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Repentance or Peace

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Isaiah 11:1-2, 5-9

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord…. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Matthew 3:1-11

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

When I read the lectionary texts this week, I was torn—

torn between Isaiah and John the Baptist,

who we liberals now call John the Baptizer,

lest anyone think John was . . . Baptist.

When I read the texts I was torn between Isaiah and John,

between vision and revision.

I’ve always loved Isaiah’s vision:

the wolf shall live with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

and the child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.

I’ve always loved Isaiah’s vision

of a world at peace,

not us and them,

not predator and prey.

No one is prey.

I love this vision because I want

to believe it is possible.

But I read this scripture and I am torn

because in the world I see, if the lion does lie with the lamb,

then the lamb better not slumber or sleep.

And the child is not safe by the adder’s den

for snakes are many and varied

and sometimes disguise as friends.

I read this scripture and I am torn, my heart is torn,

because my mind cannot believe that we can achieve

that for which my heart longs,

Isaiah’s song.

 

So though I initially felt torn, I turn to John,

the baptizer, the criticizer, the killjoy of Advent,

who yells “woe to you, you brood of vipers.”

And I wonder why I went back to preaching on the lectionary!

The three-year cycle of readings the Protestant church follows

offers no easy road to Christmas.

 

I would like an easy road—

a road with no forks and furrows,

no dens and burrows where predators lie in wait or hate.

I would like an easy road to Christmas Eve, please,

an even road, even if less traveled,

where we are gathered in, week after week,

O Come All Ye Faithful,

and pronounce Joy to the World.

But the lectionary gives us John the baptizer every year,

and every year we are told to repent.

(What is this—Lent?)

I don’t want to preach on repentance.

I got too much of that as a child.

Repent, for you are a sinner.

Repent, for you bear the fault of Eve,

Repent, or you will burn in hell,

and I stood and cried.

I was five.

I don’t want to preach on repentance.

I have been torn by that call.

 

But still, after all, I have sinned, in ways big and small.

And I alternate between letting myself off the hook

and throwing the book.

I have denied my fault

and I have denied myself the forgiveness

I would freely offer you.

So what am I to do?

Preach Isaiah’s utopian dream,

or John the theologian’s scream?

And what would happen if I did?

If I preached like John, would you walk out the door?

“I don’t need this any more!”

Or would you stay and listen to what God might say

about the things you say . . . and don’t?

The racist comment that you let slide,

the times you lied,

the secret attraction that you confide

to the one person you shouldn’t.

Or maybe your sin is more within—

the attitude you deny,

the prejudice you pretend to decry,

the lack of grace you would never say to another’s face.

 

And I can only take us this far.

I can only get me this far.

I am afraid of what comes next,

for this cliff to which I’ve led

may lead us to jump into nothingness

or the very real pain of something less than what God wants for us.

I don’t want to preach repentance because I don’t want you to feel

shame or blame.

And you don’t want me to preach repentance because you don’t want to feel,

at all.

But that doesn’t change the call.

To you, to me, to us, John says “Repent,”

and though it’s not Lent, this is our advent—

our beginning, where we start.

 

At the start of the musical Come from Away,

about the events of 9/11, as the drama and the trauma begin to unfold

there on an island where international flights were sent to wait,

a song begins to form:

You are here, at the start of a moment, on the edge of the world,

where the river meets the sea.

Here, on the edge of the Atlantic, on an island in between

there and here.

 

That is where we live.

We are here, in Advent, at the start of a moment,

on the edge of a world that is yet to be.

We are here, on the edge of change,

on an island between the world as it is

and the world that can be.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The kingdom of heaven.

The realm of God.

The world in which God’s will is done

on earth as it is in heaven.

The world where the wolf shall live with the lamb

and the leopard will lie down with the kid

and the children will be safe from vipers of every kind.

The world where “They will not hurt or destroy

on all God’s holy mountain!”

 

We live on an island in between there and here.

And so we wait.

And while we wait, we repent.

While we wait, we build community.

While we wait, we bind the wounds of those who hurt.

and try to stop the wounding in the first place.

 

While we wait, we acknowledge that some things can’t wait.

We cannot wait for peace.

So we cannot wait for repentance,

for we need repentance if we are ever to know peace.

We cannot wait to celebrate God’s coming anew into the world,

for God comes anew every day, in every way,

every time a child is born

and every time we are borne in the arms of love.

Hope can’t wait. Peace can’t wait. Creation can’t wait.

So let us advent. Let us begin.

 

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