Imagine for a moment being a long-standing member of your faith community. You’ve been there your whole life. You know the ways, the customs, the practices, the expectations, you know these things well. Heck you built many of these things. You contributed money to the building of the church and its ministry. You’ve said your prayers as prescribed in all the right books. You’ve done all the outreach and social and pastoral stuff called for.
And then you get wind of this strange man with rather wild, unkempt hair, wearing strange camel hair clothing, eating bugs and honey, and yelling at everyone that they need to repent so that they can follow the Lord. Wait, is he talking about the Lord, the God that you follow? Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; prepare the way of the Lord; make straight his path. And you go out to see what all the fuss is about and you see all these people - these non believers - being baptized by him in the River Jordan. And they’re confessing their sins.
So you walk up to John, this strange man, and he says to you, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Excuse me. How dare you speak to me like that, you say. Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
John’s prophetic words to these fine folks of faith that come up to him is that neither their belonging to God’s people, nor their works will earn them the righteousness that God demands. In fact, their actions - as we read over and over in Scripture, are pretty broken. Over and over we see violence, anger, bitterness, envy, jealousy, murder, self indulgence, refusal to care for others, self focused idolatry, and so the inability to point beyond themselves to God as they are required to do. You brood of vipers, ‘don’t presume to come to the Lord’s table, trusting in your own righteousness, you and I are not even worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under his table, or to tie the thong of the Lord’s sandals. The prayer of humble access we Anglicans have (yet sadly, no longer read in liturgy) is a prayer that takes up John’s declaration about himself and about all who come presuming our ways to be God’s ways: do not presume you’re ‘a good person whose words, thoughts and actions are righteous, even if you’ve been in the Church your whole life.
Oh dear. The cloak of the Pharisee and Saducee fits us as much as it ever fit any Jew. John’s point, however, isn’t to humiliate, but to make emphatic the way forward: you brood of vipers, you sinners, repent. Sin, guilt, repentance, for many of you, these words probably marked a harsh and judgmental vision of God and the Church. Millions of Westerners have seen only this and have left the Church altogether. And this left those remaining behind to go one of two ways, either: do what is right in your own eyes, God blesses you for it, or do what we say or you will burn in hell. Both are sanctimonious, contemptuous paths that lead to blindness to who God really is and why repentance is called for.
What does it mean to repent? Put simply, it’s examining how you think; how you react to situations, particularly when you feel emotionally charged, those knee jerk reactions. Then it’s acting if your thoughts and the words and actions that flow from your thoughts, are consistent with how Jesus acted and responded. One simple example might be, what was I thinking when I snapped at this person. Did I prejudge them? Was I frustrated? Was I scared? Was I sad? Then considering, “how did God react to people who disappointed him, who misunderstood him, who betrayed him? Another example might be examining why you are unwilling to take a risk in relationships with other people or other churches. Is it because you’ve been burned before? Betrayed? Frustrated? Then considering, “what does God do with people who did this to him or to his people?” And you can begin to compile evidence: God didn’t let them face the consequences of their own choices - death. He certainly did call people out - since he had perfect vision of what they ought to be doing - but he did so with the intention to help them live according to his fruits: with kindness, gentleness, patience, perseverance, and self control, so that they could learn to point beyond their most immediate inclinations to something greater than themselves: to God himself.
Repentance really isn’t a one off thing that you do at confession on Sunday. Repentance is an ongoing action of questioning how your thoughts, words and actions fit with God’s own: do you forgive others as you have been forgiven; do you love as you have been loved; do you act with courage and move beyond your clinging to the things of the past, or do you get stuck in the past where you’ve been disappointed, frustrated or left fearful. The point of repentance isn’t that it makes you righteous. It’s that questioning yourself before God opens you up to receive God’s own righteousness that comes to us in Jesus’s own life. And in being opened up, we allow ourselves to be drawn into Jesus’s life and so to his Father by the Holy Spirit. This is an ongoing relationship of opening up, letting go, asking God in his perfection of love, joy, hope, peace, kindness, gentleness and self control, to clear away all the crap in our lives - all the hurts and frustrations and fears - so that we can live the life God intended us to live and in doing this, to point other people to God. This root of Jesse promised to us gentiles from the beginning - this Jesus Christ - is the one in whom our hope of finding peace and love is carried, nurtured, and lifted to our Father. And in him, we are assured of being and having what we need to live now as if the Kingdom were already here fully and completely. To get beyond our fears and our lack of courage and to step out in faithful perseverance even if we might not see the fruits of our courage in our lifetime. This is the mark of holiness and righteousness. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN