Repentance and Holy Disruption
A sermon on Matthew 3:1-12
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Brandon Hoogenboom on Unsplash.]
I have never been especially drawn to the character of John the Baptist.
Perhaps it was the shock of learning what “locusts” were, when I was a little girl, and retching a little at the idea of someone crunching on bugs as a major source of their nutrition.
Or maybe it is the imagery of a man out in the desert dressed in hides, and the leap my mind just automatically takes to what he must have smelled like.
Or maybe it’s just the general impression of an edge of mania just under the surface of his in-your-face challenge to authority figures. It all feels dangerously uncontrolled to me.
And that would probably be enough to explain why the stories of John aren’t the first ones to call to me.
I’m self-aware enough to know that I am a fairly conventional person, and the raving wilderness baptizer just hits a really different note than the ones that tend to move me.
Give me David and a Psalm any day, or if we are going with disruption I’ll take Mary and the Magnificat (I’m excited for next week).
But then I heard a sermon from a wonderfully honest preacher…
In which she confessed that – if she were in the pharisee’s place – she would probably have been investigating this upstart evangelist gathering crowds outside of town with a whole lot of skepticism.
She would need to check his prophetic words, to see if they were theologically sound.
She would wonder about the source of his authority to challenge established teachings of the faith.
She would want to protect the members of her congregation, for whom she felt responsible, from a charismatic (but potentially unbalanced) leader who might be trying to draw them off into some kind of cult.
Her instincts would tell her to be concerned, even guarded, not excited!
That sermon opened a door in my own understanding about what it is that I react to in the stories of the Baptizer.
My issue is not just that his aesthetics disturb my delicate sensibilities.
It goes a lot deeper than that. He triggers my defensiveness. He makes me feel unsettled and reactive, wanting to protect all of the familiar things that help me feel secure and certain in my life and faith.
Of course he does! He’s trying to!
Who opens a conversation by calling the people they are talking to a “brood of vipers” if they aren’t trying to start a fight?!
And, of course, I could determine that he isn’t actually talking to me, so I don’t need to get offended… but then… he isn’t talking to me, so why dive into what he has to say?
Either his message is not particularly relevant to my life, or he has some hard words for me.
And, in the spirit of embracing God’s work of Holy Disruption this Advent, I want to explore the second possibility.
What if John the Baptist IS talking to me – talking to us – when he makes his disturbing call for repentance?
His challenge is simple, but profound: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Repent is one of those loaded words that can be used a lot of different ways, but I think the rest of the phrase helps us to put it into context.
“The kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Let me explain a bit of context: The Gospel of Matthew has a very specific cosmology surrounding the idea of the kingdom of heaven.
In this understanding, reality is divided into two kingdoms: the kingdom of heaven (where God’s will reign undisturbed) and the kingdom of this world (where sin has messed things up).
God created both, but they have been divided, and God’s redemptive work through Jesus is about the kingdom of heaven – the kingdom that still reflects God’s perfect intention – breaking into the fallen human experience to initiate its transformation.
So, when John announces that the kingdom of heaven has come near, he is saying that the disruption is imminent. The rules of reality that we humans are used to living by are about to be broken open, and God’s way is going to intrude.
In that context, the call to repent is a call to change our minds about where our hope lies:
It doesn’t lie in what is familiar, in all the ways that we are used to functioning.
Rather, it lies in embracing the work of change that God is initiating.
And that understanding of John’s call to repent is why it is still relevant to us, even some 2,000-odd years since his proclamation that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Because it’s about embracing God’s disruptive work, rather than clinging to the apparent security of familiar patterns, broken as they may be.
But what does that look like?
Well, for one thing, it looks like letting go of our assumptions about what is due to us above anyone else.
When John challenged the religious people of his time he goes right to the heart of their sense of entitlement. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’…”
To be crystal clear, this is NOT a dig at Jewish heritage. The gospel is not anti-semitic. Jesus himself was a faithful Jew!
John is simply calling out one specific example of a universal human tendency: the desire to lay claim to a special status that will grant us special treatment.
If the kingdom of this world has given us any unearned advantage…
we can expect God’s Holy Disruption to interfere.
It’s not that we are meant to feel guilty for such advantages – there was nothing wrong with being a descendant of Abraham – but neither are we meant to cling to a status that excludes or disadvantages anyone else.
We can expect God’s Holy Disruption to shake-up the systems of advantage and disadvantage in our broken world, and repentance means WELCOMING that earthquake… even if it means we lose things we have taken for granted.
The second aspect of John’s call to repentance is more active: rather than a call to let go; it is about what we are supposed to do.
Bear fruit… specifically fruit worthy of repentance.
And if repentance is about letting go of the ways of the kingdom of this world and embracing the inbreaking of the kingdom of heaven,
Then bearing fruits worthy of repentance will mean evidence in our lives that we are willing to be part of God’s Holy Disruption…
That we will be part of dismantling unjust systems…
That we will actively work for the healing of pain and division…
That we will not resist the ax at the root of the trees that are bearing poisonous fruit in our world, but will even lend our arms for a swing.
In my Friday message this week, I shared a prayer by an anonymous author that rethinks the famous Prayer of St. Francis from a perspective of Holy Disruption.
It is a prayer of petition for God’s intervention, but also a prayer of repentance… a prayer that names so many of the things that are wrong in this world and admits that we are wrong too, if we fail to work for Holy Disruption.
So I want to close my message today with this prayer; I invite you to pray along with me in the silence of your souls.
Lord making me a channel of your disturbance.
Where there is apathy, let me provoke,
Where there is silence, may I be a voice.
Where there is too much comfort, and too little action, Grant disruption.
Where there are doors closed and hearts locked, Grant me the willingness to listen...
When laws dictate and pain is overlooked, Grant me the willingness to listen...
When tradition speaks louder than need, Grant me the willingness to listen...
Disturb me, O Lord, Teach me to be radical.
Grant that I may seek rather to do justice than to talk about it;
To be with as well as for the poor;
To love the unlovable as well as the lovely;
To touch the passion of Jesus in the Pain of those I meet;
To accept responsibility to be the church.
Lord, make me a channel of your disturbance,