This may only be the second Sunday of Advent, but I am already over Christmas. Like everyone else, I get caught up in the spirit of the "holiday" season--the shopping, the baking, the decorating, the parties--while simultaneously trying to hold a quiet space for the season of Advent. Honestly, it feels like a losing battle: even in church, there are people itching to sing "O Come All Ye Faithful," and it is only December 4th.
It is a stressful time of year for many people. According to the National Institutes of Health, Christmas is a time of year when people report a higher incidence of depression and anxiety. The underlying causes of this uptick in sadness include less sunlight, unrealistic expectations, financial pressure, and excessive commercialization. The report also said many people felt increased pressure to be perfect during the holiday season.
So right when we're all starting to feel overwhelmed by this impending holiday, who should show up but John the Baptist. This is where we always find him, this Second Sunday of Advent, waist deep in the muddy Jordan, dressed in nothing but skins and a belt, ranting like a street preacher: Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near!
He turns up every year at this time, like a relative we've been avoiding. You know the one--that person you have to invite to the family Christmas party even though no one really wants to see him and he'll probably bring a fruitcake...again.
If, like me, you are feeling a little stressed out, it is tempting to try and slip past John unnoticed. But that's impossible. No matter which lectionary year it is, the second Sunday of Advent serves up John.
The four Gospels offer a wonderful variety of narratives, but sometimes it feels like they're not telling the same story, especially at this time of year. Luke gives us shepherds; Matthew brings the magi; but Mark and John come empty handed to our Christmas party. The first thing they all agree on is John the Baptist. In all four Gospels John is in the same place wearing the same clothes with the same message: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven draws near! Prepare the way of the Lord. It doesn't matter which Gospel you read; if you want to get to Jesus, you must pass by John. Why is that?
John the Baptist is significant because he is the last in the life of prophets. Although he does not call himself one, John is the embodiment of the whole tradition. He is dressed like Elijah, he sounds like Isaiah, and he is standing in the water that marked the boundary between the wilderness and the Promised Land. In this way John provides a kind of continuity; he is the bridge with the prophetic tradition. And that's important, because Jesus is not a "one off," some foreign body sitting next to an old tradition. No, John has come to tell the world that Jesus is the branch that grows from the root of Jesse. Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
There's another reason that John the Baptist is significant. Listen to those words again: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. John may look like the prophets of old, but there is something new about his message.
Much of the prophetic tradition is instrumental in its approach. It's almost an equation of sorts. If we sin, then God will punish us. If we repent, then God will forgive. From Isaiah to Ezekiel to Joel, there is an on-going theme of "Shape up...or else." The variable that determines the outcome of this holy equation is the behavior of humanity--the faithfulness, or faithlessness, of Israel and Judah--but that is not John's message.
John doesn't say, "Repent OR the kingdom of heaven will come near." That would be in line with the prophetic tradition, which often portrayed the coming of God as a day of tribulation and judgment. The prophet Isaiah says, "Behold, the Day of the Lord comes, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger!" (13:9), The prophet Joel is more descriptive: "The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and terrible day of the Lord come." One might assume that the kingdom of heaven coming near was something to be feared, not welcomed --IF John was using it as a threat. But that is not what he's saying.
Nor does John use the kingdom of heaven as a reward. He does not say, "Repent AND the kingdom of heaven will come near." That would be in line with a more merit-based approach to faith, which sounds a lot like the prosperity Gospel. Prosperity theology views the Bible as a contract between God and humans: If humans have faith in God, God will reward us with security and prosperity. It also sounds a little bit like Santa: "You better watch out. You better not cry!" But that's not what John is saying either.
No, what John the Baptist has come to tell us is that we are no longer the key variable in this equation. What is happening in Jesus Christ is God's doing. The kingdom of heaven has come near. John is proclaiming a new reality. We can choose to be part of it, but ready or not, here it comes. It is time to repent.
We don't use the word repent much outside of the church. Most people think it means to be sorry. But that's not really it. In the Greek, the word literally means to change one's mind. Biblical scholars describe it more broadly as reorienting, reordering, or re-centering. Or maybe it is like resetting. I love to cook, even when it's not the holiday season, and one of the most important pieces of equipment in my kitchen is a digital scale. It can accurately weigh ingredients to a fourth of an ounce, allowing me to prepare delicate cakes or delicious curries. But every now and then, something goes wrong: My scale stops measuring things accurately, and the values are way off. When that happens, I have to zero it out; I have to reset it. Then it functions as it should.
The writer Anne Lamott once said that most things can be fixed if we just turn them off for a while and back on, including ourselves. Maybe we are all like my kitchen scale: When our values are off, we need to be reset...reordered, reoriented. That is the essence of John the Baptist's message: We need to reorder our lives, reset our priorities, and return to God...for the kingdom of heaven is here...and we don't want to miss it.
This message is good news for those who struggle at this time of year. It is good news for anyone who has tried to meet the expectations and requirements of the season or of society and fallen short. So many people--then and now--are caught in the old equation, the game of "if, then"...and losing. We will never be good enough or kind enough or faithful enough. In a world where it feels like the rules are rigged, John's message brings hope. A new day has dawned, and it is a light that shines on all people. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
This is the balm that heals our holiday blues better than any batch of cookies or office party; this is the peace that quiets our anxiety. This is the best way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel...God with us. So don't avoid John the Baptist. Yes, he's in the same place saying the same things once again, but he has brought a marvelous gift, an opportunity to reset and repent, for Jesus Christ is here! Amen.