“Repent! Repent I tell you! The kingdom of God has drawn near. Our Lord is at his threshing floor and he will separate the wheat from the chaff! The wheat will be gathered into his storehouse but the chaff he will BURN in unceasing fire. And so I say unto you. . . Repent, Repent, REPENT!”
The message above, a colourful reading of John the Baptist’s sermon from last Sunday’s Gospel, is often what we associate with repentance. We hear the cadences of angry evangelists and slimy street preachers. When you read the above, did you lengthen the vowel on the word ‘burn’? – “He will ‘buuuurn’ the chaff with unceasing fire!” I would not be surprised if you had. The very topic of repentance brings with it images of red-faced, soap-box standing charlatans who yell at people about the imminence of their condemnation. The caricature is of a preacher whose messages is angry and self-righteous; one who seems more concerned with colourfully depicting the horrors of hell than speaking of Jesus’ promises. Usually there is little room for love or grace. With this cliché in our minds it is natural to try to avoid that type of preaching, and those associate topics. But as Sunday’s Gospel made plain, repentance is a key component in our preparation to receive the Messiah. As we journey through Advent, what does this truly mean?
When we strip away all of the negative clichés about repentance, what do we see? Literally the word means to ‘change one’s mind’ – to face a new direction. That being said, repentance is not just about a new way of thinking. To repent, in full nuance, is to change one’s attitude in respect to his or her life with God. It is a radical transformation of the entire person. We grasps onto Jesus with a renewed tenacity. When we repent, we engage in a fundamental reorientation of our lives. We live in a new direction. We engage in new actions. We have a new attitude.
Repentance, rightly understood, is the doorway into new life. It is not merely a divine loophole by which we claim our entrance past the pearly gates. John says to the religious elite, those who deny that they need to repent, “do not say to yourselves, we have Abraham as our father.’ Lineage is not a get-out-of-hell-free card. Heaven is not an arcade prize to be claimed as long as we amass enough tickets. John reminds us all that if God was interested in just gaining names for a divine roster, then children could be raised out of rock to fulfil that requirement.
The Messiah, however, comes to establish something more. It is precisely because our life with God is not just to be something we say, we repent as a way to renew our dedication to a life of divine relationship. We produce fruit in keeping with repentance, not because we are trying to escape some horrible wrath to which we are destined. It is actually quite the opposite. We produce the fruit of repentance because we long to live with Jesus. In repentance we humble ourselves before him; we follow the way of Jesus, and thereby receive all the blessings he offers. Out of repentance comes a renewed, active, Spirit-filled, walk in the Kingdom of God, not just an escape from the torments of hell.
Don’t get me wrong, even when we understand that repentance is a discipline of grace, this can be hard. We are asked to take a sober look at ourselves, and ask if we are living our our relationship with Jesus in the greatest degree possible. Is there some part of our life that keeps Jesus at a distance? Is there some part of us where Jesus does not have a say? Are our motivations, actions, temperaments, and thoughts, informed by an active relationship with our Lord? These can be uncomfortable questions, ones we may want to avoid. We may easily feel sorrow, shame, or even anger over our past spiritual failings. And yet, even here, we claim the love of the one who is ‘faithful and just to forgive us.’ We can open our hidden closets, we can sweep clear the dark corners of our lives, because we know that we will receive the loving acceptance of one who comes to us. In the call to repentance we hear the the message of new life.
I don’t mean to be blunt but you need to repent. I can say that because I need to repent. We all do. This is a call for every single one of us. We are asked to repent because the Kingdom of God surrounds us, and out of love and grace God invites us to partake in it. But to do so we need to clear the rubble so easily caused by our own faults and sins, and give Jesus the space and the attention he truly deserves. And so we are asked to repent. Jesus is not waiting to condemn us, or to hurl divine insults up on us. Jesus is not itching to smite us in divine wrath. He is faithful and just to receive us, to forgive us, and to renew us in the force of his love.
So let us repent, and enter (again) the new life Jesus offers.