THE MESSAGE OF JOHN: REPENT!
Bar 5:1-9; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6
Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is not only about preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. During this period, we live between the first coming of Jesus when he was born at Bethlehem and his Second Coming at the end of time when he will come as Judge of all. This reality comes across to us through the reading of today, especially through person and the preaching of John the Baptist as found in today’s gospel text.
- WHO IS JOHN THE BAPTIST?
The extract from Luke’s Gospel which has been chosen for today contains the beginning of the account of the life of Jesus. Remarkable is this narrative is the appearance of John the Baptist. In this short passage, St. Luke locates John in both secular/human history and salvation history. Regarding John’s place in human history, the evangelist is very precise about the secular dates and gives all the important persons, major and minor, as reference points in order to make sure that there is no confusion as to who we are talking about. The preoccupation with dates and times and places is important: “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… and: John went through the whole Jordan district” (Lk 3:102). By these facts, St. Luke makes it clear that we are talking about actual events that happened in historical time and in a particular place. Luke locates John in salvation history by presenting him as the final prophet of the Old Testament, the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah. John is “the voice crying in the wilderness”. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us nothing about John’s dietary habits, locusts and wild honey, or how he dressed, in camel skin. Luke solely focuses on John’s preaching of repentance.
- THE MESSAGE OF JOHN
John the Baptist’s task is to announce the impending arrival of Jesus. His message was: “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”; “Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!”; “Make his path straight”. “Clear the road for him” is the core of his message. Although we are in our preparation for Christmas and Christ’s first coming, we are directed also to his second coming as judge and Saviour, and to the end of time.
Repentance is at the center of John’s message. In Matthew’s gospel, John announces: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near” (Mtt 3:2). Today, in Luke, we are told that John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. In other words, John baptized people who declared that they had repented (or were repenting) of their sins. We could say John’s message was this: “if you want to go in the right direction, you have to first stop traveling in the wrong direction”.
In many developed societies, people use a device called GPS to help them navigate their way to wherever they are driving or walking to. (GPS: GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM a space-based navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather conditions anywhere.) If you have one of those GPS devices in your car, when you make a wrong turn the voice on the GPS tells you “to turn around”. Repentance calls us to do the same thing. The repentant person sees that he/she was heading in the wrong direction and decides to take corrective action! The truly repentant person wants to be saved from his/her sins, not only from the penalty of the sins. In other words, he/she wants to head in a new direction. Advent is a time for us to retrace our direction through life. You cannot head in the right direction until you stop going in the wrong direction. You cannot begin to live for the Lord unless you stop living for yourself. That is the meaning of repentance.
- WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO REPENT?
Too often what people want is a Jesus who will obliterate/delete their guilt but not ask them to truly change. They want a Jesus who will forgive their sin but not alter their living. That is a perverted gospel! That is a superficial faith. God abhors this type of faith! Many Christians can be sorry without repenting. It is common for people to feel sorry for the wrong reasons: because others are upset by their act; they were caught in the act; they have hurt people; they have miscalculated; they were not really paying sufficient attention, etc. There is one thing in common in each of those statements: There is no recognition of guilt and therefore no requirement to change.
Reading further, beyond the text of today’s gospel, St. Luke tells us how radical is the repentance that John is preaching. “The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” Even (corrupt) tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, “Teacher, what should we do?” He replied, “Collect no more taxes than the government requires.” “What should we do?” asked some soldiers. John replied, “Don’t extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay” (Luke 3:10-14). True repentance makes a practical difference!
If one is truly repentant about driving too fast, he/she would start driving slower! If one is repentant for slandering another person, one would stop attacking that person with his/her words! If I was truly repentant for stealing money, I would stop stealing and begin paying back what was stolen. True repentance involves a change in direction! Take the example of Zacchaeus the tax collector, accused of stealing from the poor: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back fourfold.’” (Lk 19:8)
Today, we are also being called to repentance. Before we can find forgiveness in Christ, we must first understand that we need a Saviour. We must see that we are have sinned against God, who is all-goodness. We must see that our sins are destroying our lives. Therefore, we must truly want to change.
- REPENTANCE IS LIFE-LONG
Repentance is not something that people do once and for all. In fact, it is a life-long project. We must be repenting every day of our lives on earth. Every day, we must be saying “NO” to sin, that is all too pervasive in our world, and “YES” to God and his kingdom. We do not need to always put it into words. But it must be manifest in the way we live our lives. Our lives should reflect a permanent attitude, a way of life, rather than a mere verbal statement or a wish to be a better person.
A repentant person must guard against falling, by always doing a personal inventory of his/her life. Ask yourself: What practices of mine are inconsistent with the gospel of Christ? What things dishonour his name? We need to be honest with ourselves here! We need to look at our vocabulary, our thought life, our passions, our priorities. We need to look at the way we are at church and compare it to the way we are with our friends, away from church. Is there any inconsistency there? We can therefore say that a repentant person is a NEW CREATION. St. Paul puts it succinctly: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17) This is the kind of person who will be part in the Kingdom of Christ that John proclaimed.
In today’s first reading from the prophet Baruch (Bar 5:1-9), we hear a description of the Jewish people returning to Jerusalem after the terrible pain of their exile in Babylon, a foreign country. There is great joy in that reading because the Jewish people can once again return home after their sufferings abroad. That joy is captured in the words of the Psalm, “What great deeds the Lord has worked for us! Indeed, we were glad.” Their return again to their homeland, to Zion, to Jerusalem, was so good for them to the extent that it seemed almost like a dream. Their return is a total change over from pain and suffering to joy and gladness. So also is the feeling of a repentant person.
On this second Sunday of Advent, we are called to come away from our sinful past (our house of exile), through repentance, and take possession of our real homeland in Christ. In this way we will heed the call of John the Baptist: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” As repentant persons, we come to God as people who are sick and in need of healing. St. Paul, in the second reading of today (Phil 1:4-11) makes the following prayer for our good and on our behalf: “And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:9-11). Again, using the words of St. Paul in that same second reading of today, this is prayer: that God “who began a good work in us will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil 1:6) Amen.