Sunday, December 8, 2013

the joy of repentance

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

If I had a dollar for every time when I was in the army I heard some wise old sergeant say 'if it's not broke, don't fix it,' I'd be a wealthy man. Old Sarge was forever having to hold back enthusiastic shave-tail privates and butter-bar lieutenants who had just arrived on post and thought they knew better than age and experience how to get things done. It never seemed to occur to them that this was a tried and tested means of accomplishing the mission, that even if the new suggestion did have merits, the cost of trying it out and re-training everybody in how to do it the new way out-weighed any potential benefit. Explanations as to why things were the way they were seldom worked, so it usually just boiled down to Old Sarge looking them squarely in the eye and uttering those immortal words:

'Son, if it ain't broke don't fix it.'


Of course, if something did go wrong with the system, Old Sarge was the first one to see and set about trying to correct things. And wise as Old Sarge was, I think you'll agree with me that God is a great deal wiser. Which means that if God thinks things need fixing, there can be no doubt at all that the thing is broken indeed.

Our Old Testament reading gives us an idea of how broken the world is – and why. Isaiah talks about a utopian world where: The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. This is the kind of beautiful, peaceful, perfect world that God wants for his creation. And the reason it is not like that, is because of the the Fall. And I say that because the world that Isaiah describes is the world we had in Genesis before the Fall. The brokenness of the world, the difference between the way it should be and the way it is, is due to the sinful disobedience of humanity to God's will.

But God is not going to leave things broken; he plans to restore the world to its pre-fallen state. He has promised us that he will do so. Which brings us to our Gospel reading and St John the Baptist. The reading for the second Sunday in Advent is always about John. This is not just because he is the precursor of Christ and so it is appropriate to think of him in Advent. It is also because this is a penitential season and he is a powerful example to hold up before us as to how the penitential life should be lived. Look at where he is, the wilderness, by which the evangelist means an arid place, with little by way of vegetation, and nothing at all be way of creature comforts. Consider how he dresses – the simplest of clothes, enough to preserve modesty and no more. Look at what he eats – only what comes to hand in this barren place, and of that barely enough to keep body and soul together.

And consider what he says: Repent. In the Greek it is μετανοειτε (MET-AN-OY-IT-AY) which literally means to turn away from something, to think differently, to repent; and because repentance means nothing if one does not also accept, with humility, not only the fact that one is a sinner, but that one needs to do something about changing things, fixing the brokenness within, the Latin Vulgate Bible, which was the standard and unchallenged text of the Western Church for over a thousand years, translated μετανοειτε (MET-AN-OY-IT-AY) as paenitentiam agite (Pane-It-Ent-Iam Ag-it-ay): which literally means 'do penance.' And if you think the English word 'repent' sounds like the Latin word for penance, that's because both have the same Latin root. The fact is that for most of its history, the Church which we were baptised into saw 'repent' and 'do penance' as being one and the same.

And of course when Jesus begins his public ministry, he does so as John does, with a call to repentance. Because it is part of God's plan for fixing what was broken through sin that we should realise we are sinners, turn away from it, and repent, do penance.

And if that sounds somewhat grim, it is only because humanity is still fallen and sinful and continues to resist God's will for us and what Christ himself called us to do. In fact, it is a message of hope, for it tells us that God has not abandoned us to the consequences of our choices. That is why we hear St Paul say in the Epistle today: For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. And of course, our great hope is the Incarnation of our Lord, who came to save us from our sins; and part of that salvation is his call to repentance.

We should hear that call with joy, because it reminds us of our hope of heaven; that unworthy as we are, God loves us still and works endlessly that we may one day attain eternal life. And so I end with the prayer that this season of Advent will be for you one of joy, a joy that comes from hearing and answering Christ's call to repentance; and I ask that you pray the same for me. Amen.

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