good news that we are forgiven, the good news that we are God’s beloved children.
Our task, the Advent task which is the task of every season, is to open ourselves up to the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. When we go off track, as we will, we repent. We turn around. But we turn around in the sure and certain knowledge that God is right there, waiting for us with open arms and eyes full of love, eager to hold us and to lead us on the right path which brings us closer and closer to Him.
My prayer for us this Advent season is that we can hear the Baptizer’s invitation to repent as the good news that it is, as an invitation to get back on track, as a promise of God’s forgiveness and God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord. I pray that we can repent. And I pray that we come to know God’s love in a new and deeper way than ever before.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.