Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Luke 3:1-6
2Advent, Year C
We Christians view that John the Baptist as the first Hebrew prophet since Malachi, making John the first prophet in Israel in about 500 years. Think of this: God’s voice, the prophetic voice, was absent among God’s people for nearly five centuries!
I wonder if the people missed hearing God’s word. For many years I envisioned the coming of John the Baptist this way: There was a strained, prolonged God-silence, and then in the deserted physical space of the wilderness God’s voice, Gods message, came booming through John the Baptist, breaking the silence.
And of course, being a modern-day Christian, a progressive Christian I suppose, I imagined that God’s Word would be “Love,” as in “I love you” and “Therefore you should love others as I love you.” But what did John actually say? ………. “Repent!”
Silly me. I rather recently—and sheepishly—have realized that the absence of a discernable message doesn’t produce silence. (I think I was watching a political debate when I realized this error in my thinking.) The absence of a discernable message produces great noise, not silence.
Of course, I have to slip sideways just a bit to say that God’s message to us is NEVER absent. Now (that is, in our time), the ultimate Word of God—Christ Jesus—is always with us through his Spirit. And even before God entered our physical world, God’s Spirit abounded through creation. So God is NEVER silent. But sometimes we can’t discern what God is saying to us, especially when we are digressing from God’s ways. In broken times, God either sends a prophet to warn us, or maybe we are just deaf to the message. Either way, God speaks, but we don’t always hear God’s message. But 500 prophet-less years?? And then the word was “Repent!”
There must have been a lot of digression from God’s ways going on. Perhaps, like Psalm 81:12 says, God “gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.” FOR 500 years!
What were those pseudo-prophets saying all that time? We know that in Jesus’ day some of these false voices advocated an armed rebellion against Rome. Arm everyone! In the name of God, you understand, to free God’s Temple and God’s people from oppression. This message would have been “Rise up!” Oh yes, the Zealot prophets abounded. There were even one or two among Jesus’ disciples” Simon the Zealot, one was called. Judas Iscariot might have been another.
I’m sure there were other pseudo-prophetic voices. The theologically conservative Temple leaders always sought ethnic purity when things got tough. Any disaster brought a cry against inter-cultural marriage. Why, Jerusalem even had a wall around the city to keep out the God-less foreigners. “For all that is truly holy, get out and stay out!” would have been THIS message.
Maybe the priests then noticed that attendance and monetary support of the Temple had fallen way off in the time of perceived God-silence. “Secularism,” they might have proclaimed, adding to the growing babble. As if humans haven’t always struggled to keep their attention focused on God. As if THEY, the priests there, didn’t have anything to do with people turning away from the Temple.
Maybe you noticed that THESE voices are a LOT like the voices we hear today. And THESE voices don’t sound like God-Truth to me.
We humans know God-Truth when we hear God-Truth. Just the way we know God-Walk when we see God-Walk. Because really, if you had a chance to go see and maybe be blessed by Pope Francis, for instance, wouldn’t you go? And if you know anything about Michael Curry, our new Episcopal Presiding Bishop, wouldn’t you go hear what he has to say about joining the Jesus Movement? Yes, God’s Word IS self-authenticating.
That’s why people from Galilee and Judea all flocked to the region of the Jordan River to hear the prophet John. Amid all the pseudo-God talk of their day, they knew authentic Word when they heard Word. And so they repented of their sins and found a new way of life.
To us, though, John’s message, “Repent!” sounds very old hat. We keep hunting for more: the what, the how, they why. But the answers are right there before us. The “what” is turning from our ways and following God’s ways. Isn’t this always a part of the God-message? “Repent and return to the Lord.”
Why? As Jesus himself said, “Because the Kingdom of God is at hand.” In other words, God wants us to help restore creation, to help God restore our world to its original settings, to roll back how we have damaged our reality. And we need to repent because God is very near. We must prepare to receive God, and we do so by repenting.
The “how” is easy to fathom, also: tell God and any person you’ve wronged that you erred, say you’re sorry, and don’t stray that wrong-way again. Then be baptized, if you are not already baptized, to show your commitment to right-living.
Some years ago I heard an Advent sermon where John the Baptist went to the wilderness of an suburban shopping mall. There John began to preach God’s Word. This word, “Repent,” resulted in him baptizing many people in the mall’s water feature. Well, in that decade the mall was the wilderness of our lives. But God’s Word “Repent” still rang true, especially amid the hollowness of rampant commercialism.
The trouble with blaming commercialism, though, is that our desire for more—to spend more, buy more, have more, do more that is so prevalent in these weeks before Christmas—is a symptom of the problem rather than the cause. I take comfort in observing that many people, especially young adults, have joined the “Buy Nothing” movement on Black Friday this year. But did they repent?
And maybe you have rethought your holiday buying, as we at Resurrection have done, to spend more on others than on ourselves. You have shared warm coats, hats, scarves, gloves, mittens, socks, toys, and poultry. If this is a sign that you have rethought your holiday buying, good on you! But have YOU repented?
Maybe you have been helping others cope with their difficulties in life. If so, GOOD on you. But have you AND THEY repented?
I heard at the seminary this week that Advent is when Jesus asks us, “How are you preparing for me?” If so, John-the-prophet has a one-word answer for us today: “Repent!”