THE MESSAGE OF JOHN: REPENT!
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is not only about preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. We live between the first coming of Jesus when he was born at Bethlehem and his Second Coming at the end of time when he will come as Judge of all. This reality comes across to us through the person and the preaching of John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading.
- WHO IS JOHN THE BAPTIST?
The extract from Luke’s Gospel chosen for today begins the account of the life of Jesus with the appearance of John the Baptist. In this short passage Luke locates John in both secular/human history and salvation history. Regarding John’s place in human history, Luke is very precise about the secular dates and gives all the important persons major and minor as reference points, in order to make sure that there is no confusion as to who we are talking about. The preoccupation with dates and times and places is important: in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… and: John went through the whole Jordan district. By these facts, Luke makes is clear that we are talking about actual events that happened in historical time and in a particular place. Luke locates John in salvation history by presenting him as the final prophet of the Old Testament, the one foretold by Isaiah, the voice crying in the wilderness. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us nothing about John’s dietary habits, locusts and wild honey, or how he dressed, in camel skin. Luke solely focuses on JOHN’S PREACHING OF REPENTANCE.
- THE MESSAGE OF JOHN
John the Baptist’s task is to announce the impending arrival of Jesus. His message was:
- “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”
- “Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!”
- “Make his path straight”. (Clear the road for him!)
Although we are in our preparation for Christmas and Christ’s first coming, we are directed also to His second coming as judge and Saviour and the end of time.
Repentance is at the center of John’s message. In Matthew’s gospel, John announces: “repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Today, in Luke we are told that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. In other words, John baptized people who said they had repented (or were repenting) of their sin. We could say John’s message was this: if you want to go in the right direction you have to first stop traveling in the wrong direction. In many developed societies, people use a device called GPS to help them navigate their way to wherever they are driving to. (GPS: GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM a space-based navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions anywhere.) If you have one of those GPS devices in your car, when you make a wrong turn the voice on the GPS tells you to turn around. Repentance calls us to do the same thing. The repentant person sees that they are headed in the wrong direction and take corrective action! The truly repentant person wants to be saved from their sin, not only from the penalty of their sin. In other words, he/she wants to head in a new direction. Advent is a time for us to retrace our direction through life. You cannot head in the right direction until you stop going in the wrong direction. You cannot begin to live for the Lord unless you stop living for yourself. That is the meaning of repentance.
- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO REPENT?
Too often what people want is a Jesus who will obliterate/delete their guilt BUT NOT ASK THEM TO TRULY CHANGE. They want a Jesus who will forgive their sin BUT NOT ALTER THEIR LIVING. That is a perverted gospel! That is a superficial faith. God abhors this type of faith! You can be sorry without repenting. It is common for people to feel sorry that
- Others were upset
- They were caught
- They hurt people
- They miscalculated
- They weren’t paying attention
But there is one thing in common in each of those statements: There is no recognition of guilt and therefore no requirement to change.
Reading further, beyond the text of today’s gospel, Luke tells us how radical this repentance was that was preached by John. “The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14). True repentance makes a practical difference!
If one is truly repentant about driving too fast he/she would start driving slower! If one is repentant for slandering another person, one would stop attacking that person with his/her words! If I was truly repentant for stealing money I would stop stealing and begin paying back what was stolen. True repentance involves a change in direction! Take the example of Zacchaeus the tax collector, accused of stealing from the poor: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back fourfold.’” (Lk 19:8)
Today, we are also being call to repentance. Before we can find forgiveness in Christ we must first understand that we need a Savior. We must see that we are addicted to rebelling against God. We must see that this rebellion is destroying our lives. We must truly want to change.
- REPENTANCE IS LIFE-LONG
Repentance is not something that people do once and for all. In fact, it is a life-long project. We must be repenting every day of our lives on earth. Every day, we must be saying “NO” to sin, that is all too pervasive in our world, and “YES” to God and his kingdom. We need not always put it into words. But it must be manifest in the way we live our lives. Our lives should reflect a permanent attitude, a way of life, rather than a mere verbal statement or a wish to be a better person.
A repentant person must guard against falling by always doing a personal inventory of his/her life. Ask yourself: What practices of mine are inconsistent with the gospel of Christ? What things dishonor His name? We should honest with ourselves here! Such a process hurts, but it is necessary. Look at your vocabulary, your thought life, your passions, your priorities. Look at the way you are at church and compare it to the way you are with your friends, away from church. Is there inconsistency there? Make the necessary changes. When you do, your fellowship with God will be richer and your joy will be greater. For this reason, we can say a repentant person is a NEW CREATION. St. Paul puts it succinctly: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) This is the kind of person who will be part in the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed.
In today’s first reading from the prophet Baruch (Bar 5:1-9), we heard a description, written many centuries later, of the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem after the terrible pain of their exile when they were driven from Jerusalem and their country and they had to live in Babylon, a foreign country and culture. There is great joy in that reading because the Jewish people can once again return home after their exile. That joy is captured in the words of the Psalm, “What great deeds the Lord has worked for us! Indeed, we were glad.” Their return again to their homeland, to Zion, to Jerusalem, was so good for them it seemed almost like a dream.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we are also called to a similar joy, a joy that is not only a dream. We are called to come away from our sinful past (our house of exile), THROUGH REPENTANCE, and take possession of our real homeland in Christ. In this way we will heed the call of John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” As repentant persons we must look at our life (our actions, motives, heart) and come to God as humble and broken persons because of our sins. We are not to justify, excuse, or try to redefine our sin. We must see sin clearly as an offense to a Holy God. We are called to understand that we have rebelled against God and so we confess our rebellious attitude and scandalous behaviour. We come to God as people who are sick and in need of healing. St. Paul, in the second reading of today (Philippians 1:4-11) makes the following prayer for our good and on our behalf: “And this is my prayer: THAT YOUR LOVE MAY INCREASE EVER MORE AND MORE IN KNOWLEDGE AND EVERY KIND OF PERCEPTION, TO DISCERN WHAT IS OF VALUE, SO THAT YOU MAY BE PURE AND BLAMELESS FOR THE DAY OF CHRIST, FILLED WITH THE FRUIT OF RIGHTEOUSNESS THAT COMES THROUGH JESUS CHRIST FOR THE GLORY AND PRAISE OF GOD”. (Phil 1:9-11) Again, using the words of St. Paul in that second reading of today, this is our pray for ourselves: that God “who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6) Amen.