What is this Repentance Business Anyway?

10 12 2010

Text:  Matthew 3:1-12


So, our holiday cheer and our hopes of the Reign of God have been interrupted by what looks like a wild man calling us out of our comfort zones and day dreams onto a journey into the wilderness.  It is John the Baptist, wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey.  The season of Advent does something similar.  It calls us away from all of the holiday festivities to the wilderness in order for something new to be born.  And you know what?  People did come from far and wide to hear what John the Baptist had to say, his message of getting ready for God is about to do something new!  Even the religious leaders of the day came to hear what this guy was talking about, but they didn’t quite get the reception they were hoping for.

John preached about the dangers of unbridled power and wealth as well as religious hypocrisy.  Why, when the Pharisees and Sadduccees came to hear him, he went absolutely ballistic.  They wanted to make a public display of their righteousness and John wasn’t going to have any of it.  “Now, hold on a minute,” they tell him.  “Don’t you know who we are?  We’re the big shots here, and we also got an ‘in’ to the Almighty for WE are Abraham’s descendants.   So don’t start with all your repentance business with us.”  What John realized when he saw them coming was their claim of being sons of Abraham led them to an arrogance that they were God’s best friends and favoured servants.  John tells them in not so many words that their lineage is unimportant, but rather how they live their lives.  Ethics matters!  How you treat others and how you conduct yourself is far more important than where you came from, your means or even your vocation.

The first two Sundays of Advent have a way of unsettling us and are out of place in a world that is in full party mode.  Last week, we talked about judgment and today we hear a message of repentance.  Repentance is one of those concepts that are easy to oversimplify if we’re not careful.  Is it just feeling sorry for our mistakes?  Is it striving to learn from those mistakes and therefore trying harder to be a good person?  But then again, if Christ has conquered sin and death, and we’re looking forward to the Reign of God, why do we even have to bother with it anyway?

This is where we miss the point.  Is it easy to forget that repentance is a one way street, where the onus is completely on us. God has a part in repentance too.  Repentance is not so much about our own standards of worthiness or what we perceive to be God’s standards, but it is more about God’s desire to transform us to be more like Christ.  It is, in part, a confession, a realization that we were doing things we ought not to have done or not doing things we ought to have done.  But it is also part of God working through Jesus to purify us and bring us closer to the person God created us to be.

A symbol of this purification is baptism, which was a central part of John’s ministry.  He baptizes people as they confess their sins as a sign of their repentance, but it also points forward to Jesus, who he says will baptize us not with water, but with the Spirit of God.  The baptism by water is but a foreshadowing of God acting to clean us up and dust us off for a new life in Christ.

Often time we beat ourselves up for failing to live up to our standards and trying to ‘get right with God.’  Often times our attempts at repentance are full of remorse, so full in fact that we forget that repentance is not just done by us.  Human efforts are usually always marred by our own self-interests, and this type of repentance is no different.  It is easy to forget that repentance, the turning away from the old to the new life in Christ, is only completed by the power and love of God which brings us closer and teaches us to trust.

In the wilderness on the way to promised land, Israel sinned and rebelled many times over, but they still followed God even though at times they feared God was going to let them die.  But God’s faithfulness taught them that they even though THEY weren’t faithful, God’s love was something they could count on, so when they eventually did reach the promised land, they were ready.

So repentance, then, is part of the way God continues to work in us to bring about that Reign of God we talked about.  It is Jesus through the Holy Spirit that is purifying us, teaching us to trust and giving us hope for the coming of God’s justice and mercy upon the entire world and the whole human race.



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