Monday, December 5, 2016

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

Second Sunday of Advent
Year A

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!

What a promise! What a call! What a loaded statement. Thank you, John the Baptist.

Last week in the sermon, I talked about Jesus’ reminder to keep awake. Keeping awake and paying attention to every moment of our lives can be a very hard thing to do. However, the riches to be gained from such a practice are plentiful. By keeping awake, by paying attention to the moments of our lives, we see things we may have never seen before. We see God at work in our lives in new ways, in places we never thought God would venture. We see connections we may have missed before, between other people and ourselves. We see how we imitate our parents, probably way too much, not only in their sayings and gestures, but in the way we handle our emotions. We notice how our own bodies react and respond to what is going on around us and how that affects our daily lives. Our bodies are great at taking overloaded stress from one area of our lives and trying to off load it in another.

When we start to notice all these things, we probably start to notice a bunch of things we are doing that we don’t necessarily want to be doing. We want to be open, to other people, to love, to the Holy Spirit, but instead, we notice how we find ways to shut others out or to close ourselves off from the Spirit. Like the passage in Romans in which Paul complains that he does what he does not want to do and cannot do that which he wants to do, sometimes keeping awake in watching our own lives simply leads us to realize we are not doing what we thought we were or want to be doing.

There is a system in this. We cannot be open to others or God in our lives without cleaning up all that clogs our systems. If you go to clean your shower, but can’t because there is standing water in it, you have to first address the clogged drain. It makes no sense to clean things out of order... then you just make other things dirty. If all your dish cloths are dirty, you can't get a clean dish. You have to start with the laundry, clean the dish cloth, then clean the dishes, then of course do more laundry... the process continues. In order to be open, we have to make sure our hearts and minds are open.

Cleaning up our hearts and minds is exactly what John the Baptist is calling us to today. Repentance is a process of cleaning up, cleaning out, making sure things are open and working. Repentance is the process of cleaning out our interpersonal, relationship, and spiritual systems. Nowadays, we typically use the word reconciliation to talk about repentance. The Catholics still have Confession, but in the Protestant churches, we talk about reconciliation. Have you ever felt that gut feeling of unease when you are in a guilt trip with yourself? Or the tension in a relationship where you know things are not right between you? Or that buildup of frustration in prayer that comes from feeling hurt, let down, or confused about what is going on? Yes? Those are all reasons we need repentance, reconciliation.

Repent, in the Hebrew, literally means to turn around. Repent and return are pretty much the same verb, at least in the Hebrew. We are not great anymore at focusing on one thing at a time. We learn early how to be multitaskers. Like a panoramic or fish eye photo, we want to see and do everything all at the same time. But paying attention requires focusing on one thing at a time. Taking time to focus on repentance leads to cleaner, happier, more fruitful relational and spiritual lives. Repentance is the contrition and act of confessing our sins. We follow through with our repentance in reconciliation when we reconnect with the people and things we have hurt. How can we be excited and prepared for God's coming if we are in tension with God? It's like preparing your house for the coming of an unwanted or disliked relative or guest. It's not joyful, it's frustrating, it's annoying! God's coming should not be like that!

Many times we want to forget the unpleasant things that have happened in the past. We want to move on, move forward, start over. But sometimes we have to return to what is behind us in order to move forward, especially if it is pulling us back or clogging our systems. What John is calling for isn't easy. In the Anglican tradition, this is the reason we say the general confession every week. Because we know that we are always messing up, always making mistakes, always trying to run from things we do not want to face. So every week we come here together, to worship, to pray, to praise God, and yes, to confess, to repent, to turn away from our sinful decisions and to return to walking the path of God. We may question, do we really need to do this? Lest, you forgot, we already promised we would. We have a baptismal vow about repentance. In our baptisms, we and those who spoke on our behalf were asked, "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?" And they answered, "I will with God's help." It is not a vow we can accomplish on our own. We have to have the stirrings of God within in us to be able to resist and persevere and repent and return.

In the gospel passage, we see the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to John the Baptist being told off for trying to run away from their past. They feel that they can move forward without dealing with what they have done, but John calls them out on it. They try to justify themselves, but there is no justification. We cannot justify ourselves in our relationships with God. John tells them that they cannot think that God will look past everything that they have done unless they repent. He foretells of some culling to come. He talks about trees being cut down and wheat being processed. They are both metaphors and we are used to certain interpretations of them. But before we jump to the conclusion that some people are going to burn in unquenchable fire, and that this means someone else is going to burn in unquenchable fire, lets think about what chaff actually is. Chaff is a normal part of a wheat plant. Every wheat plant has chaff. Chaff is the part of the wheat stalk that protects the vulnerable inner important fruit. Chaff is a dry protective wall around the fruit of the plant. Like the rind on an orange or watermelon or the husk of an ear of corn. In this metaphor, chaff is effectively the protective walls around each and every one of us that keeps us closed up and away from God. Chaff is those walls we build up around ourselves that clog up our relationship systems. We all need to be processed, stripped of our chaff, pruned of the parts of us that do not bear good fruit, so that what is good inside of us can be seen. We all have chaff that needs to be burned with unquenchable fire so that we can be open and ready for God. Repentance is this process of tearing down, cleaning out, burning the part of us that stands in our way. We have to keep awake in this process, keep vigilance on how what we are saying and doing. Once we acknowledge, confess, repent, we can move forward being open and bearing good fruit. We are called into the future of what is coming. However, we cannot do so until we have opened ourselves to what may come. 

Advent reminds us of that process year after year, calling us to admit our failures of another year, calling us to repent and return to the Lord, calling us to walk into the wilderness of unknowing, waiting, through the difficult times of change. Advent the season of preparation, and part of preparation for something is always cleaning. John calls us to clean out our relationship and spiritual systems. Repent! He says. Prepare! He says. Get Ready! He says, because the completion, the promise of the gift of the Kingdom of Heaven, is near! Is here!

Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!