Repent, Prepare, Transform

Text: Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

Last Sunday our scripture was talking about the end of the world and this week we have John the Baptist running around like a wild man yelling at us to repent. It’s like negative nelly has taken over Advent. Repent?! I mean that’s such a loaded term. It just doesn’t sit right, does it? Who want to be beating ourselves up all the time. It’s like the Monty Python monks hitting themselves with their bibles. It’s just so depressing. So let’s find another word. How about “prepare”? Yeah that sounds better, right? It’s even the name of today’s blessing from Jan Richardson, our blessing in the darkness.


Strange how one word will so hollow you out.

But this word has been in the wilderness for months.


This word is what remained after everything else was worn away by sand and stone.

It is what withstood the glaring sun by day, the weeping loneliness of the moon at night.

Now it comes to you racing out of the wild, eyes blazing and waving its arms,

Its voice ragged with desert but piercing and loud as it speaks itself again and again:

Prepare, Prepare

It may feel like the word is leveling you, emptying you as it asks you

To give up what you have known.

It is impolite and hardly tame, but when it falls upon your lips

You will wonder at the sweetness, like honey

That finds its way into the hunger you had not known was there.

John the Baptist does not tend to be one of my favorite biblical characters. I am not really the camel hair wearing type and though I know of at least one fellow clergy who was planning to find chocolate covered grasshoppers to eat during her Children’s Message today, I am sorry to say your pastor will not be going that far in terms of bringing the bible to life. I like honey in my tea but locusts are not my preferred protein source.

Yet I do believe that John has some very valuable lessons to teach us. And as much I might like to tame his message by simply saying “prepare”, as today’s blessing points out, John’s version of “prepare” really isn’t all that tame either. This is because true preparation will actually circle us back around to “repent”. John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Most people hear the repent and think confession. They think guilt and beating ourselves up. They think personal failings and moral judgment. But the word repent literally means to turn yourself around. To change course. John, and later Jesus, are calling on people to turn themselves away from a course of destruction, a course of death. A course of hypocrisy. A course where people look away as others suffer. A course that leads away from the overwhelming love of God and results in us not loving our neighbors as ourselves.

To repent is to reorient ourselves towards God, to move us into the direction of all we could be as humans made in God’s image. To repent is to actually follow the example of Jesus. John Burgess wrote, “Repentance is not primarily about our standards of moral worthiness, but rather about God’s desire to realign us to accord with Christ’s life. Repentance is not so much about our guilty feelings as about God’s power to transform us into Christ’s image.”

Transformation is not possible without repentance. Because change is not possible unless you admit that there’s something that needs changing. John is doing his thing baptizing people when all of the sudden he notices who has shown up to get in on the party. You have to imagine for a minute that John has created for himself a cult following that is generating some interest in the neighborhood. In modern terms John’s activities by the river have gone viral. The Pharisees and Sadducees, who were normally quite antagonistic groups who did not get along, have shown up and want to jump on the viral bandwagon. Only John doesn’t think they were all that sincere. They just wanted to show up and be seen as being cool for getting baptized by John. They didn’t actually want to do the repenting and turn their lives around.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” The thing you have to remember is that we are always, always bearing fruit of one kind of another. We live our lives and by the way we live, by how we treat others, by the things we do, by the ways in which we live out our beliefs, we are planting seeds and those seeds will bear fruit. The question is will the fruit be worthy of repentance, be holy and whole and overflowing with love and life, or will it be rotten fruit, dying and wasting away, unable to feed anyone, shot through with holes and taken advantage of by parasites?

So how do we work towards bearing fruit worthy of repentance? It begins with understanding what direction you are presently going in. If repentance is turning around, turning away from the things that destroy or harm and towards the things that are of God, that give life, that help others then you must know which way your life is currently moving, in large and small ways. And what ways are we moving as a community, as a society? How are you realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and given that how are you changing course?

What do you think is God’s dream for you? For us? In today’s passage from Isaiah God spells out a vision where from what was thought to be a lifeless stump, new life emerges. And that new life allows for unlikely and impossible pairings – lions and lambs, prey and predator, at peace enough to become a duo. So what is dead in your life? Where is your lifeless stump? What new life do you imagine might emerge from it? What are your personal lions and lambs that must find a way to live together? What are our lions and lambs as a community? Who are the people you could never imagine getting together with? What are the forces in your heart that vie for attention so much they destroy one another? Is your inner critic always devouring your dreams? Does your anxiety and fear stalk your happiness? Is your anger preventing you from finding peace or is it helpful in spurring you in to action? Does despair suffocate your possibilities? Have you already given up without even knowing it? Maybe you’re not going down the wrong path, but you simply sat down on the side of the road too tired or timid or hurt to go on. What do you need to repent? How can you prepare and hollow out the baggage so that you can turn back towards God?

One sermon idea I read suggested that I speak to you about choosing one element of your life that you would like to prepare, or repent. Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce more abundant life for you or those around you? That same article also suggested that I urge you to choose one element of communal life that needs repentance. Can you identify one communal issue and begin praying for it daily, open to how God might direct your time and actions to contributing to change?

The author of this article wrote that he hoped that, “The Sundays in Advent become a microcosm of all of our Sundays – and, indeed, all of our days – opportunities to discern God’s call, see where we have left the path, and turn toward God’s vision for us and our communities once again.” But the risk here is that repent just ends up sounding like a glorified early New Year’s resolution. Turn around and do better, until you forget and go back the way you came. How can we get away from this?

We must understand repentance as a process, not a one time thing. Repentance isn’t just about right action, or the failure of right action. It is about transformation, being brutally honest with ourselves and with others and with God, knowing what must change and then slowly correcting our course, in sailing terms tacking little by little so that we are turning towards God until we get to where we are bearing good and useful fruit. John talks about separating the wheat from the chaff but in reality we are always both wheat and chaff together. Our chaff must constantly be separated so that it won’t stop our growth. And sometimes we need a good fire, not to destroy us, but to clear out the undergrowth, the dead wood, and the things that stop us from truly turning towards God and living as Christ would. Such clearing out can help up find clarity.

Don’t try to tame repentance. It is a radical act. Don’t try to tame John the Baptist. He was a wild man who called, and calls us, to wild things. Jesus followers cannot just go with the crowd, they must live their own truth. And it makes a difference.

Bruce Epperly wrote, “John’s radical vision, preparing the way for Jesus, challenges us to prepare the way for Jesus’ mission in our time. Our preparation is a matter of deeds as well as words. Walking in the way of Jesus involves a commitment to constant transformation and renewal, to changing our ways in response to God’s wondrous gifts of grace. Like John, we are challenged to announce the coming of a world not yet born, critique our own and our community’s hypocrisy, and recognize that Christ’s presence demands a radical reorientation of values so that we might recognize the realm of God already emerging in our midst.”

Prepare, Prepare!

It may feel like the word is leveling you, emptying you as it asks you

To give up what you have known.

It is impolite and hardly tame, but when it falls upon your lips

You will wonder at the sweetness, like honey

That finds its way into the hunger you had not known was there.

Repent, prepare, be emptied, be hungry, be changed. That is what John calls us to. That is what God calls us to. This is what the communion table is all about! Repent, prepare, be emptied, be hungry, be changed. These are the ways we find blessing in the darkness. These are the ways we bless others as we go out from this place. This is how we get ready for the Christ Child. These are the ways we continue to add to the light of the world in this Advent.


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