This article appeared as the “Keep the Faith” column in the December 12, 2020 Worcester Telegram & Gazette. Pastor Nathan is one of several interfaith leaders who contribute to the column periodically throughout the year.
One of the more peculiar figures in the scriptures is the locust eating, camel hair wearing, wilderness wandering John the Baptist. For two Sundays in a row every year, on the second and third Sundays in the liturgical season of Advent, Christians who observe the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) experience John the Baptist in the appointed Gospel readings.
The truth is, John the Baptist has always been an awkward guest.
The early Christian community struggled with John the Baptist’s popularity. In some ways he was more widely known and recognized than Jesus of Nazareth. Theologian William Brosend points out there is more historical witness to John than to Jesus. Scriptures acknowledge some of Jesus’ first disciples had been disciples of John. In his missionary journeys Paul encountered those who had been baptized into John’s baptism.
Addressing this reality, all four gospels feature John prominently in ways that define John’s role as one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. In the very first chapter of the Gospel of John (no relation to John the Baptist) religious authorities asked John point blank, “Who are you?” To which John responded: “I am not the Messiah” (John 1:19-20). To clarify his identity the authorities pressed John and asked him a second time, “Who are you? What do you say about yourself?” John replied, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). The gospels make clear that John the Baptist was not the Messiah, he prepared the way for the Messiah who would follow.
Christians today continue to wrestle with the problem John poses. Not John’s message of the coming of Christ which we celebrate, but John’s message of repentance as the way to prepare for the Messiah. John appeared, according to the Gospel of Mark, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance was not optional, nor was it to be taken lightly, for as we read in the Gospel of Luke the crowds who flocked to John were chastised for not taking his message of repentance to heart. “You brood of vipers!” he scolded them, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”
The Greek word we translate into English as repentance can also be understood as “a changed heart and mind.” A Lutheran pastor colleague recently wrote that repentance “means naming our fears, sins, prejudices, complicity, and feelings of helplessness.” He then added this: “To repent is to stop blaming others for the woes of the world and to start taking responsibility for our place in it.”
Hearing John’s call to repentance in this Advent season, what might it look like for us to repent today? What if we understood repentance as the way to stop blaming others and start taking responsibility for our place in our family, our workplace, our community, and our nation? What if we understood repentance as the naming of our fears, prejudices, and feelings of helplessness? What if we repented of our desire to handle everything ourselves, to go at things alone, and refuse the help that is all around us?
Though John’s call to repentance is awkwardly placed on our social calendars in the holiday season after Thanksgiving, it is perfectly placed in the Advent season before our celebration of the birth of Jesus. In repentance we open our hearts and minds to the work of Jesus Christ as our savior. Repentance speaks the truth of our human brokenness and our need for a savior to heal, unite, and guide us. Our need is especially clear in this Covid-19 world in which we find ourselves separated this holiday season from loved ones, traditions, and routines and so much in our lives has been disrupted. Might we repent this year of just how much we’ve taken for granted?
In faith, we receive John’s call to repentance as a gift announcing that peace and hope is not found in our own efforts, but is found in the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. In repentance, with hearts and minds turned towards the coming mercy and grace of God in Christ Jesus, may we echo John’s ultimate witness in the scriptures. As Jesus walked towards him, John declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Indeed may it be so!