A. John the Baptist and Advent.
1. On the Third Sunday in Advent the focus in on John the Baptist. He prepared the way for Christ by calling the people to repent. St. Mark describes the ministry of John in this way:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins (1:1-5).
2. John preached in the wilderness or desert. This is curious. In our day, when someone wants to tell people to repent, the would-be prophet typically chooses a public and crowded place. From time to time people show up at some gathering or event with signs proclaiming that the world will soon come to an end and that people better repent now. Evangelistic organizations rent large stadiums in big cities to facilitate repentance by large groups. But John preached in the desert.
3. John preached in the desert to fulfill prophecy. You can’t be the voice of one crying in the wilderness (Isaiah 40:3) unless you are actually in the wilderness. But he may have been slotted for wilderness preaching because there is something about the remote location. Mark tells us that “all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem went out to him.” The travel distance for these people would have ranged from a mile or two up to 20 miles or more—on foot. It took effort; you had to really want to be there. John told you to change the way you live. But just getting to where John was in the first place required the rearranging of some plans.
B. Repentance requires real change
1. This highlights one problem we have in processing the call to repent. We come to church on Sunday and hear the message of John enshrined in our liturgy: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent…draw near with faith.” But we hear this call to repent in the midst our routines of life. Tomorrow and next week, we will be in the same places, seeing the same people and facing the same temptations. Our disordered habits of thought, word and deed are hard to break and new virtues are hard to develop while we remain in the same places, practicing the same patterns of life that produced them in the first place.
2. The people who went out to John had to leave their routines and travel to a remote place. Then they had to submit to the ritual of baptism. Then they had to change. John made one thing abundantly clear. Coming out to hear him and being baptized by him would make no difference unless it led to a change in behavior. John saw that many religious leaders made the effort to come to his baptism. He was not impressed. Instead, he said to them:
Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Mat 3:7-10).
3. This is a framework for our own repentance. We must step away from our normal routines so that we can begin to change them. We must not think that our family name or religious heritage will save us. And we must begin to actually do the things that God wants us to do.
C. The nature of our sin.
1. One problem people have with the call to repent is that sin is frequently misunderstood. Many of the sins we confess are symptoms rather than the real disease. For example, as we get caught up in the haste and competition of life, we may fall into the deadly sin of anger. We may, therefore, think that anger is the sin we need to confess when we come to the liturgy. However, anger is often merely the symptom of a chaotic pattern of life and a lack of prayerfulness. Or, it may be the result of a failure to forgive someone. If we continually confess our anger but do not deal with the larger, root causes, we will not make much progress in the spiritual battle against this deadly sin. It will be like treating the discomfort caused by a tumor only by taking pain killers.
2. Ultimately, the root cause of our sin is separation from God. When we are not filled with the Holy Spirit of God, we are empty and needy. We try to fill that emptiness and neediness through people and things. Sometimes the things are a partial success, and we become prideful. However, since pride is never content, it leads to envy, jealously and covetousness. When the things fail to satisfy us, we get angry and impatient; or we get lustful and gluttonous, thinking that if we only have more, then we will be happy. Or, we get listless and despairing and begin to lose our appetite for the things.
D. The answer: Christ
1. The answer to our emptiness is Christ. As the epistle to the Ephesians says,
That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height–to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (3:17-19).
John preached that people should repent in order to receive the One who was coming after him. We turn from sin in order that we may receive Christ.
2. This can sound simplistic, as if we were saying, “All you need to do is believe in Jesus Christ and all your problems will be solved.” And it may be that simple. If our faith were perfect, if we were able to completely submit ourselves to the will of God without any lingering seed of doubt or rebellion, perhaps, in the words of the hymn, “Our lives would be all sunshine in the sweetness of the Lord” (Hymn 304, verse 3).
3. But, of course, our faith is not perfect, nor is our submission complete. Consequently, we must engage in this thing called the life of prayer, in which we wrestle against our adversaries, the world, the flesh and the devil, using the weapons of spiritual warfare that we are given in Christ. We must work at becoming the new people God wants us to be.
E. The life of prayer.
1. This is why we put such emphasis on the life of prayer lived out in the community of the church. Jesus comes to fill us through the Spirit chiefly in three ways: the sacraments, prayer and the presence of other members of the body of Christ who minister to us with their gifts. It follows that if we want to be increasingly filled with all the fullness of God in Christ through the Spirit, we must commit ourselves to a pattern of life in which we habitually receive the sacraments, pray and interact meaningfully with other Christians.
2. Without consistent spiritual disciplines that open our lives up to the grace of God, we have no ability to grow in grace and Christ-likeness. That is to say, without disciplines that fill our lives with grace, we have no ability live faithfully. We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). But this salvation is experienced, not just in baptism or when we first come to faith; Salvation by grace through faith is experienced continually. We are continually saved from the influence of sin by the continual experience of God’s grace. And we receive this grace as we continually trust, or depend upon, God through the life of prayer.
F. Advent Repentance.
1. Consequently, repentance requires more than a list of sins to confess and work on. Acts of sin are symptoms of lives not lived in communion with God. To repent, we must change our manner of life. This is a harder task. This is why it is tempting to make the Christian life about micro-managing sinful behavior rather than pursuing union with God. This is why it is tempting to make the Christian life about not being bad instead of making it about the pursuit of holiness.
2. John baptized in the wilderness. Those who were changed by his ministry went out into the wilderness to meet him and then returned to live their lives in a new way. If we want to heed the call to repent, it is necessary for us to step away from our regular patterns and habits in order to reassess and change them. The central question of repentance is not whether we can come up with an adequate list of our sins. The central question is: Are we living a life of prayer, with the worship of God as the central piece, with habits of prayer and Bible reading as our daily bread and with significant connection to other members of the body of Christ? Holiness is the longer term fruit of this manner of life, just as sin is the fruit of life lived apart from God.
3. In the words of John the Baptist, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2).