Those of you who live on the south side of town, like I do, are certainly familiar with the preacher man who carries literature, a bible and a megaphone. Regardless of the weather, this guy is out and about proclaiming his belief that the world is coming to an end and that sinners need to repent before it’s too late. “Jesus says, that He is on the way! God bless you!” In some ways this isn’t at all uncommon: you can find these kinds of preachers in almost every city of any size.
Over the years, I’ve seen a few people like him and while part of me wonders if they suffer from an undiagnosed mental illess, another part of me admires them for having the courage to publicly proclaim their beliefs. That said, I have to add that at no point have I ever felt called to engage in conversation with these people. And never have I seen anyone else approach these people with the idea of learning about Christ or to be baptized. Most of us tend to just ignore these people, or perhaps we might criticize them for disturbing the quiet of our neighborhoods.
Like these street evangelists, John the Baptist preached a message of repentance from sin. He was one of those people sho didn’t seem to have a filter on his mouth: he said whatever popped into his head. He took on the self-righteousness of the crowds and challenged them to change. And, unlike our street evangelists, people actually sought him out in the desert, far from the cities. As a result, John became quite popular and even if some came out to see him to mock or challenge, many of them actually respponded to him and were baptized as a sign of their willingness to repent and receive the peace of God. John built up quite a following in those days as people from all walks of life came to him and heard his message—a message we, too, need to hear during this Advent season.
Advent is the time of year when we remember those who waited the coming of Christ for many centuries. In doing so, we are also reminded that we, too, are waiting for Christ to come again to fulfill his mission and fulfill the destiny of the world. As we wait, though, we are also reminded that we have been waiting for many centuries already, and it may be many centuries again before the waiting is over, before Christ brings an end to history as we know it and establishes the Reign of God in all its fullness and glory. In the meantime, we must do more than sit by idly and wait for God to act. We are called to participate in God’s work as well, both as a response to the work that God has already done for us and in anticipation of and preparation for the work that God will yet do for us. The question for today, then, is “What must we do to prepare for the coming Kingdom?”
In answering that question, we begin by looking back several centuries before the birth of Jesus. At that time, a prophecy recorded in the book of Isaiah foresaw the coming of one whose mission it was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. All four gospels quote this prophecy from Isaiah and identify that person as John the Baptist.
In preparing for Christ, the message of John the Baptist was a very simple one, “Repent from your sins and be baptized.” The simplicity of the message may be deceiving, however, for the actual act of repentance is daunting. Repentance involves a complete turning away from unworthy things. Repentance is a change of attitude and lifestyle; it is a continuous, ongoing process of renewal in which we recognize our own tendency to embrace less worthy things, surrendering our inner peace and joy in the process. It’s not just about sinful “deeds” that we commit, it’s also about attitudes that are insulting to the God of love who made us. Whenever we see ourselves as wretched, unworthy, bad or less than anyone else, we are in effect rejecting the truth of who we are as precious, holy, gifted daughters and sons of God.
This is true repentance, and it is not simple. It is often hard work to transform our old attitudes and begin a new lifestyle—just ask anyone who has gone through any sort of process such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous or any of the dozens of similar groups that have become so popular in the past number of years. People who enter into these groups begin a long process, 12 steps in all, to lead them out of their addictions.
So, if we are ready to admit our own addiction to needing to be in control, or our need to have things our own way, what if we started following the 12-step meeting format for our church services, a sort of support system for all of us who are looking for inner peace but who are powerless to enter into real conversion on our own? I’ve only been to a couple AA meetings as a guest, but there is always time set aside for anyone to share anything they wish if they feel comfortable sharing. The participants introduce themselves by their first names only, and then they add whatever their addiction happens to be. “Hi, I’m Bob, I’m an alcoholic.” “Hello, I’m Sarah, and I’m addicted to gambling.” “Good morning, I’m Fr. Michel and I need to be in control.” Admitting and taking ownership of the thing that is holding us captive is the first step on the road to recovery, to admit that we are powerless to convert ourselves, and that we need God’s grace to pull us through.
Can you imagine what would happen if, at the beginning of the time of announcements, blessings and concerns, I would get up and instead of welcoming everyone to the service would say simply, “Good morning, my name is Fr. Michel, and I am in need of converstion.” You probably wouldn’t know how to respond. People in an AA meeting would simply respond, “Hello, Fr. Michel.” And then I would go on to share my story with you. In that simple act of response, though, there is a welcoming, an inviting, a recognizing that each person is part of this one larger group. Everyone is there for the same reason—addiction to something.
We are exactly the same. We are all addicted to some attitudes or behaviors over which we have no power; we are unable to keep ourselves from sinning even when we intellectually know better. St. Paul writes to the church at Rome, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”(Romans 7:15) This is the first step, to admit that we are powerless if left to our own devices and plans.
For someone in AA, the second step is really a statement of faith. It reads, “We believe that only a Power Greater than Ourselves can restore us to sanity.” For Christians, this higher power is the God of Jesus of Nazareth.
From this beginning, the 12 steps continue on through a process of conversion, confession, restitution and prayer. Each person in the group is somewhere along the way, working through the 12 steps. Not all follow the steps in the same order, but all are striving to complete them. You will never hear someone in AA speak of himself as a “former alcoholic.” They are all “recovering alcoholics.” By using this label, they recognize that, even though they are no longer drinking, they are and always will be addicted to alcohol, and can only stay sober with the help of a Higher Power.
Likewise, those of us who are powerless over sin and our own egos are somewhere in the process of repentance. We are, so to speak, “recovering sinners.” We remain personally powerless over sin, but we rely on the grace of God, our Higher Power, to help us as much as possible. In doing so, we prepare ourselves for the the indwelling power of the Reign of God.
John’s message of repentance goes beyond simply a change of one’s personal attitudes and behaviors. He called for social change as well. Listen to his words to the crowds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To the tax collectors who made their living by overcharging people, he says, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To the Roman soldiers who were in Palestine as a police force to keep order, he says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Later on, he criticizes even Herod, the ruler in that area, for his corrupt rule. It is this sort of outspokenness that eventually gets John killed.
These examples from John show us that preparing for the Kingdom of God begins first with an inner transformation, but then necessarily spills out into the larger world. Social transformation is essential, but that can only happen if the inner transformation of individual souls is taking place. Once again, the 12-step program is helpful in seeing how this step is taken from the individual to society. For the 12th and final step reads as follows, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” This is nothing less than a proclamation of what the Gospel is all about. We, too, are called to be in the process of conversion and to carry the message to others.
We as the church today are called to not only live out John’s message of conversion in our own lives, but to follow his example in bringing that message to the world. I’m not suggesting that we go out to the street corners and preach like the people I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon. What worked back in the day doesn’t work today. And what we certainly do not need is more stern warnings about punishment and anger and retribution, which leads only to a diminished understanding of who we are called to be. What we DO need is the message that God loves us just the way we are, even though we are not perfect. We need to be attracted to the love of God, learn to love ourselves as God loves us, and when that happens, then we can more easily release our need to control or influence others because we will see how easy it can be to simply submit to the awesome power of God.
People today, especially young people, are immune to ideas of God that include judgment and wrath. Many of them experience that in their daily lives and it has no effect on them. What they ARE looking for is love and intimacy. They are crying out for a place where they belong. They want to experience a homecoming that has hitherto been denied them. And that’s why people who stand in the street proclaiming the impending judgment of God are unsuccessful. They give the impression that somehow they are superior to the people around them, that they are somehow “former” sinners, that they have achieved a level of perfection that the rest of us are far from attaining.
So, as we enter deeper into the mystery of Advent, perhaps we should function more as a Sinners Anonymous group. We should maintain our own humility and perspective on ourselves. We should invite others to join us as we work together on our individual transformation so that we can then transform our world. Let’s talk to others openly, not as experts who have all the ansers, but as sisters and brothers who are all on the same road trying to live the Gospel. We will then become not merely a group of individuals who gather in the same place to worship every Sunday, rather, we will be an authentic community. We will possess the Reign of God within our hearts, and we will, at last, be able to give up those unworthy parts of ourselves and submit to the power of the coming King of Kings.