Repentance—a way of life (Advent 2A, 8 December 2013)

Isaiah 11.1–10
Matthew 3.1–12



Some of you—ok, maybe only one of you—may not have heard this story before.

Charlie V decided the church needed a new coat of paint, so being an expert with a big heart he decided do it for the cost of the paint. Charlie wanted to save money for the church, so he thinned the paint down. It started to rain when Charlie was halfway through, so he had to find some cover. After the rain stopped, he looked out. He was horrified to see the paint had run in a long series of soggy streaks. While he was still staring aghast at the wall, a voice rang out from heaven: ‘Repaint! Repaint! And thin no more!’

And that’s almost what Matthew’s John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel Reading. He says

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

What do we do when we repent? Firstly, let’s get one thing straight: Repenting isn’t necessarily about guilt and being sorry. When we ‘repent’ we change our way of thinking, we turn around and walk in a new direction. That may mean turning from something that is wrong. But not always. When I’m shopping in Coles, I sometimes realised that I’ve turned into the wrong aisle. So I rethink what I’m doing, and I turn around. That’s repenting too. We all repent all the time.

And what is this kingdom of heaven? It’s what Jesus asks us to pray for:

Your kingdom come,
Your will be done on earth as in heaven.

Matthew has already give us a glimpse of it. When the kingdom of heaven comes near, you make enemies of the Herods of this world. That’s what the Wise Men did when they followed the star and listened to their dreams. When the kingdom of heaven comes near, even outsiders are let into God’s secrets. Again, the Wise Men were outsiders—they were Gentiles, and quite possibly priests of the Zoroastrian religion. The kingdom of heaven is where the first are last and the last first, where those who are great are those who serve, where the unclean and powerless are welcomed into the centre. The kingdom of heaven doesn’t work by everyone else’s rules; it moves forward in God’s way, which seems ‘foolishness’ to human beings.

Repent. Change your mind, and walk in a new direction, in a way which is foolish in the eyes of the social and political systems of the world.

Repentance is a way of life, not a one-time decision. It’s a way of life that requires us to have a teachable spirit. We need to be taught by the Holy Spirit.

In that lovely passage from Isaiah, the ideal king grows out from the roots of David’s family, ‘the stock of Jesse’. The Spirit rests on this ideal king:

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

We have a name for Isaiah’s ideal king; we call him Jesus. We have a name for ourselves; we call ourselves Christians, we call ourselves the Body of Christ.

The Spirit of Christ is with us.

Repenting is a way of life which means learning from this spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

Repenting means turning away from putting the social and political systems of the world before the needs of people made in the image of God.

Isaiah goes on. This ideal king (whom we say is Jesus, remember):

shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek
of the earth…

We who have a share in the Spirit of Jesus are also called to act in this way, always in a spirit of rethinking our lives, a spirit of repenting; it is given to each one of us to do this in small daily ways. To others like Nelson Mandela, whom the world lost only three days ago, it is given to act in this way in public life, so that the rest of us may find inspiration in our own lives.

I don’t want to follow Isaiah any further at the moment, because this ideal king

shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall
kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Whatever Isaiah means here, we must always remember one thing: we are not the final judges. The judgement has already come. Jesus has borne it for us. Our Judge is already our Saviour, right now. We need to remember this also as we read what John the Baptist says about judgement; John the Baptist doesn’t have the last word. That belongs to Jesus Christ.

But: we still must judge what is good and what is evil here and now. So we must still walk the way of repentance, changing our minds when the Spirit enlightens us, walking a different road, a narrow way on the path of life.

The Spirit is with us as we walk this journey, to open our hearts to the grace and compassion of God for the broken people of the world.

This passage from Isaiah is central to the life of the Uniting Church. When we baptise adults, when we confirm people who were baptised as infants, we pray this prayer which is taken from Isaiah 11:

By the Holy Spirit, gracious God,
strengthen these your servants,
and set their hearts on fire with love for you.
Increase in them your gifts of grace:
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and wonder  in your presence,
the spirit of joy and delight in your service,
now and forever. Amen.

This is an ongoing prayer for life.

Repentance is hard work, but listen to this: it is the Spirit of Jesus who does the hard work within us insofar as we allow it to happen. We can’t repent by screwing our eyes and trying harder. We do it as we open ourselves to the work of God within us and among us, as we allow the Spirit to teach us and remake us in the image of Jesus Christ our Brother, Saviour and Lord. That’s part of the message of Advent; our part is to let the Spirit put it into practice within us. Amen.


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One response to “Repentance—a way of life (Advent 2A, 8 December 2013)

  1. Pingback: Disruptive Hope | revsarahnorthall

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