(Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2013 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12)
About ten minutes into The Princess Bride (one of my favorite movies), we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo, who kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country. Once there, the giant Fezzek scales the imposing Cliffs of Insanity with the other three strapped to him. All the while, the Man in Black has been chasing them, but Vizzini, the leader of the thieves, dismisses their pursuer, saying it would be “inconceivable” that anyone would have known they kidnapped the princess in the first place. And yet the Man in Black starts climbing the cliffs after them. “Inconceivable” says Vizzini again. So Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks. “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” Vizzini says a final time. Then the Spanish blademaster Inigo looks at Vizzini and says one of the more quotable lines in a film full of quotable lines: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Well, friends, Inigo’s gentle rebuff finds a second target in a certain word that John the Baptist says three times in our Gospel reading for today. We also say this word every single week during our worship services. The word is “repent,” and I can hear Inigo saying to us what he says to Vizzini: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
See if this popular misunderstanding of repentance resonates with you. You’re walking toward Fenway Park for a game or you’re about to board the T at Government Center and you see a man standing before you wearing a sign. The sign is decoupaged with dire warnings about the end times, the largest of which says in big black letters on an orange background: “Repent! The end is near.” The man would be easier to dismiss if he were shouting at the top of his lungs on the street corner, because then he would be reduced to a silly caricature of himself. But this man’s solid, disconcerting silence makes you take him more seriously. I see him often when I’m in the city, and every time I do, I have to remind myself that I disagree with his sign’s version of repentance.
You see, the misunderstanding the sign promotes is that repentance is only relevant at the end, whichever end you might be thinking of – the end of life or the end of time. This misunderstanding reduces the act of repentance to a last minute bargain with God – a “Get out of jail free” card, if you manage to time your repentance at just the right moment. This misunderstanding is like repentance at gunpoint; it’s a “repent or else” threat that reduces the meaning of true repentance nearly to invisibility. Indeed, I would wager that when you hear the word “repent,” you have a negative visceral reaction because this misunderstanding runs rampant in popular culture and in certain very loud expressions of Christianity.
So let’s see if we can remove some of the negative reaction, because true repentance energizes our walks with God in ways few other spiritual concepts can. True repentance is concerned less about the future and more about the present. The word “repent” literally means “to turn around.” A recent translation of the Bible adds a layer of interpretation every time “repent” appears in the Gospel. “Change your hearts and lives” it reads instead. Change your hearts and lives. This is a good rendition of the original Greek because true repentance is both an active, kinetic force and a spiritual orientation.
When we repent, we reorient our lives in God’s direction. We bend toward God as a tree bends towards the sun, knowing that God is the source of our sustenance. Repentance begins with our acknowledgement that we live most of our lives facing the wrong direction: we ignore the need around us and we catch God’s glory only out of the corner of our eyes. Repentance helps us face head-on the need God yearns for us to notice. Repentance gives us the opportunity to rejoice in God’s glory, distraction free. When we participate in God’s work of changing our hearts and lives to resonate more fully with God’s movement, we discover the true meaning of repentance. True repentance is about turning to face God fully – with every facet of our lives – and to accept the truth that we can hide nothing from God, no matter how hard we try. When we repent, when we turn to face God fully, we discover new faculties for seeing and responding to God’s call in our lives, Christ’s presence in the lives of others, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising movement throughout all of creation.
Sure sounds like a different understanding of repentance than we’re used to, doesn’t it? Speaking of things we’re used to, let’s turn to the place in our worship in which we repent every week, and see if we can inject it with our better definition. You know that part I’m talking about? That’s right, the Confession of Sin:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Repentance is right there at the center of the confession. We begin by stating how we have separated ourselves from God. Then we repent. And then we ask for the fruits of repentance: forgiveness, delight in God’s movement, and a closer walk in God’s ways. Notice how our better definition energizes our confession.
“We are truly sorry and we humbly turn to you, we humbly seek to change our hearts and lives.” When we turn to face God fully, we find the mercy and forgiveness that we usually catch only out of the corner of our eyes. When we turn to face God, we find God’s delight in us reflecting on us fully, granting us the ability to delight in God. When we turn, we find the life-affirming paths that lead us to walk in God’s ways. This is what our repentance accomplishes here and now. The future ramifications for our souls that the sign-wielding man touts are byproducts of how our repentance leads us to closer relationships with God in the present.
So why are we talking about repentance during the season of Advent? Because Advent is a time for noticing. Advent is a time for changing our hearts and lives so they resonate more fully with the promises of God. Advent is a time for turning around and seeing the glory of God here now and the glory that is coming. This glory was easy to miss on that night in Bethlehem, which we will celebrate in a few weeks. No one expected the messiah to come in the manner Jesus did. No one, that is, except for those who noticed, for those who turned to see the promise of God fulfilled: shepherds who looked up at the right time to catch the angels’ song, magi who saw a star and knew to follow it, and a loving couple who changed their hearts and lives to make room for the Christ child to enter their midst.