Scriptures for this Sunday are Here
Near Tucson, you can see an ecological experiment called BioSphere 2. BioSphere 1 is the Earth. BioSphere 2 is a self-contained dome that was built to create an eco-system and research how to make it sustainable. Back in the ’90s some researchers lived in the BioSphere for extended periods of time and worked on agriculture, living only on what they produced. Some of the experiment was successful, but the researchers were very puzzled about why the trees wouldn’t grow right. They had the sunlight and water and nutrients they needed, but they couldn’t stand up straight – they just flopped over on the ground.
The researchers finally figured out what was missing: wind. Apparently, as trees grow, the wind blows and causes them to bend, creating tiny little cracks in the trunks and branches. As the tree grows, it forms scar tissue, healing the cracks, and the scar tissue is what makes the tree grow strong and straight. The wind damage makes the tree stronger than it was before. For trees, their weaknesses become their strengths. Recognizing their imperfections and healing them is what makes them strong and healthy.
Perhaps this is what happened to Nelson Mandela. In his youth, he was a commander of guerilla forces seeking to overthrow the South African apartheid system by force, but then he spent 27 years at hard labor in prison. Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote after Mandela died this week, “The truth is that the 27 years [he] spent in the belly of the apartheid beast deepened his compassion and capacity to empathize with others. On top of the lessons about leadership and culture to which he was exposed growing up, and his developing a voice for young people in anti-apartheid politics, prison seemed to add an understanding of the human condition.”
When he emerged from prison, his perspective had changed. He believed that the way to end apartheid was to negotiate, to work in partnership with the people who had held him captive and oppressed his race. He negotiated with President F.W. de Klerk to end apartheid together; he invited his former prison guard to be a VIP guest at his inauguration as the first president of a free South Africa; he invited the prosecutor at his trial, who had asked for the death penalty, to lunch at the presidential palace.
And instead of civil war bloodbath that most assumed would be the only way to end apartheid, he helped guide country to a much more peaceful transition. He had learned a message through his hard years: he said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” This was the lesson that his years of suffering had taught him.
In our gospel today, we have images of suffering and judgment: John the Baptist cries out that even now the axe is lying at the foot of the tree, he promises that one is coming who will separate wheat from chaff, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. These images sound harsh while we’re busy preparing for the baby Jesus: shouldn’t we be doing what new parents do, preparing to love a new sweet baby, picking out swaddling clothes, painting the manger? Surely preparing for an axe and a winnowing fork and fire isn’t in the Christmas spirit – surely such a message could never be popular.
And yet – what was it that brought all those crowds out to hear John preach, to repent and be baptized? What is the attraction of this angry man with the odd wardrobe and the unbalanced diet, preaching fire and brimstone and the wrath of God?
First, understand that when John shouts “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – he is talking to Pharisees and Sadducees. Pharisees were careful and rigid observers of the law, good people who had a tendency to judge harshly anyone who didn’t meet their religious standards. Sadducees were the sect of priests and leaders of the Jerusalem Temple – collaborators with the Romans and with the corrupt leadership of King Herod. These are people who aren’t really concerned w God at all; they just want to make themselves as comfortable as possible, whether others are suffering or not. For a brief moment, these groups come together as allies, opposing John.
John says both of these groups are missing the point of God’s promise, and will be answerable to God – he says that what we do on this earth matters. And whether we sin on the side of never thinking about God at all, other than engaging in elaborate religious rituals, but not bothering to act ethically or lovingly toward others (Sadducees), or whether we sin on the side of being positive that we are doing everything right and that our behavior is perfect in God’s sight (Pharisees) – we will stand before God and answer for it.
But note: there is a third group of people in this story – the people in the middle. Matthew tells us that people are coming from Jerusalem and all over Judea to hear John preach, and that they’re confessing their sins and being baptized. Matthew doesn’t tell us that John screams about God’s wrath to these ordinary folks – he tells us that John preaches a very simple sermon to them: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Now you and I may hear this simple sermon and find it negative and frightening. There are lots of Christians who like to judge others, call them to repent, threaten them with fires of hell – we shouldn’t judge the Pharisees of Jesus’ time when there are plenty of Pharisees in the Christian world today. We hear these words, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, and we hear them as this kind of judgment.
But the people who hear this sermon are not the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are ordinary people who live very difficult lives in the middle of an oppressive empire that cares nothing for their troubles. These crowds who are confessing their sins are hearing something very different from hellfire and damnation when they hear John cry, Repent! In a time of turbulence, instability, oppression, poverty, they live in a world where people are routinely strung up on crosses and made examples of. It’s a world ruled by violence, power and fear, with no hope for any improvement.
These ordinary people are waiting for God to act, hoping for God’s justice, longing for a new and better world to come. To a people with little hope, a people who live in longing for salvation, John brings a glimmer of light: a hope that God is about to act, that something new is around the corner: a hope for salvation and new birth and new life. They believe that God is about to do a new thing: they want to be part of whatever mighty action God is about to take to bring about a new kingdom, and so they prepare themselves to join God in God’s kingdom by repenting. Allowing themselves to break just a little, like a tree bending in wind, so that God can build them back stronger.
The word John uses that is translated as repentance is a Greek word, Metanoia. This word doesn’t mean what we think of when we hear “repent” – we hear it as meaning to feel guilty and shameful. This word comes from the Greek words for “understand from above” – it means get a new vision, a new mind. A metanoia is a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook that changes everything about how we see ourselves and the world.
Metanoia changes the heart of a man in prison for 27 years and reorients him toward a new world of peace; metanoia changes our hearts too, because it opens our eyes to see the world with God’s eyes, as we repent, prepare for Jesus’ coming. Repentance for us means consciously looking at ourselves and how we have been living our lives, and letting God give us new eyes, new hearts. It means taking the Spirit Christ has given us at baptism and pouring that Spirit into joining God in God’s project of reorienting world from hate to love, and giving ourselves to that project, in words and in actions. It means praying and working for the day when that kingdom will come as Isaiah describes in the Old Testament lesson today: the time when we wll see the Messiah ruling with righteousness and equity, the wolf lying down with the lamb.
Every Advent, while the world around us dissolves into the overwhelming stress of a holiday season that seems to bring more and more obligations each year, we come to church and hear instead this Advent vision of a new world, anchored in the peace that passes understanding, ruled by Christ, the Messiah. And every Advent, we undergo metanoia – we ask God to help us change. Like a tree bending in the wind, metanoia, repentance, means opening our weak spots to God and letting God heal them, making us stronger, letting us become part of kingdom work God is doing here and now.
In Advent, we give up on the things that are keeping us separated from God – our self-righteousness, like Pharisees, or our indifference to God or to anything but our own wealth, comfort, success, like the Sadducees. We give up on our belief that a world of violence and power, where people live with poverty and oppression, is the only way the world can work. And begin truly to live in, pray for, a new world, God’s kingdom. We repent and we prepare for Jesus to come into our hearts once more. Loving God and loving our neighbors, entering into a new kingdom of peace.