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"The voice of one crying in the wilderness."[i]
As the phrase is used nowadays, it refers to someone whose opinion, be it voiced “never so loudly,” is alone and ignored but in the end vindicated – but mainly alone and ignored. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of the cliché’s origin. St. Matthew describes John the Baptist as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that a great prophet would appear as “a voice of one crying in the wilderness.” But while this wild man clothed in camel’s hair was indeed in the wilderness, he was anything but alone and ignored. Just the opposite. He was an Ancient Near Eastern rock star. We read that he was immensely popular, that there “went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region of the Jordan.” But here is the shocking thing, or at least the thing that shocks me: he was popular while – for – calling the people to repentance. He was telling them that they had been wrong and that they had to change, because the Kingdom of Heaven was coming, and indeed, was even then at hand – near them, close to them. And so they came to be baptized, confessing their sins. They came out to him in droves. They loved what John had to say about repentance - it was exactly what they needed to hear, and they knew it and accepted it.
Of those things reported in the Scriptures that strain credulity, from the perspective of 21st-century America, it is not so much the miracles that pose a problem, but, I would suggest, the popularity of John the Baptist and his message of repentance. Can you imagine such a thing? We have officially entered the silly season of American politics with 2008 presidential campaigns – we’re getting a good taste of it this weekend here in South Carolina – but can you imagine any of the candidates taking a John the Baptist approach to winning the electorate's affections, taking up John’s style of slash-and-burn oratory?
Not only is it difficult to imagine a politician taking such a tack, the call to a penitent life is rarely to be heard in the church these days. Indeed, America's most popular preacher, with perfect hair and a smile that brings well-deserved glory to the modern practice of cosmetic dentistry, channels not so much John the Baptist as Norman Vincent Peale and a "gospel" of self-affirmation and positive thinking – which is no gospel at all. And we eat it up. Flatter me, coddle me, affirm me - but don't tell me I am wrong down to my very roots, that to be fit for the Kingdom of Heaven my life will have to be completely re-thought from the inside all the way out.
But that is just what John came preaching. And of course, it’s a sermon not unique to that wild man John. If we were to read ahead to the next chapter of St. Matthew's gospel, we would see that "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" is exactly the message Jesus proclaimed in his own preaching ministry.[ii] And were we to read ahead to chapter 10, we would see Jesus send his disciples out on their first mission trip and actually provide their sermon text: "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."[iii] And if we wanted to skip even further ahead, out of St. Matthew’s gospel altogether and into the Acts of the Apostles, to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, what is the climactic exhortation of St. Peter's sermon that day? "Repent and be baptized every one of you."[iv]
But that is a difficult message to preach and to hear in our own day. Why? Well, imagine if I were to tell you this morning that I had an invention that would result in millions of dollars of income which, being the swell guy that I am, I would generously share with the church. No, I know what some of you are thinking, not the dashboard-mounted deep fat fryer of Fr. Clarke's fevered imagination[v] – "a fond thing, vainly invented" – but a new kind of record needle that will never wear out, never cause your vinyl LP record albums to skip. Such an announcement, except perhaps from a few extreme audiophiles, would be greeted with blank stares (no problem, I’m used to that). No one would care about my invention, and no one would think that millions of dollars would flow into the church's coffers as a result of my invention. Because this is the age of mp3's and digital music downloads, even compact discs are on the way out, and an everlasting record needle is a solution to a problem that no longer exists.[vi]
In the church, when we talk about repentance and the forgiveness of sins, we are in much the same position – we have a solution to a problem no one believes he has. As many have commented, it is no accident that the chancel of the afore-mentioned most-popular-preacher-in-America's church is not adorned by a cross. Who could believe that such a thing – the cruel death of God's Son – could be necessary for our redemption. The cross as commentary on the human condition – on my condition – is an offense and insult.
Well, how can we hear again this message John, Jesus, the Apostles, and the Spirit-filled apostolic church bear? A message that has the power actually to change our lives rather than – you know – just teach us to declare victory and go home. It may be that what electrified the crowds in John's day and moved them to repentance, and what may yet shock our own age and our own cold hearts into life, is the second half of John's sermon: "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
After all, if this world of buying and selling is all there is, if ultimate reality, despite all our pretence, is "nature red in tooth and claw", then why would I repent? Why, especially, would I repent of my comforts? And why would I repent of my religion, if all my religion tells me is some paraphrase of Stewart Smalley’s "I'm good enough and smart enough and, gosh darn it, people like me?"[vii]
But - but what if there is another and greater reality. What if there is another Kingdom, a Kingdom where “the righteous flourish; yea, and abundance of peace, so long as the moon endureth”[viii], where, instead of nature red in tooth in claw,
the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together... [a Kingdom] where the suckling child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.[ix]
A kingdom with a King who comes as a servant, born in a barn to reign from a cross.
That is the Kingdom and King that broke into this world through the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that is the King and Kingdom that will "come again to judge both the quick and the dead," the coming King and Kingdom to which our Advent hopes are directed.
If that is the reality already operative in this world, and if one day soon - nearer to us today than yesterday – “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,”[x] then we may begin to see repentance in a different light. Repentance, then, is not a call to self-loathing and groveling, but to an honest assessment of our lives so that we may then align them with the virtues and values of life in Christ's Kingdom. In a wonderful chapter on repentance in her book The Illumined Heart, our friend Frederica Mathewes-Green quotes the Russian priest and martyr Fr. Alexander Men, who put it this way: "Repentance is not a sterile grubbing around in one's soul, not some masochistic self-humiliation, but a re-evaluation leading to action."[xi]
"A re-evaluation leading to action." To what action? To be sure, greater works of charity, of generosity, of compassion - making our lives, making our life together, a visible sign of the Kingdom – and not just a sign, but actually more and more and one day finally and fully the Thing Itself. But the first action of repentance is and must ever be and must daily be a turning to the King, to Jesus. When we see it in light of his coming Kingdom, then the cross is not so much insult and offense as right diagnosis. And if his cross is a true and accurate measure of the depth of our sin, it also shows us the unsearchable depths of his love and mercy. Remember, John warned “the axe is laid to the root of the trees," but what John could never have imagined is the truth which should drive us to our knees in “wonder, love, and praise”, the truth which we plead and receive in this holy Sacrament – that the axe would fall on Jesus, the “root of Jesse”.[xii]
Is repentance and the forgiveness of sins a solution to a problem that no longer exists? Well, if all there is is what we can see – “nature red in tooth and claw” – then it may be that denial coupled with a relentless course of self-esteem boosters is our best strategy. But – but if the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, if "Love came down at Christmas," and if the love of God revealed on the cross is the ultimate word and judgment, then honesty and re-evaluation leading to action is possible – and not just possible, but desirable and joyful and, really, the only thing that makes sense.
"Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."
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