Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Prophets' One Job, Not Two


This Sunday, we'll ask God to "give us grace to heed [the prophets'] warnings and forsake our sins," but, just as the season of Advent is about more than lamenting our wretchedness, the work of the prophets and our response to that work is bigger than that. In the opening phrase of Sunday's collect, we describe the mission of prophets in two ways: "Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation..." As I keep looking for ways to combine the joy of the pre-Christmas culture all around us with the the austerity of our Advent's liturgical texts, I think this collect has an answer.

The prophets' work is unitary. It is not partly to preach repentance and partly to prepare the way for our salvation, nor is it to preach repentance first so that later on, consequentially, the way for salvation might be prepared. The work of preaching repentance is the work of preparing the way for our salvation because the way for our salvation is the returning to God that is our repentance. The difference between hearing John the Baptist's message as one of hope and one of condemnation depends upon our ability to hear the work of repentance as the work of salvation. The prophets are beginning us to come back to God because God has shown them that the people's salvation is their return.

Why is that so hard for us to hear? I was raised in the Christian faith. I've known the love of God in Jesus Christ since before I was born. The message of repentance isn't unfamiliar to me. The gentle "Let's say sorry to God" invitation common in mainline Protestant children's Sunday school classes and vacation Bible schools has always been part of my life. But the call to repentance still makes me uneasy. It makes me shift in my seat. Why? Why, if I have experienced the infinite love of God, is repentance so hard? Because there's a part of me that can't help but think of repentance as something I have to do in order to prove to God that I'm worthy of salvation. If I repent hard enough and fully enough, God will wave God's magic salvation wand and save me. But repentance isn't a hurdle for me to climb before I can be saved. It is the act of salvation itself.

Just skim through the lessons for this Sunday:

"He 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." (Isaiah 11)

"Give the King your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the King's Son; that he may rule your people righteously and the poor with justice...He shall defend the needy among the people; he shall rescue the poor and crush the oppressor." (Psalm 72)

"The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope." (Romans 13)

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 3)

All of these passages envision the salvation of God's people because God's reign is coming near. Isaiah and the psalmist ask the people to envision a new ruler of the people who will be anointed by God to rule with justice and righteousness. Paul understands that Jesus Christ has called all the peoples of the earth to come into God's reign. John the Baptist knows that the one who is more powerful, the one who comes to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, has brought near the reign of God, and his message of repentance is an invitation to enter that reign.

Yes, repentance means forsaking our sins. It means leaving behind the worldly ways. It means giving up a life that is perpetuated by greed, selfishness, lust, and fear in order to enter God's reign. But we don't have to become perfect before God will love us. Repentance isn't about us defeating sin in order to become worthy of God's reign. It's about fleeing toward God's reign because we need God's help defeating sin. You can't separate repentance and salvation. Hearing the call to repent is the same thing as hearing the call to sit down at God's banquet table. Isn't that good news?

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