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THE JOY OF REPENTANCE
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT – YEAR C
December 13, 2015 Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Zephaniah 3:14-18 Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:10-18
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Occasionally, I go to the movies. Prior to the featured film, the theaters typically show a series of trailers with excerpts from upcoming movies in the near future. The idea is to give you a preview of what’s next in the film world. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist gives us a preview of the message that will come from Jesus in the future. The Gospel doesn’t give us the exact time line, but we can infer that it will be soon, and indeed, within few paragraphs, we can read in Luke about the Baptism of Jesus, the fasting of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days, and the commencement of His ministry. Today’s Gospel invites us to ask ourselves, based on the message of John the Baptist, do we really want to encounter Jesus? After having seen the trailer, do we want to see the movie?
People were, understandably, curious about who John the Baptist was. Although he had no position of power or influence, he had a strong sense of his own identity as the forerunner to Jesus. But he makes very clear that he is not Jesus, that he is not the Messiah, despite the expectation of his audience. If his audience was more than a bit skeptical of exactly who he was, it is not hard to figure out why. We’ve all encountered unusual people who make us feel uncomfortable, either in their appearance, or their message, or sometimes both. In John the Baptist, we meet someone who wears camel skin for clothes and dines on locusts and wild honey with a message that surely made his audience uncomfortable. Why? He was asking people to change.Many people fear change. They think it’s going to put them in a worse place than they are now. In the Church world, the phrase, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” has the currency of scripture. I will admit that as much as I push the envelope on many things, even I find a certain comfort in tradition. But the job of John the Baptist was to challenge people to prepare them for the coming of Jesus, who would fill in the details of the headlines John was announcing.
The message of John the Baptist is clear and can be summed up in one word: Repent. In common language, it means saying, “I’m sorry” as words of regret for one’s actions if one does something wrong, but that’s not how it’s used in the New Testament. “Repent” is a translation of the Greek word, metanoia, meaning a change in direction for one’s life, changing one’s mind, coming to a new way of thinking. It means a turning towards God. Repentance is total: it involves you as a whole person, not just your mind, will, or action. Repentance is conversion. The Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria characterized repentance as harmonizing thoughts with words, and actions with intentions. As used in the context of the message of John the Baptist, repentance means a radical change in one’s personal conduct. Repentance is a turning away from a life of rebellion, inertia or perversity, replaced by a turning to God in Christ with faith. Repentance is not a single act, but an ongoing responsiveness to the will of God, permeating every aspect of our lives, making possible for us to fully receive God’s grace, which will help us with concrete steps of actual change to our thoughts, acts and feelings. Repentance isn’t just so we can do better in our lives in the here and now, but it allows us to grow closer to God for eternity. Changing one’s life acknowledges that God has given each of our lives a specific purpose. When we find out what that is and do it, we experience a moment of joy.
The Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel look to the day when God will place a new heart within humanity, and the prophet Isaiah promises forgiveness to those who repent. Although he doesn’t think of himself that way, John the Baptist is the last of the prophets in the Old Testament tradition. While Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Isaiah prophesized the coming of Jesus in often indirect, oblique and subtle ways by implication, John the Baptist points directly towards Jesus and invites the people to whom he spoke in today’s Gospel to change the way they do business with others to get ready for Jesus. He gave his audience concrete suggestions about how to repent, how to turn their lives towards another direction.
He tells those with two cloaks to give one to someone who doesn’t have even one. I wonder what he would say to those of us today who have so many clothes that they don’t all fit in one’s closet. Would he tell those people to give some of them to Angel View or Goodwill? I think he would. What John the Baptist was saying is that if you have more than you need, share it with others, particularly the least among us. Jesus would later address the spiritual dimensions of poverty throughout His ministry. So seriously did Jesus take human economic distress that He proclaimed the poor blessed and promised that they should be filled with good things.
John the Baptist told the tax collectors to collect no more than they should. Let me tell you a bit about tax collectors in ancient times. We’re not talking about something like the Internal Revenue Service who has to answer to the Congress and the Courts. No, tax collectors were private people engaged by the government to produce revenue. The chief tax collectors had a quota to meet, and they made their living on the profit they collected over their quota. And then the chief tax collectors had employees who earned a commission on what they collected. Those were the people John the Baptist was addressing when he said, “collect no more than what is prescribed for you.” And soldiers? They were likely to be part of King Herod’s army, who ruled the Jews as a puppet king of the Roman Empire who often weren’t paid very well. So they often abused their position and their weapons to rob people. John the Baptist was telling them if they want to be a soldier, they must accept a soldier’s wages and not use their armaments to be common thugs. As to the both tax collectors and soldiers, John the Baptist was addressing the cardinal sins of greed and envy. Jesus had plenty to say about that as well, proclaiming that one cannot serve God and money. John the Baptist challenges us to ask ourselves, “who needs the so-called American dream of chasing after dollars to pay for a luxurious lifestyle?” Perhaps we ought to live modestly and concentrate our efforts on our relationship with God.
John the Baptist spoke in simple but clear language. He would be a good broadcast journalist. He knew how to get the essence of the story across in thirty seconds. But he was more than just a moral reformer. John the Baptist announced a time of great liberation, just like the liberation of the Jews upon their return to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity that I described last week. In today’s First reading, the prophet Zephaniah tells us that even when things aren’t going well, don’t get discouraged, better days are ahead when God will eventually rejoice in you. Scholars believe that this passage was added after the Jews returned from Babylon and reflected their celebratory mood. Their Liberation was an occasion for joy and celebration. They were filled with alegría, the Spanish and Italian word for joy or happiness. I rather like that word. It is related to the musical term allegro, an Italian word, which means to play or sing at a fast tempo. In general, fast music is joyful because it conveys a sense of energy. The reading from Zephaniah is a song by a group that has passed through tough times. In the midst of those difficulties, they experienced the presence of God so vividly that they sang joyfully as one sings at festivals. I would like to think they were singing at an up-tempo in a major key. That would tell me they were happy, even if I didn’t understand the words they were singing.
The joy of which I speak, is not something we crank up within ourselves or make happen. The joy we feel during Advent springs spontaneously with liberation from our personal grief, our sin, our sense of exile, and our sense of excess baggage. This kind of joy, this kind of alegría, comes spontaneously from inside ourselves. It comes from the fire of love of the Holy Spirit which will burn all those negative things away so we can feel the joy of Christmas as we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus.
Our Second reading tells us, “the Lord is near.” Jesus is coming, nearer and nearer. Christmas is now but twelve days away. As Christmas comes nearer and nearer, we become more and more excited. The Advent candlestick captures the sense of this so very well. We light one more candle, week by week, as the readings during Advent convey and sense of hope and better times to come. As we listen to the Gospel reading which talks about Jesus coming with a winnowing fan to throw bad people into unquenchable fire, we should not look for the coming of a judgmental Jesus who will send us to Hell if we are bad, but rather we look to the future in the context of joyful hope and expectation that Jesus is coming to make things right, to herald the dawn of a new day, to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus is coming to bring justice to those who live under unjust regimes, to replace hard-hearted objectivity with compassion, and to give peace to replace hostility. Injustice, lack of compassion and interpersonal hostility is the chaff that will go into the unquenchable fire. John’s baptism with water was a mere ritual, but the baptism of Jesus will be with the fire of the Holy Spirit. We rejoice today because the Holy Spirit will make a definitive difference in the world.
We make that definitive difference in our lives by repentance, by the turning of hearts and minds to God, which cannot do anything other than to bring us joy, to bring us Alegría. Turning towards God brings you Alegría, and it is Alegría that gives us a reason to repent, a reason to change our lives. AMEN.