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Turnaround: Reflections on the Second Sunday of Advent

One word: repentance. The Greek word is metanoia, a radical 180-degree turning around. Repentance means a turnaround. Have you ever had a turnaround? It can come when somebody cares enough about us to tell us the harsh truth about ourselves. That is the definition of a genuine friend. Somebody like John the Baptist—willing to pay a high price to tell us the truth about ourselves.

When I first started out in ministry, I thought being a minister meant being so strong that I didn't need support from others. I was walling myself off from others, putting on a good face to my colleagues. A good friend of mine, also a pastor, saw through my game face and said to me, "Isn't it funny how sometimes what we think is our greatest strength is really our greatest weakness?" It was as if she had slapped my face. What do you mean by that? I asked her. "You already know," she said.

Proverbs 27:6 says, "Profuse are the kisses of an enemy, but well meant are the wounds a friend inflicts."

I once preached a sermon on that text and afterwards two men from the congregation came up to me. Gus and Roy were retired and had been friends and members of the church for years and years. Roy said, "Your sermon reminded us of a time a couple years ago when we were both in a Bible study on Jesus' teachings about not judging. Gus said to me privately after one session, 'Roy, you really need this verse, because you tend to see people's faults before you give them a chance to show their virtues.' That made me angry, but later I realized he was right. And I thanked him for it."

John the Baptist is a friend who dares tell us the truth about our preparations for Christmas. There are many types of sin. There is the sin which shows itself in a preoccupation with outward details and forgets the inward meaning they were meant to portray. This was the sin of the Pharisees and their rituals—thinking that going through the motions of another cultural Christmas would guarantee us the joy of the Christ Child on Dec. 24.

We need a turnaround. We need to repent. We need someone with courage, someone who cares about us, to take us by the shoulders and turn us around from trivial to transcendent, from irritability to incarnation. Because if we don't turn around, we won't see who is coming. The One John has been warning us about—the judge, who will use a winnowing fork to divide us into wheat and chaff. If we don't turn around, we won't see that, when Jesus gets to the Jordan's edge, he doesn't do what John expected him to do. Instead, he wades into the water with the rest of us sinners and bows his head to be baptized by John. Here is God Incarnate, enfleshed, who has nothing of which to repent, whose will is already aligned with God's. Here is the Messiah, who comes to judge, yes, but also to bring sight to the blind, leaping to the lame, hearing to the deaf, healing to the diseased, and good news to the poor.

Instead of trying to find another job for John the Baptist, we ought to be thanking him for the job he's doing. He's living up to his name "God is gracious." Without his stern, direct challenge to repent, we might not be ready when the Coming One arrives.

11/29/2011 5:00:00 AM
Alyce McKenzie
About Alyce McKenzie
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.