Preached at Wilbraham United Church (UCC & UMC), Wilbraham MA with Christ the King (ELCA) & Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal)
Sunday December 3, 2016
I lie to my dentist. I LIE to my dentist. So if I’m going to practice repentance this Advent, I need to confess. Every 6 months, I lie to my dentist. Dr. Anurag Gupta D.M.D, B.D.S. 2008 graduate with highest honors from Boston University Goldman School of Dental Medicine asks me, “Have you been flossing daily?” And I LIE. He asks me when I’ve been flossing, and I say “Often.” He asks me “How often?” And I who just flossed 30 minutes before my visit, I say, “Frequently.” Through my teeth with their tender red gums, I say what is supposed to be true, and I lie.
That’s the easy confession, the stuff we know we’re doing wrong, the stuff we have the capacity, if not the will, to change. John the Baptist requires us to attend to the bigger stuff, the more complicated stuff, the stuff that gets stuck in our eyes and our minds and our hearts.
John the Baptist forces us to have the conversations we’d prefer to avoid. I’d be mighty happy with my candy canes and handfuls of cookies shoved into my un-flossed teeth, but into Advent John the Baptist crashes. John the Baptist resists sentimentalism. John the Baptist refuses domestication. JOHN THE BAPTIST WRITES HIS FACEBOOK STATUS IN ALL CAPS. He talks too loud. He’s blunt. He’s unafraid of how people will react. John the Baptist would show up at your Holly Fair next weekend with your free admission and ample parking, he’d sit down at the Holy Café, with his scratchy camel hair coat, and make everyone feel uncomfortable as he hunched over a bowl of soup. He’d take the cookies from the Cookie Walk with his grimy hands and not even pay for them. He won’t sing nicely in the choir, he won’t help put up the Christmas tree, he won’t play along nicely. John the Baptist is inconvenient. John the Baptist holds up the mirror to the people, even the people who don’t want to see, and says, “ I see you sinning. Repent.”
John the Baptist stands at the threshold of the Christ event, and shouts “Y’all ready for this?”
No. No, we’re not ready. Not really. The kind of wholesale transformation that John portends is more than we can imagine. We can hardly conceive the kingdom of heaven John anticipates. We’ve been afraid to say it’s not working. We think small, like “maybe we can have enough kids for a high school youth group this year” or “maybe we can have a nice family Christmas dinner without a fight or someone passing out drunk.” We’re too ensnared and too fearful to imagine that kingdom of God and life abundant. We’re stuck in this broken, hazy, status quo that isn’t really working for everyone.
In verse 2, when John opens his mouth, teeth caked with locust and wild honey, and says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”
Repent. Μετανοεῖτε. Repent, or translated another way, “Reform.” “Reform, for the reign of Heaven has drawn near.” In Greek, it’s easier to see that it’s a command, and it’s plural. Not just you individually repent, but all of you. All ya’ll. Or from my ancestral homeland New Jersey, “youse guys.” All you repent. All of you reform. All you, change your mind. John’s pushing for more than a simple change of action, but a change of a whole worldview. He’s pressing on a whole change in the landscape, where the valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low. John’s call to repent, to reform, to change our mind and expand what we can imagine, is a wholesale structural change because of the coming of the Lord. In the words of the mid-90’s women’s R&B group En Vogue, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”
The people come, and the baptisms follow. Crowds come out to a remote place, traveling far because they want this new way of life.
And then the religious leaders show up.
There are a thousand possible reasons the religious establishment shows up. Maybe the Pharisees and Sadducees are showing up just in case. Maybe they’re coming to hear John’s preaching, to judge it against their own. Maybe they’re jealous of the crowds, looking on the Facebook page of church down the street with the bigger youth group. Or maybe they figure, this baptism is some sort of magical spiritual vaccination, they may not believe in it, but it can’t hurt. Somewhere between curious, jealous, and self-protecting, the Pharisees and Sadducees show up in the desert.
And John, loud and clear, calls them out.
John calls our their privilege in verse 9: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John is calling into question something utterly radical. John says: there is no entitlement in the kingdom of God. John says, your parentage, your ancestry, your pedigree, your racial and ethnic privilege, none of it matters in the kingdom of God. God is so powerful and so invested in the radical dignity of all people that even these stones could become Children of God.
John crashes into Advent, and as much as we’d like to think that other people are the Pharisees and Sadducces, John the Baptist holds up the mirror to us, and says “You brood of vipers, I know you haven’t been flossing!”
It’s hard to have that mirror held up. We like to think of repentance as something to assign to other people. But we confess each week because our brokenness isn’t something that just happens once, but a constant need to change our actions, reform our minds, and repent.
The longer I stay with Christianity, digging into our text, living this way of life, the more radical and more challenging it becomes. The more countercultural it feels. To live as if the gospel were actually true, to live as if there is enough for all. To live as if the life abundant were not just a future possibility but in-breaking right now? John says, our privilege won’t save us. We follow a man who was born to migrant parents under occupation, ate with sinners, gathered the broken, gave out free health care, challenged the Empire, was unjustly arrested, tortured and killed. Why on earth would we think Christianity gets to be big and powerful and established?
Jesus never promised us success. Jesus never promised us tall steeples, or stained glass or our church buildings at the center of town. Jesus didn’t promise us days off for our religious holidays or commercial advertising that reaffirmed our religious tradition alone. The longer I stay with Christianity, the less concerned I am about the war on Christmas and more concerned about the way the Christmas event challenges us to think anew about war. About violence. About undocumented infants born in temporary provisions. About the registration of people, not just a decree in ancient days when August was the Emperor, and Quirinius was governor of Syria, but under the next presidential administration.
We prefer to think of repentance as something that we like to assign to other people. But repentance is regular habit of the people of God. If we are to have a credible witness of a new way of living to a broken world, we are obliged to look at the log in our own eye.
The music historian and writer Jay Smooth says we tend to think about racism and privilege like tonsils. He says, “Like you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again. If someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say “No–my prejudice was removed in 2005!”
Instead of this binary of being good people or bad, of being racist or not, of being privileged or justice seeking, Smooth proposes moving away from the notion of tonsils, instead to a paradigm of discourse more like dental hygiene. Privilege is less like tonsils and more like, well plaque (seriously, go watch his TED Talk Here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbdxeFcQtaU) . Because as we move through the broken world, through our biased culture, each and every day, we all build up some privilege plaque. Smooth says this way of living “is something that you maintain and work on every day.” You brush your teeth every day.
Repentance is regular habit of the people of God. John the Baptist shows up, and says, “I know you’re not flossing!” John the Baptist shows up in Advent, holds up the mirror to say “you’ve got racism in your teeth. You’ve got sexism in your teeth. Over there on the left, you’ve got a chunk of homophobia stuck. Can we get you some dental floss, because you’re treating some people like they’re disposable, deplorable, illegal. You are not treating every like a beloved child of God. And if you keep that stuff in your teeth, eventually it’s gonna rot your mouth.” We’ve all been in coffee hour; It’s awkward, to say the least, to have someone point out that you’ve got a chunk of spinach hanging out on your molar. It’s worse though, to keep it there. We don’t just brush our teeth once and are done. We don’t just submit to the waters of baptism and never stumble again. Repentance is the regular habit of the people of God. And to make enough room at the manger for the in breaking of God, we need to clean and clear some stuff out.
Speaking about the Church in his era, the British writer “G. K. Chesterton said that if you love how a fence post looks and want to preserve it, you must repaint it every year. A faithful church can’t be maintained without constant reformation.” If we love our church, if we love Jesus Christ, we cannot accept the status quo, so far from the life abundant of the Reign of God. Repentance starts with us, and our daily examination of what’s getting stuck in our own mouths. Repent, Reform, for the kingdom of God is drawing near.