God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Repent! Repent, repent, repent! Our gospel reading today sounds like it belongs at the beginning of Lent, don’t you think? The repeated refrain is for repentance. John’s proclamation is for repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People are hearing John’s message and coming out to the Jordan River to confess their sins and be baptized.
This baptism, the baptism of John, is baptism with water for repentance. And John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” There is repentance all over this passage.
As I said, usually we think about repentance more during the season of Lent. But the second Sunday of Advent has given us an opportunity to reflect on repentance during this season.
So what about repentance? What is repentance, anyway?
Our first thought about repentance is that it involves feeling sad about something. We imagine how it plays out with a child: a kid is playing carelessly, knocks a lamp off a table, it shatters on the floor. The kid tearfully apologizes to the parent and accepts the appropriate consequences. Repentance.
But that’s a very limited image of what repentance can be. Repentance is more than just feeling bad for something you’ve done wrong.
Some of you may have heard a pastor say at some point that the Hebrew word for repentance means “to turn around.” That’s one way of thinking of repentance—it’s turning, turning away from sin and turning towards God.
However, the books of the New Testament, including the gospels, were written in Greek, not Hebrew. So in Greek, there is a different word for repentance: metanoia. That’s the word which occurs in our gospel reading today. Unlike the Hebrew word for repentance, which suggests turning around, the Greek word for repentance means changing your mind or changing your thinking.
When John says, “Repent,” he’s saying, “Change your way of thinking, your way of imagining, your way of looking at the world.” But it doesn’t stop with your thoughts—a changed way of thinking should show itself through changed behavior. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John instructs. The fruit you bear—your actions, your behavior—demonstrates how your mind has been changed.
Repentance means changing our minds. But of course, this is more than just changing your mind from wanting vanilla ice cream to wanting chocolate. This is changing our minds from what we want to what God wants, what God intends, what God wills. It’s changing our thinking towards God’s will for us and for creation.
Repentance is more than just being sorry. Repentance is even more than promising, “I’ll never do that bad thing again.” Repentance is about a transformation, a turning around, a change of mind, that takes us away from self-centeredness and towards God’s design.
How can we practice repentance this Advent? If we think of repentance as just being sorry, we make repentance too small. There are plenty of things we may feel sorry for, plenty of guilt and regret, but if we stop there, it doesn’t amount to anything. It certainly doesn’t bring us closer to God’s kingdom.
On the other hand, sometimes repentance can seem too big. There are whole systems in our world that run contrary to God’s will, and we should repent of those things. We should repent of racism, sexism, and other injustices. We should repent of our obsession with material things, our false god of consumerism and wealth. We should repent of hunger and homelessness and poverty that affect so many of our neighbors, near and far.
We should repent of these things. We should strive to change our thinking and our acting around these issues. But these problems are so big, it can feel hopeless, overwhelming. How can my repentance change racism? How can my repentance end hunger?
So instead of making repentance too small, or getting lost in a repentance that’s too big, I want us to try something that’s somewhere in between. I’m going to ask you to think of one specific way you might want to repent in your own life, and one specific way you might want to repent in this church community.
Now, catch yourself: did you immediately go back to the things you feel bad about? I’m guilty of that temptation myself. It’s easy to jump from repentance to guilt so quickly we hardly notice it. But I don’t want us to get stuck on the things we feel bad about, the things we are sorry for. I want us to get at a deeper sense of repentance.
Repentance is a change of mind, a change of thinking, a change of imagination. So we need to have some sense of what we are changing towards. We need a new image, a new imagination, to grab hold of.
For our new imagination, it’s hard to do better than the Advent readings from the prophet Isaiah. Last week, we heard Isaiah describe a wonderful future: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The hopeful imagery of God’s kingdom continues in the reading from Isaiah this week. An image of a living green shoot coming out of an old, dead stump. An image of a peaceable kingdom, not only for humans, but animals as well: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”
These are words of sacred imagination. These are descriptions of God’s reality, the new creation we hope and long for.
What do you hope and long for? Whether it’s in your own life, in your relationships with family, or neighbors, or coworkers, or perhaps your hopes for this congregation, this community—what do you hope for? What is your sacred imagination? What do you envision?
Take a moment to think about this. What do you imagine is God’s will for you, your relationships, your communities? What do you imagine for God’s kingdom, here in this place?
Now, hold onto that sacred imagination. And I want you to think of one thing you would like to change in your life. One, specific, concrete thing you want to do differently—one thing you want to repent of. Perhaps it’s mending a damaged relationship. Perhaps it’s being honest in a difficult conversation. Perhaps it’s extending kindness to someone. But think of one specific thing you want to change, to bring your mind and heart and behavior into line with that sacred imagination. If it helps, write this thing down so you can remember it.
And now I’m going to ask you to do the same thing for this congregation. Think of one, specific, concrete thing you want to change in your relationship with this community. Perhaps it’s reaching out to someone with whom you’ve disagreed in the past, or building a stronger relationship with someone you don’t know well. Perhaps it’s managing your time, energy, and financial resources in a more faithful way. Perhaps it’s letting go of matters you have tried to control. Perhaps it’s asking for forgiveness, or offering forgiveness to someone else.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The kingdom of heaven—the realization of God’s sacred imagination for all of us—has come near. God’s kingdom has brushed up against our reality. And this gives us an extraordinary opportunity to repent, to change our minds and hearts and lives so that we can live more fully into that kingdom.
In this season of Advent, we are anticipating the arrival of the Christ child, the kingdom of heaven coming very near indeed, God taking on flesh and blood and humanity. This season is a time of waiting and preparation and, yes, repentance. Not because you ought to feel bad about something. But because you have been given an opportunity to step into God’s sacred imagination.
Hold on to that sacred imagination. Look at what God has promised, what God is already doing among us. And then consider the very specific ways you can change—change your mind, change your heart, change your life—to step into that sacred imagination. Repentance is our calling to not only imagine, but to think and feel and do the kingdom of heaven, right here and right now. So repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Amen.