The story of John the Baptist takes place 30 years after the birth of Jesus, and yet we read the story of him in the wilderness every year on the second Sunday of Advent.
Part of me is always frustrated that I have to try to make connections between the birth of Jesus and this wild man who eats locusts and preaches some pretty harsh words of judgment.
But… the other part of me is thankful that I get to use this picture every year.
John the Baptist’s words are harsh, and for many of us, bring up these terrible memories or associations of angry preachers banging the pulpit threatening hell unless we get our acts together. Words of fire and ax and judgement and winnowing forks don’t always sit very well with us.
I’m with you on that.
This week via Facebook and a few in person conversations, and I asked people what words/phrases came to mind when they heard the words, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”, and more than half of the responses I heard were about fear, judgement, a white-bearded male looking down the from the sky shaking his finger at us, the crusades, quite a “repent or burns”…
Although my favourite one was someone conjuring an image on Indiana Jones, trying to reach the Holy Grail, repeating, “Only the penitent man will pass…KNEEL!” And then he stops Nazi Germany (or something like that).
But John the Baptist still did tell everyone he met that they should repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.
As I was pondering these words this week, I had an epiphany.
The gospel of Jesus is meant to be good news for everybody. The angels bring the shepherds good news of great joy that will be for ALL people. God coming and living among us through Jesus is supposed to be a good thing (thanks Captain Obvious).
But can we salvage the good news of Jesus from all the negative associations we have with the word “Repent!”
I’ll give it a whirl.
First of all, I think the word “near” means more like it’s in close proximity, not time, so we can say, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is close by!” This moves the repentance in fear of a future moment to repentance in the present, one where we’re waiting for God to come, to one where God is already here.
Secondly, I like to define the word repent as this: To turn. To do a 180. So John is telling his listeners, “Turn around, for the Kingdom of God is close by!”
That’s more palatable, isn’t it? I think that’s a pretty good start.
And we usually associate the word “Repent” with “Stop Sinning!”, which is probably a good thing when we’re killing people and stealing their cars, but can get a little tedious when the preacher gets to decide what’s a sin and what isn’t, and gets to decide who’s sinning and who’s not (and usually it’s not the preacher).
So what I do with this text is think of repenting in terms of not only turning, but specifically of letting go. Of us letting go of what we are clinging to tightly. That with all the things that we’re holding tightly onto, we change direction, and let go of them.
One of the greatest myths of life in North America is that we can just keep adding things to our lives. We can just add more peace and more harmony on top of watching sports on top of Christmas shopping on top of church on top of loving our neighbours.
I don’t think it’s true. We can’t add without subtracting. We can’t take on more unless we are willing to let go of something else. We can’t live in a world of more love, peace, joy and harmony unless we let go of all that which is hindering those things.
So then the phrase becomes, “Let go of what you are holding on to tightly, because the Kingdom of God is close by.”
Well, that’s certainly different. I kind of like it.
Let go of what’s holding you back from living into the good news of Jesus.
In my early years as a pastor, I spent a few weekends at St. Benedict’s Monastery hanging out with some nuns and spiritual directors, learning how to rest and how to pray, and every year the first question that was asked of us was this:
“What is God calling you to let go of?”
We can’t live in the Kingdom of God unless we are willing to let go of things.
Our selfishness, our pride, our indifference, the security we find in our wealth, the feelings we cling to when we think about how that person did us wrong yesterday, our own sense of rightness…
The idea of letting go runs a bit contrary to the belief that “I’m okay. You’re okay.” It actually says, “No. We’re not all okay. The world is not all okay. We’re all a part of this. What do we need to let go of to live into God’s new way of living?”
John the Baptist said: Repent, for Kingdom of God is near.
Today, we can say: Let go of what you’re holding on to tightly, because it might be keeping you, it might be keeping us, from living the life that God wants for all of us.
And if you have little children, Queen Elsa from Frozen says: “Let It Go!” (My 6 year old daughter asked if we would be singing this song today. I replied, “Your mom told me a long time ago that it was best for everyone if I didn’t sing from the pulpit.”)
What is God calling you to let go of?
As usual, let’s light a candle and pray through that.
Open your hands like you are receiving a gift.
Notice your breathing.
Imagine God looking at you with kindness, tenderness, and love.
Ask the question: “God, what is it that you want me to let go of?”
If something comes to mind, ponder it. Don’t be mad at it, don’t be embarrassed by it, simply ponder it.
And, when you’re ready, imagine holding it in your hand, and then letting it go.
Good news. The Kingdom of God is close by. And my hunch is that if we turn around, God will be there waiting for us with open arms.