Now you may well ask, what is all this stuff about repentance doing here? After all, we are in Advent, not Lent. True, but here a little history might help. While the date of Christmas was set around 380, the season of Advent took longer to develop. It was first a season of six weeks of fasting for monks, then reduced to four weeks and, by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (late 6th c.) enjoined on everyone and especially for those to be baptized on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Later, it was called a “little Lent”.
A sermon by Jan Robitscher
“Bear Fruit that befits repentance.”
Year C Advent 3 (RCL) Jan Robitscher
Zephaniah 3:14-20 St. Mark’s Church
Canticle 9 Berkeley, CA
Philippians 4:4-7 December 16, 2012
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.
(Carol Christopher Drake)
The words of Carol Christopher Drake, of our own hymn, St. Mark’s Berkeley, tell us that we are in the middle days of Advent, the days of John the Baptist. But did you hear that last verse of the Gospel reading?
“So with many other exhortations, he (John the Baptist)
proclaimed the good news to the people.” (Luke 3:18)
What? Does this sound like Good News to you? And on the Sunday of Gaudete (the first word of the Latin introit, Rejoice) and rose vestments? It is not hard to imagine John waist-deep in the Jordan yelling at those coming to be baptized,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the
wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance.” (Matt 3:7)
Now you may well ask, what is all this stuff about repentance doing here? After all, we are in Advent, not Lent. True, but here a little history might help. While the date of Christmas was set around 380, the season of Advent took longer to develop. It was first a season of six weeks of fasting for monks, then reduced to four weeks and, by the time of Pope Gregory the Great (late 6th c.) enjoined on everyone and especially for those to be baptized on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6. Later, it was called a “little Lent”. But this still begs the question, what’s with all this penance, and John’s words, “Bear fruits that befit repentance”?
|St Mark's, Berkeley, California|
John the Baptist. The Eastern Church calls him John the Forerunner. This man who lived alone in the desert and ate locusts and honey was anointed by God to proclaim a disturbing message to an apathetic people: that the Kingdom of God was at hand and would soon become tangible in the person of Jesus. The world’s darkness was about to be shattered by God’s light--a light so penetrating that even the most secret sins of the heart would be exposed. So John preached a baptism of repentance--the outward sign of a converted life--and he did it with very uncomfortable words:
“You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from
the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance,
and do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as
our father.’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones
to raise up children of Abraham...” (Luke 3: 7ff)
And, almost in a parallel of the Parable of the Vine and Branches in the Gospel of John, where those branches that bear no fruit are cut away, so John the Baptist cries out that
“even now the axe is lying at the root of the
trees; every tree therefore that does not bear
good fruit will be thrown into the fire and
burned.” (Luke 3:9)
Maybe this is the way into John’s seemingly harsh words. We must abide in Christ if we are to bear any fruit, and there can be no fear or coercion in this abiding. John would never accept these as motives for receiving his baptism. What he did accept was the person who came face to face with the sinfulness of the human condition and was willing to turn around (the literal meaning of conversion) and walk in another direction. For John knew that only in this unburdened condition could one greet Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah and Lord.
But what of us? We have received an even greater baptism because Jesus, himself sanctified it and gave the Holy Spirit in its waters. Yet we find ourselves in Advent, hearing again those words of John “Bear fruits that befit repentance.”
In recent years Advent has become a much less penitential season. This is good. No longer is Advent a “little Lent”. But the Church in its wisdom (or the lectionary writers in theirs) did not excise this lesson and I, for one, am grateful. For it forces us to examine just what we are preparing for in this season. Are we looking for Jesus’ comings--in the past at his birth, in the present in Word and Sacrament, in his coming again in glory? John knew this, for he stood at the crossroads of the Old Covenant and the New. And he preached that the only preparation for Jesus’ coming was to repent of the sins of the past in order to look forward with joyful anticipation to Jesus’ coming.
Perhaps what we need to repent of is that we would rather look elsewhere. Do we look at the drawings on Christmas cards, dwelling in a sentimental past without seeing the wonder of God becoming human? Or maybe we are so busy shopping that we don’t see beyond the lights and advertising. Or maybe we must admit that we live in a culture of an awful convergence of guns and violence and mental illness with no help, that has no room for the prophetic words of John or the comings of Jesus and leaves the death of the innocent children and their teachers of Newtown, CT in its wake. Or maybe we don’t see the worth of looking back--or forward--at all and we succumb to our despair. But it does not have to be so! What are the fruits of which John speaks?
|St John the Baptist in the Desert, Collantes Francisco|
Repentance is one thing, but bearing fruits is quite another. I believe these fruits are not much different from the ones John gave in answer to the question “What then should we do?” John said:
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone
who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise...”
John’s reply makes clear that preparation for Christ’s comings involves a willingness to look beyond ourselves. Gift-giving is not only for each other under the Christmas tree, but is for those who have nothing to give back. And so we collect socks and toiletries for the homeless here in Berkeley, create Christmas stockings for the residents of Berkeley Pines and we give to others beyond our neighborhood through Episcopal Relief and Development and other charities, year-round.
And reconciliation is not only for Lent. We must strive to live in community with one another, bearing with one another and practicing “holy listening”. And the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not just for Pentecost. We must earnestly pray, as a community, for the presence, comfort and guidance of the Spirit through these days of Advent and beyond, for ourselves and for each other and for our world.
Only by repentance and, as the monastic vow puts it, conversion of life, can we truly make room to celebrate Christ’s comings. St. Paul’s words from the letter to the Philippians (and the introit for this day) ring true:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The
Lord is near... And the peace of God which surpasses
all understanding will guard your hears and your minds
in Christ Jesus.
Toward the end of the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom wrote a sermon on John the Baptist. In it, he included some thoughts about the biblical figure at the crossroads which are also appropriate to the Advent season which would not enter the church calendar for another hundred years:
[John the Baptist] then let us emulate, and forsaking
luxury and drunkenness, let us go over unto the life of
restraint. For this surely is the time of confession both
for the uninitiated and for the baptized; for the one, that
upon their repentance they partake of the Sacred Mysteries;
for the others, that having washed away their [sins] after
baptism, they may approach the Table with a clean
|St John the Baptist baptizes, Nicolas Poussin, 1635|
Maybe John was not so much yelling at those who came receive his baptism as he was begging them to make the kind of preparation one would make to receive an honored or beloved guest. Let us do the same as we come to this Table to receive Jesus, and so become Christ-bearers to a hurting world. Remember the humble birth of God into our humanity and clear away everything that hinders us in anticipation of greeting him when he comes again. This is the good news John preached so that we might greet with joy the comings of our Lord.
Our own hymn invites us this way:
(Sung) Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God gives himself into our lives;
O let salvation dawn!