Advent 2 A ~"With Water for Repentance" ~ Rev. Richard Eslinger
When did the “Holiday Season” actually begin? It seems like it has never ended, but the promotion of holiday joy that comes from buying some product or other has been a feature of commercials on TV for weeks now. The advent of a new model car is certainly an occasion filled with joy, either for the driver (maybe “dashing through the snow” in that new 4-wheel drive) or the entire family riding along to visit grandma’s house. But most every other ad hops on the “Holiday Cheer” theme to sell beer or whiskey, jewelry or top tier clothing, and even
really good and tough underwear. The common theme is that of consumption, promised to bring happiness and health. We have been in this “No Frowns Zone” for quite a while now, and it will only grow more intense until the “holiday season” dissipates with the Happy New Year.
But for God’s people in Christ, the “Happy Holiday Season” comes to a screeching halt here on the Second Sunday of Advent. For entering stage right and coming downstage center is the Baptist. He is at the Jordan there in the wilderness baptizing people who come from all over. His message is clear and unwavering—“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand;” God’s reign “has come near.”
Dressed like old Elijah, wearing the garb of a desert prophet and eating locusts and wild honey, John comes to the Jordan and demands that the crowds repent. No more Happy Holidays. A crisis is so near that all are being caught up in it.
When God’s reign has come this near, the only human response is repentance. The time is full and the advent of God’s kingdom is upon every person, every community. In this fullness of time, the only response is to repent, literally, “to change one’s mind.” But since it involves the prophetic task of preparing the way of the Lord, the command involves much more that a shift in our mental state. This repenting, the Baptist announces, involves an awareness of our sins and a huge shift in our way of living. And note another important quality about biblical
repentance. It is not a “one time, get beyond it, come out on the other side” sort of matter. Fr. George Corrigan puts it this way:
Repentance is not a door we pass through once that gets us into the kingdom; it is the longoing life of the kingdom people here and now…To repent signifies, then, not only specific changes in structures and ways of living, but a basic receptivity to God’s purposes. 1
Of course, though, there are these needed “specific changes in structures and ways of living.” For example, to remain in addiction to anything is to be enslaved and therefore not able to be “receptive to God’s purposes.” To be sure, the dynamics of addiction usually call for shame and a need to do better, even to repent. But for someone who is an alcoholic or drug user, the feelings of self-judgement and despair lead the addict right back to behavior that covers over the guilt and pain,…until the next time. This cycle does not involve true repentance. It builds shame and self-judgement into the disease, and is even a necessary stage prior to re-intoxication.
So, a seemingly ironic step is in setting aside perpetual shame is necessary for repentance. God is not asking for a life of perpetual remorse. Seeking out a community of recovering persons with an addiction is, for many, the first step to recovery. Repent. Becoming aware of our sins, and “taking up those specific changes in structures and ways of living.” God’s reign has come near, the Baptist cries out, “Repent.” Turn in a one-eighty and begin living in accord with God’s
purposes. The time is at hand.
John the Baptizer adds another dimension to this business of repenting. He proclaims, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” This bearing of good fruit has both an inward as well as an outward expression. Inwardly, our repenting is not restricted to the matter of changing our minds. In that case, we could revert back to our old ways in new circumstances, even justifying them as necessary. For someone who has found it easier to build up fabrications when life presses in, the call to repentance will certainly involve the decision to become a truth-telling person. But when new pressures close in, the mind that has changed may turn back and pile up further justifications for telling lies. Some public figures, as we know, seem to be expert in this “provisional repentance” business until further untruths seem needed. Then it’s back in the old ways until these words and action are also found out to be untrue. Of course, this is not repentance; it is political expediency!
“Produce good fruit,” insists the Baptist. But a new life of bearing good fruit is only possible when a person or a community not only changes their mind, but allows God to change their character. When someone repents and comes near to God’s kingdom, everything is changed. Not only are past misdeeds not repeated, but a truly repentant sinner will also find a new community of character in which to live. Counselors of teenagers caught in early unlawful activities will, with the healing of the therapeutic journey, self-select out of communities that support the thinking that led to such behaviors. Likewise, as healing continues, the teen will find new communities of friends whose character does not provide a mental world of excuses for bad behavior. The new community is usually made up of different people, some of whom may on a similar journey to new ways of living. And the same manner of taking up new ways of living occurs with people of all ages. In fact, we might find that this task of repenting, of producing good fruit, is largely possible when a person has both a changed mind and a changed community. Of course, this is one of the central vocations of our life together as this community-in-Christ. We welcome sinners, we are welcomed, we encounter forgiveness in Word and Sacrament, and we turn and welcome others into Christ’s community of truth telling and righteous living. Bearing good fruit actually becomes a joy within the church. We are all forgiven sinners and build up each other in holy living by the power of the Holy Spirit. We journey along with other baptized, finding our minds changed and our ommunity becoming holy.
Of course, all of this repentance, this fruit-bearing, is grounded in our baptism in Christ. Our perspective on this Second Sunday of Advent does involve coming to the Jordan and hearing the Baptist’s message of repentance. But for most of us, we come to the Jordan this Advent Sunday as those already having made our repentance and having received the gifts of the Spirit in our Triune baptism. We have rejected sin “so as to live in the freedom of God’s children.” We have rejected “the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by it.” We have rejected Satan.
And we have professed our faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We come this day to the Jordan still dripping with the waters of our baptism, and with the seal of the Spirit still glistening on our brows. We come garbed in white robes, both to renewal our baptismal promises and to bear witness to others as to what God is doing to transform us into a holy people, who bear good fruit, and who hold to the apostolic hope of everlasting life. Fr. Corrigan again provides a crucial insight for us as we come to Jordan’s waters this day:
It is the subtle difference between our turning to God without recognizing that in Jesus God has turned to us. In repenting, we ask the God, who has turned toward us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. In other words, to repent is to volunteer and ask that the “death of self” which God began to work in baptism continue to this day. 2
God turns to us and in our baptism invites us to repent and die to sin and receive new life, to become one body in Christ, and to bear good fruit of the kingdom.
Each day provides the opportunity for us to renew our baptismal vows. But on this
Advent Sunday, it is truly right and just for us to turn to our God who has buried us in our baptism and who raises us up to new life.
And may almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has given us new birth by water and the Holy Spirit and bestowed on us forgiveness of our sins, keep us by his grace, in Christ Jesus our Lord, for eternal life. 3
1 George Corrigan, “, “The Kingdom is at Hand: Repent,” Friarmusings: the musings of a Franciscan friar…, Nov. 30, 2016, accessed Nov. 22, 2022, https://friarmusings.com/2016/11/30/the-kingdom-at-hand-repent/.
3 “Instructions for the rites of Christian Initiation Apart from the Easter Vigil,”