There are strange words on the wind this week of Advent.
The lectionary texts from the Hebrew Bible are full of promises and joy. God is singing and dancing and delighting over us. “Sing aloud!” Isaiah hoots and hollers. “Rejoice!” Zephaniah sings. Abundance is here! Joy is today! [Zeph 3:14-20; Is 12:2-6]. Even our Epistle, Philippians is decadently delighted: “rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again! Rejoice!” [Ph 4:4].
Merry Christmas, time for Christmas cheer, pass the eggnog, oh no, what is John the Baptist doing here, who let him into our Christmas party.
“You. Brood. Of. Vipers.”
Welcome to the Christmas party, John the Baptist.
“The axe is at the tree,” John bellows. “FLEE FROM THE WRATH TO COME!”
What is particularly odd about our lectionary Gospel passage, smashed in the middle of these joyful texts, is that at the very end, it says that John – with all his yelling and judging – is “proclaiming the Good News” [Lk 3:18].
“The. Chaff. Will. Be. Burned. With. Unquenchable. Fire!”
This does not feel like Good News, and it feels wildly out of place with the other texts.
So we have three choices when we read John’s weird bellowing. One, we pretend the judgment isn’t there and just skip it. Joy joy joy Christmas joy! Two, we can turn the judgement outwards and condemn everyone else. Judgment judgment judgment Christmas judgment!
Or we can trust the lectionary.
We can trust that joy and repentance are siblings, not antagonists. We can trust that repentance is good news for our busy, scared, self-righteous, often-wicked, always-foolish, so-weary souls. We can stop using repentance as a weapon against our enemies, and see it as an invitation to our neighbors who need healing. Our often-wicked, always-foolish, so-weary neighbors – just like us.
The repentance is the good news. For our neighbors, even the ones we call our enemies. And for us.
You Repent First!
One of the ways that I run from repentance is by yelling at other people to repent. I’d much rather hear the words of John the Baptist for my enemy than for myself.
We’re so scared of repenting, so scared of what it’ll cost, so scared of what we’ll have to give up. So we avoid it for ourselves, and we busy ourselves up telling other people to do it.
But when we bang other people on the head with calls to repentance, it shows just how violent our view of repentance is. We think that judgment is trying to kill us, so of course our prophetic work is violent and unloving. We engage in prophetic work like our blessed brother Jonah, who was not really invested in anyone actually changing.
We preach “repentance” to shame, destroy, and dehumanize, because we’ve never really repented – so we have no idea how healing it is. We hit people with judgment because we can’t imagine judgment being good for anything except for scolding and hurting.
And we hold on to hope that our enemies won’t repent, our Jonah hearts clinging to our hurt and anger, because we have never seen ourselves reflected in the faces of our enemies.
How do you tell a scribe from a prophet?… A prophet loves the people he chastises.” – Gilead, Marilynne Robinson
The only way that we can prophetically call out for the repentance of the world, while still longing for the world to repent – while still holding the world in love, even while we holler judgment – is if we repent first.
Otherwise, we’re just a clanging gong and a clashing cymbal, using judgment to hurt the people who have hurt us, clinging to our self-righteousness as the only thing that can protect us from coming face to face with our own often-wicked, always-foolish, so-weary souls.
What Then Shall We Do?
Repentance, a “turning around,” is gonna be hard. It will probably hurt. The things that John tells the tax collectors, soldiers, and crowds to do are not easy things. The spikes go down right into the center of our insecurities, greed, longing for power, longing for control. It’s not an easy list of actions John wants everyone to take.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Lk 3:10-14
And it looks embarassing, too! The soldiers who repented – turned around – probably looked foolish to their coworkers. The tax collectors who repented – turned around – didn’t have the same lifestyle as their friends anymore. The crowds who gave away what they had lived with more insecurity and less social power. When we repent, and turn around, we give up a lot of things we are sure that we need. Doing this turning around in public can look foolish, and we can feel very small.
But carrying the weight of our pride, or our false security, or our self-created social position, is so exhausting.
It doesn’t just hurt your neighbor – who is hungry, unheard, unseen, and being ripped off by your insecurity and microphone hoarding and greed. It really, really, really is hurting you. You’re spending so much time defending yourself that you don’t have time to breathe, to live freely, to live with joy. You don’t have eyes to see your neighbor trapped inside your enemy.
And these lectionary texts show us that God is longing for us to live with joy. God is longing to lead us into lightness without the heaviness of our sin that we insist on carrying everywhere with us.
Repentance is the only way we’re going to get there, loves.
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson
The ones who have walked through the dark days of shame and been healed on the other side know that repentance is a gift. Once we’ve walked through the darkness ourselves, we can see our enemies as neighbors who are trapped on the wrong side of repentance, and also trapped on the wrong side of joy. We start to want them to repent, broken-hearted for our broken neighbors, like Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.
The only prophet who is able to long for the redemption of her enemies is the prophet who has felt redemption inside her own body.
The only prophet who wants her enemies to be healed is the one who has been healed.
The only prophet who wants the world to be cured by Christ, and not destroyed by Christ, is the one who has seen her own sin destroyed and cured in the same heartbeat. She knows that repentance isn’t a bludgeon – repentance is a salve that burns for a minute, but always leaves healing behind.
The lectionary gives us joy and repentance next to each other so that we see them as inseparable. There’s no Christmas joy without walking through Advent repentance first.
But all Advent repentance is Christmas joy on the other side.
God, it’s easy to be scared of judgment.
We’re so scared to repent, because we’re scared of what we’ll have to let go of.
Help us to trust that there’s joy on the other side of our fear.
Show us the face of our neighbor in our enemy.