St Andrew’s, Carbondale—Mark 1:1-8, Isaiah 40:1-11
Christ is coming. God is on the move, as we saw in the liturgy last Sunday, bringing an end to history, an end to reality as we know it, and also bringing a beginning to an age of perfect peace, justice, love, and harmony. We pray for it every day: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” The season of Advent puts us in mind of that final coming of Christ, to make things all better. Christ is also coming, once again, as he has done a couple of thousand times now, in the “corporate memory” of his people, in the annual rhythm of the Church’s liturgical life, as we once again keep the holy feast of Christmas two-and-a-half weeks from now. When he comes—whether it’s at the end of history or in our hearts on Christmas, Jesus wants very much to save us. He wants to set us free from our bondage to sin and evil and death, and give us a taste of what human life is really supposed to be about. In the metaphorical language of two Sundays ago, Jesus wants to count us among the sheep at his right hand, and not among the goats at his left.
This is, on the whole, good news. Very good news. But there’s a problem. For the most part, you and I are quite unprepared to meet him. We are almost certainly unprepared to meet him as our Judge. We are not yet enough like him. We cling too closely to those habits of thought and action that tend to draw us away from his love. In a little bit, we’re going to have some baptisms, and the candidates will be asked whether they renounce all “sinful desires that draw [them] from the love of God.” And they will respond, “I renounce them.” But they will fail, as we all fail, to perfectly live up to that renunciation. And it is highly likely that we are also unready—spiritually, that is—we are most probably also unready to even properly celebrate Christmas in this Year of Our Lord, 2014. We are, in the words of our collect for next Sunday, “sorely hindered by our sins.” We are held back and weighed down by destructive patterns of thinking and feeling and behaving. These destructive patterns act as a barrier between us and God. They block us from experiencing the fullness of God’s grace. God is “broadcasting” an abundance of love in our direction, but our “receivers” are not properly “tuned” so as to access all that God is sending. Christ is coming, but we are unprepared to meet him.
So, just how do we prepare? How can we gain access to the abundance of mercy and peace and love and joy that God wants to lavish on us? The prophet Isaiah tells us to “prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John the Baptist, in his wilderness preaching, seconds that motion. He quotes Isaiah, and implies that his own ministry is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. But he also gets more specific. John says that the way to prepare for the coming of the Lord, the way to “make straight in the desert of highway for our God,” is the path of repentance. Repentance is the critical element in preparation for the coming of Christ. We will all, shortly, in the context of the baptisms and confirmations, promise to, when we fall into sin, “repent and return to the Lord.”
I’m afraid, however, that repentance is a highly misunderstood concept. Do you remember the climactic scene of the third Indiana Jones movie? Our hero is trying to avoid getting his head chopped off in a booby-trapped cave. In the knick of time, he solves a cryptic clue: “He who would survive must assume the position of a penitent.” Indiana Jones drops to his knees just before a blade comes whizzing by horizontally at neck height. Repentance is associated with getting on one’s knees, expressing contrition and sorrow, begging for forgiveness. As healthy as it is, I believe, for us to spend time on our knees, on appropriate occasions, mere sorrow—regret, contrition—this is not the true soul of repentance. It may be an accompanying outward sign, but it is not the heart of repentance.
More to the point, though not quite yet all the way there, is a concrete change in behavior. C.S. Lewis calls it moving “full speed astern.” If I’m walking south and I want to repent, I don’t just say I’m sorry for walking south, I turn around and walk north. If I’m driving west on Highway 13 from Marion trying to get to St Andrew’s, and find myself in Murphysboro, I’ve got a problem. I need to repent. But it matters very little how sorry I feel for my mistake; what matters is that I turn around immediately. That is the true outward sign of repentance—actually changing our behavior. I still remember a sermon I heard on this subject when I was about ten years old; I remember it because one single line from this sermon became established in my family’s vocabulary for years afterward. The preacher talked about the necessity of being able to say, “I’m sorry.” But then he added that just saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough, and he challenged us with the question, “Are you sorry enough to quit?” Are you sorry enough to actually change what you’re doing? Real repentance means being sorry enough to quit.
But I would like to take you even yet one more level deeper into repentance. The heart and soul of repentance is more than saying “I’m sorry.” The heart and soul of repentance is even more than being “sorry enough to quit.” The inward heart and soul of repentance is a profound change of mind. The New Testament Greek word for repentance is metanoia, and that’s what it literally means—to change one’s mind. In repentance we say, “I’m sorry about ‘that thing I do.’ I’m willing to stop doing ‘that thing I do.’ And I realize that I’m wrong in the way I think about ‘that thing I do.’ In rationalizing my own sin, I have deceived myself. But now I’m changing my mind. I’m agreeing with God. Take all of me, Lord—take my actions and my words, take my will and my heart, and take my mind. Change the way I think, so that I see what you see and know what you know about me. I want to agree with you in all things. Change my mind.” Our highest good is not to dethrone God, but to agree with God, to learn to see things from God’s point of view. Our call is to be obedient. If, along the path of obedience, we can sometimes have our “Why?” questions answered, so much the better. But it will not do for us to condition our obedience on such knowledge.
Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. This is the vocabulary of Advent; this is the language that tells us Christ is coming.
From time to time over the years, I have enjoyed watching National Geographic specials, and the like, on television, about some of the more remote areas of the world, particularly the Amazonian rain forest—perhaps because of my South American ancestry, I suppose. Because of the thick vegetation, jungle settlements can seem even more remote than they actually are. The basic supplies of life can be shipped in by boat, but it’s slow. In the event of an emergency, small aircraft have for decades served as rapid response lifelines to the outside world. But while a plane may be able to get close enough to drop food and medicine, it cannot actually transport anyone out of a jungle settlement unless one important condition is met: there must be a runway. It must be smooth enough to permit a safe landing, and long enough to allow reaching takeoff speed, and enough room for gaining altitude to clear the treetops. And a jungle landing strip must be constantly maintained if it is to be ready for use. The call of Advent is for us to prepare a landing strip—a runway—in the jungle of our hearts, in the rain forest of the families and institutions in which we live and work and worship. It must be long and wide and smooth, and it must be maintained. This is done through continuous and persistent repentance. This is done by changing our minds, and doing something different, and—yes—even feeling sorry for our sins. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And as the residents of a rain forest village, when they have completed and maintained a runway, are able to enjoy the benefits of emergency food, medicine, and even a ride to the nearest hospital, so are we, when we practice the art of repentance, able to experience the fullness of God’s plan for us. As Isaiah puts it, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.