On my list of Things I Could Probably Give a TED Talk On, Even Though No One Would Want To Hear It, is the topic of how a shallow understanding of sin and repentance has damaged our society’s ability to fairly deal with wrongdoing. On the one hand, some people get vilified forever, on the other, some people sneak back into public life after a minor show of remorse, and a short time-out. Neither path does a great job of holding people to account for wrongdoing, and neither achieve restoration and reparation.
So, when the universal church either shies away from talking about wrongdoing and repentance, or makes the subject entirely about who should feel bad, and how bad they should feel, until Jesus makes the bad feelings disappear, we feed into the problem.
Thus, I had fun this week preaching on John the Baptist, who is all “REPENT, Y’ALL.” and was surprisingly (to our mind) very popular.
Here’s what I said.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
December 8, 2019
Advent 2, Year A
Do you know those fix-a-business reality shows? It’s a subgenera of reality TV (I know) where a brusque, tactless expert goes into a business that is struggling and tries to turn it around in a week. Gordon Ramsey has one for failing restaurants. There’s one for hair salons, I think. There are a few British ones as well of different kinds. I find them fascinating to watch.
One minority famous episode involved Gordon Ramsey going to Arizona to work with a couple’s restaurant in Scottsdale, but 2 days in, the couple became enraged and shut down production. Despite ample video evidence to the contrary, they insisted their restaurant was perfect, and everything was fine. They needed no help. Meanwhile, around them, the staff was in tears, the food wasn’t cooked, and one owner threatened to physically assault a customer who dared complain about the wait time. But—the owners insisted—everything was fine. It really was.
Part of why I like these shows is that there’s usually a wall of denial that the people in charge have that must be overcome before change can happen—though the Arizona case is an extreme one. For most people, when the denial cracks, it’s not pleasant, but that’s how space is made for something new and better.
John the Baptist, whom we meet in today’s gospel, is an interesting character. We know from other sources that he came from fine, upstanding people. In Luke’s gospel, we get the story of his birth. The angel Gabriel visits his parents, as Zachariah is ministering in the temple, and hijinks ensue. But the text takes pains to tell us that BOTH John’s parents are of the priestly tribe. So this would have signaled to early listeners that John’s people were “the good sort.” They went to church, paid their taxes, didn’t rock the boat, sort of people.
And somehow, their son ends up yelling stuff about repentance in the desert.
Now—bear in mind that repentance was sort of a hot topic at the time. There was an assortment of groups at the time of Jesus who thought that society was going wrong, and needed to be fixed, and they alone could do that. One group—the Qumran community, went out into the desert, like John did, warned everyone that the end was coming, and you had to repent, and spent a lot of time copying the scriptures for posterity. Due to their labor, gave us some of the best manuscripts of biblical texts we have. There is some reason to think that John might have hung around with those guys a bit, because some of their language overlaps.
But the point here is that people in general, society as a whole, had a sense that things weren’t going well, and needed to be fixed. Rome was in control, with a corrupt client-king in power. The temple leadership didn’t seem able to advocate for the people. And John, in particular, can speak to that. After all, he grew up with a closeup view of the institutions in question. He knows whereof he speaks.
So out to the wilderness goes he, looking and sounding a lot like Elijah right here, with a camel’s hair shirt, and a locust breakfast. He quotes from Isaiah and becomes one of the prophets preaching repentance in the desert. Trying to break through people’s denial so something new can grow.
We don’t talk a whole lot about sin and repentance in church, and I get why. There have been times and places where those concepts have been so weaponized and abused that for many people, they have lost their usefulness. In the wake of that abuse, then, there can sometimes be a tendency to swing too far the other way, to insist that everyone and every thing is fine, and God is ok if we continue on just the way we are.
But part of what drew crowds of people out to see John in the desert was that they needed someone to tell them that in fact, they were right—everything wasn’t ok. This nagging sense that they had that something was wrong as they struggled with occupation and injustice and poverty, and sufferings of daily life. And not only that, but that God was really unhappy with the way things were going too.
What John tells them is comforting. Because John tells them that all hope isn’t lost, that they can admit that something’s wrong, and when they do that, God will help them figure out how to make it better. That there is a way to make this world into what God intends for it to be, because it isn’t that right now. They just have to admit it first.
And he goes after the Pharisees and Saduccees because they had the most to lose. They had some power; they were invested in the way things were. So if they were going to admit things needed to change, that God needed to come in and shake up the world—they needed to know what they would be giving up. And yet, even for them, John promises the opportunity to repent, to do better.
John offers us the hope that beyond what we live with now, God wants to help us grow into what we were created to be. All he asks is that we release our denial, and trust God enough to admit we’re wrong. That’s no small task, especially in a world that both demands perfection and doesn’t understand weakness. But God isn’t like that, John reminds us. All God wants from us is acknowledgement of our humanity—our common frailty and need of God’s help in doing better. God knows we mess up. God is well aware. Our shortcomings are not news—and yet God loves us anyway. Loves us enough to want us to do better, grow just a bit.
John prepares the way for the coming of Jesus by calling us to acknowledge first that this world isn’t where God wants it to be yet. We aren’t where God wants us to be yet. And, that is ok, because God isn’t done with us yet. John’s call to repentance is a call to be honest about our own shortcomings, so that God can more fully work in us, and in the world. It’s not an indictment of us, or a threat. It opens the door; it doesn’t closes it.
Admitting that something needs to change is the first step. And it can be scary, but the good news is that right behind John comes Jesus—proof in flesh of how much God loves us, and is invested in this world. When we admit that things aren’t right, that we want to see the world change, that we want to change ourselves—Jesus is right there to help us figure out how. To help us repent, and try again, and become who God made us to be.
Perhaps there is something that you struggle with. Some part of your life that is not as it should be, but you haven’t been able to admit it yet. Perhaps there is some aspect of the world that you feel drawn to, that you want bring change to. Whatever it is, perhaps in this Advent time of waiting, John is calling to you to take this moment to admit your need for change, to admit your need for God’s help, and allow that change to begin. So that when when Christ comes, as he most surely will, the way has been prepared, and new life can spring forth.