St Barnabas’, Havana–Matthew 3:1–12
We’re into the mid-section of Advent now, where John the Baptist is the lead actor, and the prophet Isaiah is the principal supporting actor. The gospel writers give us only a handful of details about John, but there are enough of them to paint a rather compelling picture. I mean … what a sight! He’s dressed in camel hide, lives in the desert, eats insects, and is on a constant rant about sin and the need for people to repent. And, still, he was wildly popular, mostly, I would guess, because he was so weird, and such a spectacle. But it’s not like people were ignoring the nugget of his message, which was, in a word, Repent! People were making a rather demanding journey down to where the Jordan River runs through the Judean desert—it wasn’t a casual stroll from where people lived—they were making their way to John, and listening to his message of repentance, and confessing their sins, and getting baptized. It was a really big deal, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to downplay it in our imaginations.
Now … you would think that, given what people had to go through to get to him, and given the … ahem, unappealing character of his message, John would at least cut them some slack and not ask too many questions—you know, give them some points for making the effort. If someone manages to make it down to the river, and wants to confess their sins and get baptized, we would expect John to just say, “Bless you, friend. Step right up.” But no! When he sees members of two partisan groups within Judaism approach him for baptism, he goes ballistic. His head explodes. “You bunch of snakes! Who warned you to run away from what’s in store for you?!”
That’s certainly not a warm pastoral embrace of a humble penitent sinner, is it?! Why? What motivated John to be so unhospitable toward the Pharisees and Sadducees? Well, to understand John’s attitude, we need to look under the hood of the other element, the other basic theme, of John’s preaching, which is: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s very easy to hear this expression and understand it in very straightforward, static terms, like we would understand somebody saying, “Christmas is just around the corner” or, toward the end of a long road trip, and your impatient child asks, “Are we there yet?” and you’re able to truthfully answer, “Just about. We’re almost there. Look, we can see where we’re going from here.”
But God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, isn’t like that. On December 25, Christmas will have arrived, and on January 7, it will have departed. It’s simple and predictable. When I arrive home tonight and park my car in the garage, my journey will be over. My navigation app will say, “You have arrived at your destination.” God’s kingdom, by contrast, is always happening rather than simply existing. It’s not a territory or a sphere or a realm. It’s an ever-ongoing event. Any consideration of the kingdom of heaven always ends in -i-n-g. It’s always happening, always continuing. The kingdom of heaven is “near,” not spatially, the way we usually thing of nearness, not “near in time,” but “near in place,” sort of in the way that the Illinois River is “near” Havana. And when the river is at flood stage, it gets even nearer still. I can imagine that there have been times when the residents of this town have feared that the Illinois River will just “invade” Havana. This is more or less what John the Baptist is saying about the kingdom of heaven: It’s constantly “inbreaking,” forever “on the verge” of invading our time and place. God’s kingdom isn’t a place or an event, but an ongoing moment of “happening.”
So, John’s criticism of the Pharisees and Sadducees is that their repentance is cheap and cynical, not genuine, not authentic. It doesn’t spring naturally and spontaneously from their hearts. Rather, it’s fabricated, contrived, motivated only by a desire to escape the just and proper consequences of their self-serving behavior.
But the kind of repentance that God’s always inbreaking, always on-the-verge-of-invading kingdom summons us to is joyful repentance. I mean … God’s kingdom is near, and that’s pretty awesome, so that’s more than enough reason to be joyful, right? But, joyful repentance? That just sounds weird, doesn’t it? Yeah, that may strike us a contradiction, because repentance is serious business, and is often appropriately accompanied by tears of regret and sorrow. But joyful repentance is actually the heart of this season of Advent.
We are always, of course, aware of our need for repentance. Along with the Psalmist, we can truthfully say, “My sin is ever before me,” and even, on occasion, “My wounds stink and fester by reason of my foolishness.” In my more than three decades of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, I have found that Ash Wednesday is one of the most well-attended of the liturgical occasions that never fall on a Sunday. We are aware of our sinfulness, and we understand that confession of sin is an essential movement in the process of repentance. But, unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, hopefully, we don’t repent out of fear, we don’t repent simply to avoid the consequences of our behavior. We repent as an irrepressible response to our anticipation of the full arrival of the kingdom of heaven, when all wrongs will be put right, and every tear be wiped away. Think of repentance, if you will, as you might when you are expecting some very special company in your home. The work may be challenging and difficult, and not at all fun. But you don’t go about it with fear or off-the-charts anxiety. Rather, you clean your house with joyful anticipation, because somebody who is important to you, somebody whom you care about a great deal, is going to show up, and the prospect of that makes you want to sing with joy. Housecleaning under those circumstances is much like the repentance that John the Baptist calls us to, that the season of Advent calls us to. It’s serious business, but it springs from the heart, authentically and organically.
Our King and Savior now draws near: Come, let us adore him. Amen.