The lectionary readings for the second Sunday in Advent this year include Matthew 3, and the story of John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness, repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It’s an interesting story for Christmas time.
It’s not odd that John the Baptist would be included in Advent readings since John and Jesus possess parallel narratives. Luke especially combines their stories in the first two chapters of his gospel account. Thus, it would make sense to read stories around Christmas of John the Baptist’s birth, of the angel appear to Zechariah, of Elizabeth who is well beyond the years of child bearing finally becoming pregnant, or most especially the interactions of Mary and Elizabeth and two miraculous births. Those stories make sense.
However, grown up prophet John out in the wilderness wearing strange clothes and eating a strange diet seems odd. Prophet John who is calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers (a cutting insult to first century hearers) seems a strange way to share peace on Earth during this festive time of year. Fire and brimstone John who says that the ax is already at the root of the tree, and the bad fruits will be thrown into the fire seems completely out of context for Christmas lights and Christmas cookies.
We expect during this season to read stories of the prophets foretelling the birth of Christ, not a prophet in the wilderness calling for repentance. What’s repentance have to do with Christmas?
Repentance is almost a four letter word in our culture. Our culture encourages us to live without regrets, and to never admit faults. Often, individuals only apologize when it’s absolutely necessary; typically to save their jobs. We are a people who have learned to make excuses, explaining away why a mistake or missed appointment was not really our fault. It’s a way to argue that we should not be held accountable for whatever we’ve done wrong.
The lectionary reading, however, forces us to consider the call for repentance. John seems to indicate that Christmas and repentance have a lot to do with each other. The coming of Christ means life is different, and because life is different, we need to repent.
Perhaps we don’t like to think about repentance because repentance forces us to admit we’ve done something wrong. It’s hard to admit wrongs, or that we’ve made mistakes. Most of us don’t intentionally mess up, and in our world of social media, we often want to portray the best version of ourselves, even if it’s not real. Yet repentance forces us to be honest, not just with ourselves but with others. It forces us to admit mistakes. It forces us to consider that we may not be perfect. It requires humility and self-awareness, two traits that we all long to possess, but at times seem so difficult to master. Repentance, thus, is difficult.
Repentance, in contrast, is a call to accept responsibility. It’s an invitation to admit we are not God, and while we often try to reign on the throne, it’s an opportunity to take self off the throne so that God can return. Accepting responsibility is vital because it leads to forgiveness. It’s only after I admit that I’ve sinned, and I need help that I can discover forgiveness, mercy, and grace. God’s love is unconditional, but I’ll never discover it until I’m honest enough to admit I need God’s love and forgiveness.
Christmas is a reminder that in the birth of Christ, God broke into human history and ushered in a new reality. The old world is passed, a new day has dawned. While we still live in the midst of the old world, God has broken in and welcomed a new reality. The Kingdom is near. And in this season of Advent, when we think not only of the birth of Christ, but of the future second coming of Christ, we are reminded not only did Christ break in once to inaugurate the Kingdom, Christ will come again to fulfill the Kingdom. This season is about God doing something new; about God breaking into our ruptured world to make it new and whole. Christmas is Jesus coming to make the wrongs right. It’s a reminder we live in a new reality.
Since we live in a new reality, we should live different lives. We should not be selfish, but generous. We should not be calloused, but loving. We should not be unfriendly, but hospitable. Which means we need to repent. To repent of the old life, so we can live in the new.
Repentance is not something we do in preparation for something new, it is something we do as a response to what God has already done. We don’t repent so that the Kingdom will come. The Kingdom has come, so we repent. The Kingdom has come, so we abandon our old way of living, and strive to live into a the new reality, bearing fruit of repentance everyday.
Christ came, and Christ is coming. That is the reality that controls our lives. The new has come, so repent of the old, and live into the new.
Perhaps Christmas and repentance have a lot to do with each other after all.