Sermon for Sunday, December 8, 2019 || Advent 2A || Matthew 3:1-12
About ten minutes into The Princess Bride, we meet Vizzini, Fezzek, and Inigo. The three brigands kidnap Princess Buttercup and set sail across the sea to another country, where 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 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. Vizzini cuts the rope, and the Man in Black hangs onto the rocks: “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” The Spanish blademaster Inigo Montoya 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.”
That line from one of my all-time favorite movies always comes to mind when I read today’s Gospel lesson because John the Baptist uses a word, a very special word, and I do not think it means what our society thinks it means.
The word is “repent.” Ooh, makes you flinch, doesn’t it? It’s one of those words that always sounds like it is being shouted, no matter how loud it is being spoken. REPENT! *Eyes go wide.*
We perceive this word as a threat because of how Christians have deployed it down through history, often like this: Back when I lived outside of Boston, there was this man who frequented the stations of the MBTA, especially Kenmore Square during Red Sox games. He wore a sign decoupaged with dire warnings about the end times, the largest of which said in big black letters on an orange background: “Repent! The End is Near.” The man would have been easier to dismiss if he were shouting at the top of his lungs on the street corner, because then he would have been reduced to a silly caricature. But his solid, disconcerting silence made me take him more seriously. I saw him often when I went into the city, and every time I did, I had to remind myself that I disagreed with his sign’s version of repentance.
The man’s sign made repentance only relevant at the end, whichever end you might be thinking of – the end of life or the end of time. This narrow idea 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 to just the right moment. This idea is like repentance at gunpoint. It’s “repent or else,” which is why we have such a negative visceral reaction when we hear the word.
But here’s the thing. We have such a negative reaction that we never take the time to figure out what repentance actually is, what John the Baptist and Jesus were really talking about. Theologian Richard Rohr points this out in his new book The Universal Christ. Rohr says, “The very first word out of [John and Jesus’] mouth[s] was the Greek word metanoeite, which literally translates as ‘change your mind’ or ‘go beyond your mind.’ Unfortunately,” Rohr continues, “in the fourth century, St. Jerome translated the word into Latin as paenitentia (“repent” or “do penance”), initiating a host of moralistic connotations that have colored Christians’ understanding of the Gospels ever since.”
However, true repentance – metanoia – is “talking about a primal change of mind, worldview, or your way of processing – and only by corollary about a specific change in behavior.” The recent Bible translation, the Common English Bible, renders metanoia not as “repent,” but as “change your hearts and lives.” Change your hearts and lives. True repentance is both an active, kinetic force and a spiritual orientation.
When we repent, when we change our hearts and lives, we reorient ourselves 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 needs around us and we catch God’s glory only out of the corner of our eyes. Repentance helps us face head-on the needs 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, 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.
We say the word “repent” every Sunday when we confess our sins: “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.” We fall into the moralistic trap Richard Rohr talks about if we think this repentance is about changing “a few externals while our underlying worldview often remains fully narcissistic and self-referential.” Rohr says, “This misunderstanding contributed to a puritanical, externalized, and largely static notion of the Christian message that has followed us to this day. Faith became about external requirements that could be enforced, punished, and rewarded, much more than an actual change of heart and mind.”
What if we changed the Confession back to the Greek word metanoia? What would the prayer say then? “We are truly sorry and we humbly seek to change our hearts and lives.” This understanding of repentance energizes the confession and propels us to see the fruits of our changed hearts in the final words of the prayer: mercy, forgiveness, delight in God’s movement, and the desire to walk in all of God’s ways.
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 worldview so we can see 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 whose minds and hearts were tuned to see the promise of God fulfilled. The shepherds looked up at the right time to catch the angels’ song. The magi saw a star and knew to follow it. And a loving couple, Mary and Joseph, changed their hearts and lives to make room for the Christ child to enter their midst. This Advent, hear in the call to repentance not a threat, but an invitation, an invitation to change our hearts and lives so they resonate more fully with the promises of God.
All quotations from Richard Rohr are from The Universal Christ. Italics in quotations are his.
You can find another version of this sermon back in 2013. With Rohr’s help, it changed a lot.