On several occasions, I have remarked that sermons on sin have been well received by congregations. To me that’s a curious phenomenon. I’ll preach about the unavoidability of sin, the depravity of human nature, our collective, desperate need for redemption, and people will walk out of church and say, “I loved that sermon.” And those are the same people (me included) who so often say, “I love the Episcopal Church because we don’t hit people over the head with sermons about sin and judgment.” What gives?
Partly, I think people like sermons about sin because they themselves are broken in one way or another and like hearing the reality of our need for forgiveness. Partly, I think people like occasional moments of discomfort, which, as long as they don’t happen too often, give people the satisfaction of tension and release akin to a musical composition’s pattern of dissonance and resolution. Mostly, though, I think that’s because the sermons I’ve heard about sin in the Episcopal tradition have more to do with God’s mercy than with the threat of damnation. In other words, they aren’t really sermons about sin—they’re about forgiveness.
Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 3:1-12) seems to bear that out in its own way. John the Baptist, the one who proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near, calls on the people to repent. In other words, he spent a lot of his time preaching about sin. And, sure enough, the crowds came out to hear him. They were nourished by his message of the need for repentance. Even the religious authorities—the elites who are so negatively portrayed throughout Matthew’s gospel account—come to see what was going on. And, when John saw them, he proclaimed, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But then John makes the point that preachers like me need to remember: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” That means that it’s not just about showing up and hearing the call to repent. It’s about taking that message to heart and showing it in one’s life. As attractive as it is and as much as we like encountering that sharp, discomforting message, we need to go further. We need to let the dissonance that exists between God’s call in our life and the life we live change and shape us.
What does bearing fruit worthy of repentance look like? It’s not showing up at church and telling the preacher she or he preached a good sermon. It’s not wearing a cross around your neck so that everyone who sees you assumes you’re a Christian. The kind of fruit that John was talking about has its roots in the prophetic tradition in which he is identified.
This is Advent. Many of our churches are having services of lessons and carols. I’ve spent the last few weeks looking over this year’s lessons, asking people if they will read, helping proofread a bulletin, etc.. And each time I do it I read those lessons that sound so much like John the Baptist. It’s about swords being beaten into plowshares. It’s about equitable judgments for the poor. It’s about worship being purified as a metalworker purifies gold in the fire. Are we bearing fruit worthy of repentance? Are we creators of peace, righteousness, and purity?