Isaiah 11, 1-10 + Psalm 72 + Romans 15, 4-9 + Matthew 3, 1-12
On Board the MS Eurodam
There is a cartoon you may have seen that gives me a smile every time I think of it. There is a tall man bearded and wearing a long robe that is dragging behind him. He carries a sign that says, “The end is near.” The next frame shows a short man also bearded and robed. He has a sign that says: “The End.” And so it is The End for us, on the night before we disembark in Fort Lauderdale and head back to homes all over this country. The end is near for us in lots of ways, and that is the message John the Baptist is proclaiming. His preaching ends, and then the preaching of Jesus begins.
Human experience tells us that there are lots of endings. This cruise ends, and our stories and memories begin. Childhood ends and Adolescence begins. Sadly, marriages end, but just as joyfully engagements often end with holy marriages. Schooling ends, and we go to work if we are clever enough. Employment ends, and for some of us retirement begins in some way or another. Endings are always followed by beginnings. Something stops, but something else begins. Someone said to me a few weeks ago: “When God takes something from us, it is never to punish us; but rather to give us something new.” There are no endings without beginnings.
Now when the Israelites were in exile, prophets rose up to console and encourage them with the hope that their captivity would end, and they would make their way home for a new beginning. In that same way, John speaks in the desert to all of us who are in exile, living outside of paradise, far from the place we must know as home. He calls for an end to the way things are in this exile, and for a new beginning proposing that “repentance” is what will make that change and give us that new beginning.
Authentic repentance for which John cries out is not a matter of piety, or prayers, or penance. Repentance is not simply saying: “I’m sorry.” Repentance means that we turn around; turn toward heaven, toward God and away from anything that keeps our focus off God. Authentic repentance will be obvious by its fruits: the first of which will be Justice and Peace. As long as there is no justice and no peace, we have not managed any real repentance because once we have turned toward God and have the Kingdom of Heaven in our sights, we will know what it must like to live in God’s presence and how citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven are to live. We will begin to do what is right and what is good. This is what Jesus Christ will come to preach and how he will form his disciples.
When we have turned toward God and away from success and power, influence, and privilege, we will begin to straighten our crooked ways that leave most of this world’s people poor, ignorant, and sick. We will have begun to level the playing field which John calls smoothing out the rough ways. Turning toward God will mean turning toward the poor where we shall see the face of God. Turning toward God will mean looking squarely into the face of immigrants and refugees not seeing them as a strain on our economy but as an opportunity to level every valley and hill. Turning toward God will, in the end, mean a complete change of heart, of values, and of behavior. It will also mean a change in our expectations. It will mean that instead of sitting around and hoping that God will do something or send someone to bring us into justice and show us the way to peace, we will come to understand that it is by our repentance that these things will come to pass, and they will.
This kind of conversion is much more than a human decision. It is a response to what God has already done by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. As believers, as people ready to once again celebrate Christmas, we can be nothing less than heralds of the Good News, bringers of peace, and examples of true justice. This kind of repentance heals what is broken and mends all that divides. It will allow for no distinctions even between the human and the divine. After all, isn’t that what the Incarnation is all about? As Paul proclaims today to the Romans, all are one in Christ Jesus, whether strong or weak, Gentile or Jew, servant or free, woman or man, rich or poor.
Another man is in Rome today named Francis who comes with the same message. It is time for a change, a change in this church and a change in where we look and how we look. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and we need to begin to look like it. When we do, we shall have come home to a new beginning.