I remember always being happy on Christmas morning, even if I didn’t get a pet rat or whatever my #1 wish-list item was that year. It wasn’t about the gifts, per se, but about the sheer joy of tearing into some yet unknown treasure, hoping that whatever was hidden behind that glossy wrapping paper was something truly awesome. Even just last year, at 25, I could still be pleasantly surprised by Christmas. Even though I personally picked out my few gifts, my mom and sister still managed to sneak a few packages of astronaut ice cream – my favorite novelty snack – into my stocking. I was elated.
So, if we can encourage little kids to be good for Santa, especially during the advent season, why don’t we use this time to encourage grown adults, wrapped up in the petty stresses of boring adult life, to Repent? To remind us all that the work is always never quite finished. After all, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Let’s take a second to imagine John the Baptist here today, in the wilderness near New York City, camped out in a place New Yorkers actively avoid – New Jersey, perhaps – preaching to whoever passed by, inviting them to be baptized in the Rahway River. Honestly, we would probably think he was a madman, or at least casually dismiss him as someone cut from the same cloth as the street corner preachers with their portable amplifiers and broad declarations concerning the imminent end of the world.
I’m sure some of the Judeans thought John, this guy clamoring on about some kingdom of heaven nonsense, was crazy, even though the Gospel doesn’t talk about them. What really matters is that crowds and crowds of people, from the city, from the surrounding towns, from the whole country, went out of their way to go see this guy they heard about, to be baptized in the Jordan River. Why? What was John the Baptist offering that drew so many different kinds of people out of their homes and into the wilderness, into a dirty stream, miles away?
He certainly wasn’t preaching some warm and fuzzy feel-good message. He’s talking about the end of the world as we know it. He’s talking about unquenchable fire and judgment and tough stuff. When he delivers the command to repent, he is talking about preparing for the kingdom of heaven, preparing for the end of all things familiar, gearing up for the radical shift to come. Playing the part of the prophet, wearing Elijah’s clothes, echoing Isaiah, he warns the kingdom of the coming kingdom, only this time it seems people are listening.
Paul was listening when he was writing to the Roman early Christian community. In the face of adversity – adversity not too unlike what we are facing now – he encouraged people to have faith, to resist, to own who they are as blessed human beings. He evokes the hope inherent in the incarnate Christ, the promise of a better future for all. He reiterated the promise that the kingdom of heaven is for everyone who genuinely wishes to dwell in it.
Would we listen to John the Baptist here and now? Would we take the train and hike out to see him? It seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through just to get dipped in some water and go on our merry way. But in a world where people go to all sorts of lengths to achieve some sort of spiritual clarity, perhaps the idea is not too far-fetched. He might resonate with us – he might speak to that which we lack in our lives. He might awaken the need for reevaluation, reinterpretation, repentance. This is what we can hope for.
We live in an individualistic society, and we are, for the most part, proud of our independence and individualism, our capacity for discerning opportunity. To have the privilege to be a unique individual is indeed a beautiful thing. But sometimes, perhaps too often, it means that we forget about how interconnected we all are, not just with other human beings but also with the whole earth, the whole universe. And when we forget or ignore this truth, we fail to see the part we play in the larger whole.
We have a particularly American attitude concerning personal change. The concept of the self-made-man is a cultural myth that has yet to die. A term we hear all the time – to pull oneself up by the bootstraps – is actually describing something that is physically impossible. Ideas like these are, on the surface, fairly benign. There’s nothing inherently wrong with encouraging personal growth and success. Except all too often, that condescending bootstrapping concept is the full extent of the encouragement.
More and more I see this opinion expressed: this idea that “Since I have ‘made it,’ why can’t you?” As if one person’s success is exemplary of any other’s. As if all things actually are equal when we know they are not. As if such success will last forever. Why do so many people see other people’s experiences this way? Why do we seem to think that our own comfort and good fortune translates into the failure of others for not achieving the same?
What if instead we said, “I’ve made it, let me help you make it too.” What if we asked what kind of help people who are struggling need instead of deciding for ourselves what they should have? Then maybe we could live in a country, on a planet, where world leaders actually lead, where personal interests come second or possibly third to the active effort to improve the lives of everyone. Where the lamb and the wolf can coexist peacefully, a world in which justice and harmony can reign instead of war and greed.
But even if we have the motivation and desire to work for a greater good, we don’t necessarily have the frameworks. Wanting to work for positive change is all well and good, but how can we push back against something that we are, by virtue of being taxpaying inhabitants of these United States of America, part of and contributing to the system in which we see so much injustice, so many flaws? It comes back to having faith in ourselves, as individuals, who make up this vast, diverse human landscape. Having faith that we can, in each of our own small ways, resist that which threatens to eliminate us. Having faith that together, we can be bigger than ourselves.
John the Baptist is there, every time we open our Bibles, to remind us that we can, as individuals making the choice to seek repentance, effect change in the world. Heeding this reminder, however, means that we have work to do. Repentance is an interesting word. It is essentially a combination of the Greek concept of metanoia, meaning a change of mind, and the Hebrew concept of teshuva, meaning a physical change of direction, a turning around, so to speak.
Taking those two ideas together, merely realizing the problem isn’t enough – you have to do something to change it. We must produce fruit worthy of repentance, must do the duty of taking concrete action. Being a Christian really means constantly repenting, continually reevaluating what truly matters. And it isn’t easy. It usually isn’t even something we want to acknowledge. Always exactly where you don’t want to look, where you never want to look – in the corner of your eye.
In the face of millennia of mistakes and misgivings, of trial and error, of centuries of warnings that oscillate between being ignored and being overzealously avoided, how do we understand this particular warning? If we ignore this – if we ignore the threat of the fire of judgment – if we disobey the most crucial of commands – then we ignore our own potential for a better world. We deny the kingdom of heaven’s presence here and now. We deny that we have anything to do with the outcome of the universe.
We have this scripture, and many others, as the echoes upon echoes of warnings throughout the history of the human struggle. And advent is a reminder that we do have God with us, acting in our world. Emmanuel – God with us – Jesus Christ, came into the world and died and was resurrected and changed everything. By defying death and living into eternity, Jesus signals the truth that the kingdom of heaven is already here. We just have to notice it, prioritize it.
The kingdom of heaven isn’t somewhere far off, somewhere in another realm. The kingdom of heaven is with us, it is always here. The shimmering on the horizon. A mirage of water in the desert, a mirage of dry land in the open sea. Only it is not a mirage – it is there, ever present, ever paradoxically within reach while at the same time evading the brush of our fingertips.
The universe denies responsibility for us, this human race, this small subset of life in the vast expanse, this little planet in its little world within a little solar system governed by a little sun. Just as the sun itself is not responsible for us failing to using its power to our advantage, we are guilty of not using ourselves to our maximum capability to love and do good.