Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13
Redefining Christmas: Repent
As you might know, a small group of us are currently enjoying a Bible study called, “Christmas from the Backside,” written by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Kalas takes different themes: Christmas, Easter, Parables, Old Testament Stories, etc., and tries to help the reader look at them from new points of view. His first chapter in our study was called, “The Scandal of Christmas.” Kalas says that although the idea of the tiny baby in the manger is a lovely idea, Christmas really begins with a scandal that we don’t like to own up to. Christmas only happens, we only needed, and need Christmas, he says, because of the scandal, and the scandal is that we’re sinners. He argues that we try to think of sin as things that other people do – sin as drugs or crime or adultery or addictions – things that other people do, but in reality sin is being disobeying God. When we disobey God, we sin. We might try to give it a softer name – like, “we’ve made mistakes.” But we’re sinners. We sin. “When we live below our best potential,” he says, “when we’re mediocre when we ought to be fine, cheap when we ought to be noble, shoddy when we should be upright – this is sin. When we’re anything less than godly, it’s because we’re involved in this scandal called sin.”
So we’re caught up in this scandal of sin, and that puts us in need of Christmas, because we need saving. We need a Savior. Our Advent hymns reflect that – the meaning of Christmas that we long for – think of our opening hymn today – Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus. In it we sing, “From our sins and fears, release us. Let us find our rest in thee.” Whether we realize it or not, the longing of Advent, the waiting with anticipation – we wait for someone that can free us from the mess of sin we find ourselves in.
With that preamble, maybe John the Baptist in the wilderness starts to make more sense as an Advent text. John the Baptist definitely seems to stir up scandal. He’s a dramatic figure, causing a scene, not one to go unnoticed. And he’s ready to talk about the scandal of sin. John arrives on the scene preaching the same gospel that Jesus will preach: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” although Jesus will preach it with a very different tone. People were coming out into the desert to hear John, and they were being baptized by him, a symbolic act showing that they were confessing their sins and changing their lives. But when the Pharisees and Sadducees came to John, he had no welcome words for them, perhaps suspecting that they were there to check up on him and test him as they would so often with Jesus. “You brood of vipers,” John exclaims, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
Still, John calls them to repent too: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he says. In other words: Are you confessing your sinfulness? Has your life changed? Show me. He tells them they won’t be safe just because they are Jews by birth – they have to bear their own fruit from good living, and can’t rely on their ancestors, or anything external. Repentance has to come from within. John goes on to describe what it is like with the messiah just about to arrive. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees,” John says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. [The messiah’s] winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and . . . the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” John leaves us challenged: what kind of fruit are our lives bearing? When Jesus does come, does begin his own preaching ministry, his calls for repentance carry a perhaps more compassionate tone than John’s. But I feel like we need John’s voice too, his sense of extreme urgency. John wants us to act and act now. Has your life changed? Show me.
If the scandal of Christmas is that we’re sinners, in need of saving, then the work of Advent is repentance, so that when Christmas comes, we have the fruit of our changed hearts to offer to the Christ child. We’ve talked before about the meaning of repentance – remember? It means, literally, to change your mind. Not just change your mind, say, about what you wanted to have for lunch today, but to change your mind, change your mind so that you’re going not in the wrong direction, but in God’s direction. That’s what John asks. For repentance.
The Pharisees and Sadducees show up to see John the Baptist too – even they come to be baptized. But John has harsher words for them. Because they want the newness of baptism, the forgiveness of baptism, the fresh start of baptism, without the work of repentance. John says to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, We have Abraham as our ancestor.” In other words, it seems, they’re trying to count themselves in on the shirttails of their ancestors, trying to take credit for the faithful living done by those before them. But one tree can’t bear fruit for another. Each one is accountable for their own good fruit. Each one has to choose repentance – or not, and let the good fruit – or otherwise, tell the story of the choices.
This week my home will go through a bit of a transformation. I wouldn’t say I’m a terribly messy person, but if you’ve seen my office, you get an idea of what my home is like. I tend to have piles of things here and there. Clutter. And sadly, at home, I don’t have a Bill Jacques that comes in and cleans up after me. So this week, I will spend a lot of time cleaning, getting ready for Open House next Sunday. I’ll spend a lot of time preparing – shopping, baking, decorating. And a lot of time doing things like dusting and mopping and vacuuming and other unpleasant things. You don’t expect to have a party without preparing. Getting ready. Cleaning up before. And then cleaning up after. All my preparation isn’t required – I could let you all show up at my house next week and see what happened. But you’d all have to help clear off space at the table. And there might not be enough chairs for everyone. And if you could only eat food that was already in my cupboards, you’d be in big trouble, unless you really love cereal as much as I do. It just doesn’t make sense not to prepare for something I know is coming. Especially when my preparations will make the party the joy I know it can be.
Advent is a time to prepare our hearts. We know what’s coming – who is coming. Why wouldn’t we prepare? This season is filled Christmas classics on TV. You probably have a favorite. My favorite is an 80s classic – Santa Clause, the Movie. Anybody remember that one? It starred Dudley Moore as an elf that gets caught up in mass producing toys? Anyone? Anyway, you should take a look at some of the Christmas specials this year, even, maybe especially ones aimed at children. They’re remarkably on task in telling the story of repentance. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a perfect example – the Grinch finally realizes, well, his sinfulness, repents, takes his life in a new direction, has his heart grow bigger and bigger, and shows the fruit of his repentance in his actions – he reconciles himself with the community, makes repayment for his wrongdoing, and showers others with his newly-found love.
If these children’s shows and stories can figure out repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation, why do we have such a hard time with it? I wonder if, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we just get stuck right at the start, trying to find a way around repentance, trying to find a way that doesn’t have us admitting the scandal – we’re sinners, as bad as the rest. We need Christmas, because we need saving.
The good news is Christmas is coming. Not even three weeks away. Prepare. Prepare the way of Lord. Make the paths straight. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, for the kingdom of God is coming near. Amen.