Third Sunday of Advent, Year C

Let’s try that once more…

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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.

Whoa! I get goosebumps just thinking about that!

When you picture in your mind what John the Baptist must have looked like, or what he was like in person, is this the image that you have of the man? I would have pictured him as at least a little kinder, gentler… I mean, this is the man Jesus said was the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. 

(But c’mon… harsh John, real harsh!)

But this is the Baptist, the one whose coming was to prepare the way of the Lord, who preached the message, “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

But there’s one particular phrase from our reading about John the Baptist that I want to focus on here. It’s the last sentence from our reading: 

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The Good News. In Greek that’s the word euangelion, and it’s the word that is translated as “Gospel.” Which has me back once again to reflecting on the meaning of the word Gospel. It’s a word that we banter around in a few different meanings. While it began as a simple, normal word in Greek speaking areas, and it could have meant anything that was considered to be good news, or good tidings. 

Then, when the Christians picked it up, it began to take on special, particular meanings. First, it’s part of the titles that we give to the four books that give an account for the life of Jesus: The Gospel according to Luke, for instance. But it has more meaning than just that, as people have wanted to distill its meaning to a main point, that there is this thing that we call the Good News of God in Christ, the Gospel. 

Growing up in an evangelical setting, it had a very definite meaning: That by believing in Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven and you go to heaven when you die and not to hell. 

But I have for the longest time thought that there needed to be more to it than that–let alone the questions that come from the latter portion about eternal judgment and fire and brimstone. 

Look at the way our reading handles it. John’s message was one of repentance, and yes, that there would be one to follow him whose message was superior to his, one whom he was not worthy to untie the sandals from off his feet. But I sincerely doubt that John knew all the particulars about the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus was to undergo that this usage of Gospel from our reading this morning.

Logically, that can’t be what’s going on here, labeling John’s message as “the Gospel” and to have anything like that meaning. 

So taking it in a broader sense, what might be meant by this Good News that John preached to the people as he baptized them in the Jordan River?

Might it be, that the Good News is that God loves you, and cares about you, and would do the unimaginable in order to come to our aid? To help us and to lather us with grace and mercy, acceptance and approval? 

That it’s not just in the resurrection, but even in the message that Jesus brought, and that John brought, and all the prophets brought? Of pointing us to the magnificence of God and the love of God for us, and of all the ways that God has come to humanity? To seek out a relationship with us, first seen in the covenant made with Abraham and reaffirmed through Moses, in the calling of the prophets to try to draw the hearts of the people back to God? In the coming of the Son of God to be with us and to show us the way? In the sending of the Holy Spirit, to strengthen and to comfort us even today as we strive to be holy and faithful to the life to which we have been called as followers of Jesus? And finally as we await the day that God will make all things right, and make a full restoration of things, healing this world from the sin and pain and darkness that infect our souls?

THAT, to me, is truly Good News!

That is a message that inspires me. That God loves me, just as I am, with no hesitation because of my shortcomings or the things in my past, or even of those I still struggle against today. And that no matter now dark the night may be, there is always a light out there, reminding me that God has not abandoned me or left me to struggle on my own. 

That is Good News, not only for the life of the world to come, but for this life, today. 

That also makes a turn of this thing we call repentance. That our turning from evil and darkness in our world is not so that we might go to heaven when we die, but because we seek to align our values with God’s values, because there is joy and satisfaction in and of itself to do so.

 Because the way of Jesus, the way that Jesus showed us how in his life and teaching, is the best possible way to live. 

That’s the message that I want to explore with you this morning: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

What does it mean to repent anyway? It’s a nebulous (strange) word, and a little slippery to try and define. We’re going to try it anyway! And to do so, we’re going to talk languages.

First point: You and I are English speakers and readers, translating a Greek account of a man who spoke Aramaic to people whose Scriptures were written in Hebrew. It makes sense, then, to look at what the Hebrew has to teach us.

There are two words in Hebrew to learn from. The first is schuv–literally to “turn away from.” For example, when the people of Israel made the golden calf, Moses pleads to God, “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” In turning from, there is the sense of choosing to go a different way, to choose a different path, and of not continuing to do what you had been doing or intending to do. 

Then there is another word, nacham, which adds the sense of regret into the conversation. Consider poor Job, who after seeing the power and magnificence of God, declared “therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” for speaking of God in ways that did not honor the glory of the Lord. In nacham, there is more than simply turning away, but there is also the emotion of grief and sadness. We’ve now entered into the realm of the emotions, of the heart. It is now lo longer enough simply to stop, but there is an internal process of the feelings involved, and a sense of contrition involved at the acknowledgement of doing wrong.

The Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures uses two words to translate these terms. The word used to translate schuv is typically strepho–to turn from. Seems fairly one-to-one here, schuv is to turn from, strepho is to turn from, or even to return, such as to return to the Lord after doing wrong.

Nacham, then, is usually translated with metanoeo–literally to change one’s mind. On the surface that seems a little bland. Change one’s mind. Repentance then becomes a little… heady. Cerebral. It’s all up here. But that’s not the meaning of the word nacham, which is an emotional process. Metanoeo by itself doesn’t carry that feeling, but the words that it translates from Hebrew to Greek do.

Why is this all important? Because John says… “Metano-ei-tay.” 

And we might think the repentance John is calling for is good enough if we think differently, if we think differently. To change our mind. But if we use the lesson we learn from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, we find that the call to repentance is much more than that. It is inner transformation. To feel the wrongness of what was done, and to commit to doing what is right instead. That we may become those trees that bear good fruit, whose lives bear out the goodness within one’s heart. 

I’ve heard it said that most priests have one major theme that comes out in their preaching. That in time, the more you craft and deliver sermons, the more there seems to be one major theme that makes its way into the majority of sermons you preach. And I’d actually be more than a little curious to know what it is that you’ve seen and heard from me, but here’s what I’ve found–I talk a lot about “loving your neighbor as yourself”, about how we treat the people around us. 

And if I were a betting man–which I’m not, because that would be sinful (wink wink)–but if I were, I would guess it’s because I came from a tradition within Christianity that didn’t know what to do about the importance of being a good person in this life. It was a tradition that emphasized the idea that we cannot earn God’s love or favor, that God loves us simply because God is loving and gracious, and became  suspicious of good deeds as though you were trying to earn God’s love and affection, and therefore would nullify the concept of grace. 

And for me, at this stage in life for me, perhaps I’m trying to make up for lost time, seeing the command to love one’s neighbor painted all throughout the Scriptures that we read together each week. Even here, when reading or hearing John say to those who came to him that the wheat will be gathered up together, and that the trees that bear good fruit will be spared from the ax, I hear in there echos back to the command to “Love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.” And as we come together to worship God, that we would be encouraged to go out and be loving and kind to our fellow humanity around us. 

So repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. 

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