St Stephen’s, Providence (RI)—Luke 3:7-18
Have you ever been, as the song says, “Late for a very important date?” Maybe you forgot to set your alarm and overslept. Maybe the gates went down at the railroad crossing just as you got there. Maybe there was a wreck on the highway that backed up traffic for a mile and a half. Or maybe you were just forgetful, or, worse than that, just inattentive to the passage of time or to how long it would actually take you to get from point A to point B. (More than once have I almost missed a plane for that very reason!) And now you’re late to an appointment with an important client, or to a crucial job interview, or to pick up your child who’s waiting in the rain outside a deserted school, or to the beginning of a play or a concert or a movie. I know that when I find myself in a situation like this, I can almost physically feel the waves of fear and shame and anger wash over me: fear at the prospect of an opportunity squandered, shame at being so careless as to not notice the time, and anger, really at myself, though often projected onto another person.
We all have an important date coming up twelve days from today. It’s called Christmas. We can’t delay its coming—we can’t stop the clock or stop the world—but we can, in effect, be “late” for Christmas, by not being prepared for it. This unpreparedness can operate on several levels, from the trivial to the profound. We can put off shopping that needs to be done, Christmas cards that need to be written, houses that need to be decorated. We can evade responsibility for mending relationships with family members or friends that have suffered from neglect or from more serious harm. But the consequences of being unprepared in these ways are, in the larger scheme of things, relatively trivial in comparison with failing to prepare spiritually for Christmas, for failing to prepare to welcome Christ once again, and again and again, into our hearts, into the very core of the reality of who we are as human beings. We can’t stop the coming of Christmas, but we can be “late” for it by being unprepared.
But there’s also another important date that we don’t want to be late for, a date that we assume, at least, will come some time after this Christmas, although we never know for sure. This date is when the same Jesus Christ whose first coming we celebrate at Christmas returns to this earth for his second coming, when the one who was born to be our Savior returns to be our Judge. Two weeks ago, at the beginning of this Advent season, the scriptures taught us that the work of salvation—the work of rescuing humankind and the whole created order from the tyranny of sin and evil—which God began when he became one of us, taking human flesh, will be brought to completion, as surely as flowers bloom when spring comes. What was begun in Act I will be concluded in Act III. Today, on this Third Sunday of Advent, the focus is on where we are now, in Act II. The Author and Director of the play is trying to remind us of some of our lines and give some very practical stage directions. In summary, his advice is something that any Boy Scout could tell us: Be prepared! Get ready!
John the Baptist is the one who delivers the message, although he’s no Boy Scout, because he ignores the part in the Scout Law that talks about being courteous! Politeness and tact are not among John’s virtues. Directness of expression, however, is. “You brood of vipers!”—another translation puts it even more simply: “You snakes!”—“Who told you that you could escape the wrath that is coming? Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the tree!” John is trying to shake us out of our complacency, to say, “Wake up! You’re in danger!” You are, as they say nowadays, “at risk.”
So what puts us at risk, what is the basis of the danger that we’re in? Our attitudes, the orientation of our own hearts, is what puts us in danger. If we consider ourselves young, then what threatens us is the attitude that this present age, this time of life, this present moment, will never end. “Act II” is all there is. There will always be another “tomorrow” to make amends, if any amends need to be made. Not only do young people themselves think that they’re immortal, but everyone else is tempted to think it about them. That’s why the death of a child or a teenager or a young adult gets our attention more readily than the passing of an octogenarian. The message of Advent to the young is, the number of tomorrows is finite—get ready for it to end. If we think of ourselves as old, the attitude that puts us at risk is to presume that it’s really too late, that there’s no point in trying to change anything because “Act II” is just about to come to a halt. The stage hands are ready to close the curtain to change the set for the next act. “I’m too old to …” — you finish the sentence for yourself: Learn to love someone, change houses, change jobs, quit a bad habit or start a good one … it’s a refrain familiar to all of us. The message of Advent to the older ones among us is, “Christ is coming, but he hasn’t come yet—there’s still time to prepare!
The fact is, both the attitude of the young and the attitude of the old beg the question, they evade the real issue. In one sense, we all know exactly how old we are, the way a football player can look at the scoreboard clock, compare it with the score, and have a pretty good idea of what is and is not possible in the time that is left. But there is some evidence to suggest—and I may be prejudiced here, I realize—there is some evidence to suggest that God keeps time, not in a football way, but in a baseball way. If an experienced baseball player looks at the scoreboard and sees that the game is in the top of the fourth inning, he knows better than to assume that the game is yet young, just approaching the midpoint. Because if those clouds in the sky start to produce rain, whatever the score is now could end up in the wins and losses column after less than another inning. And if that same player sees that the game is in the bottom of the twelfth inning, long past the time when it “should” have been over, he knows that nothing can be taken for granted, no matter how lopsided the score. Yogi Berra’s saying, “It ain’t over till it’s over” applies not only to baseball but to the Advent of God’s kingdom in history and in each of our lives.
So whether we think our game is in the third inning, with a long while left to go, or in the ninth inning, just ready to end, the fact remains, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” It’s not too late yet. There’s still time to prepare, to make sure that we’re not late for the most important date we’ll ever have, the date on which we, quite literally, meet our Maker.
So what exactly is required of us to prepare for this very important date? John the Baptist, in his usual tactful and diplomatic manner, has a one-word answer for us: Repent.
Now, I would say that most of the time we think of repentance as an emotion, something we feel, namely, sorrow, regret, contrition, for something we’ve done wrong, some offense that we’ve given. But “feeling sorry” is really a rather tame, rather inadequate understanding of what repentance is. The New Testament Greek word which is translated “repent” literally means to change one’s mind.
Even that has a stronger meaning than “feeling sorry,” but the word in question, which is metanoia, by the time the New Testament was written, had taken on the meaning of “turning” or “conversion,” which is to say, the complete re-ordering and re-direction of one’s life. Someone has said that repentance is like a ship’s captain giving the order, “Full speed astern!” Reverse engines!
When we see it in this light, then, repentance is obviously not a simple, immediate, one-step process. Repentance is, in fact, a three-stage movement. The first stage is the realization that one is headed in the wrong direction— morally, spiritually, physically, emotionally, in whatever way. This error in direction may be a radical one, requiring that full-speed-astern movement, or it may be very slight, requiring only a minor correction. But even an error of only a degree or two can put a vessel significantly off course, and repentance is necessary. If we want to focus during Advent on our need for repentance, then a serious self-examination is called for. We need to consult the charts and check with an experienced navigator, and if we’re off course, to freely admit it. This is why Christ offers us, through the ministry of the church, the sacrament of reconciliation, also known as “confession,” and this is why, without knowing the details, I’m fairly certain that your priests will be available to celebrate that sacrament with you sometime between now and Christmas. The second stage of repentance is turning around, establishing a new heading, locking in a new course, correcting the error that was revealed when the map was consulted. And the third stage is to actually start moving in that new direction, in other words, bearing “fruit worthy of repentance,” as John the Baptist expressed it to the crowds who came to hear him preach and to be baptized by him.
St Luke tells us, as he concludes this narrative about John the Baptist, that John continued preaching “the good news” all around the region of the Jordan. Good news? At first blush, certainly, his message does not sound very much like good news! But it is. The fact that, through John, God warns us of the coming end of history is good news. If your house is on fire, and someone wakes you with the news that there’s still time to get out safely if you move now, if you “repent” of lying in your bed, then that person has brought you good news. God’s promise is that his plan of salvation will be brought to conclusion, the time will come when peace, justice, love, and fellowship with God will be restored throughout the created order. But when that happens, it will also mean that it’s too late to repent, as C.S Lewis so poignantly expresses it in Mere Christianity. It’s too late to declare whose side you’re on when the battle’s already over. When the curtain comes down on the play, the time for actors to speak their lines is past.
But, as we live and breathe, that time has not yet come. It is not yet too late. There is still time for self-examination, confession, and re-direction. There is still time to get ready, not only for the Christmas that is coming in twelve days, but for the only date that we really don’t want to be late for.
Come, Lord Jesus.