“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!”
Can you see it? Can you see the kingdom of heaven? God’s kingdom. The future God has promised for us. Can you see it? It’s coming near – can you reach out and touch it? Taste it? Hear it? What is your vision of God’s future? Of our future as the people of God?
Isaiah could see it. Isaiah had a vision, a vision of a holy mountain, of God’s holy mountain, with all the people of the earth streaming towards it. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” Isaiah imagined a complete re-ordering of creation, the wolf living with the lamb, the lion eating straw with the ox, the child playing with the poisonous snake. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. It shall be glorious.
Paul could see it. Paul had a vision of all nations, of all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, living in harmony with one another, welcoming one another just as Christ has welcomed each one of us into the family of God. An end to war and conflict, an end to racism and prejudice, a shattering of social and cultural barriers, a dismantling of the walls that keep people apart; all peoples living in harmony.
Can you see it? What do you see? What does the kingdom of God look like to you?
You might remember that last Sunday we talked about how as followers of Jesus our fundamental orientation is be forward-looking people. We don’t look backwards, instead we look to the end and we begin with the end in mind. We hold in front of us this great vision of the future which God has given us. Can you see it? How do you imagine it?
And how do we get from here to there?
In today’s gospel we have been given a guide to help us get from here to there. His name is John. An unlikely guide perhaps. Suddenly, John appears, in the wilderness, dressed in clothing of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Matthew gives us these details because he wants us to know that John is a prophet, or to use another word, a seer. Because John can see it. He has a vision. He can see that the kingdom of heaven has come near.
And so John is our guide, one more in a great line of prophets who hold the vision up before our eyes. How are we to respond? How, in light of this, are we to live?
And John’s response, his guidance to us, can be summed up in one word:
And here we have a problem. Because for all our talk of our vision of God’s future, for all our talk about being a forward-looking people, all of a sudden we’re hit with a word which for many of us sounds very much like a backward-looking word. Repent.
Doesn’t repentance mean that we need to look back on our lives and be sorry about the mistakes we have made?
Well, not really. If we reduce repentance to being sorry for our past sins, we’ve missed the point.
Because the way John uses it, repentance is very much a forward-looking word. Look, the kingdom of God is coming. Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Bear fruit, bear fruit worthy of repentance. Repentance is not a state of being sorry for the past. Repentance is about a new way of seeing, it’s about suddenly seeing God’s future. And once you’ve caught that vision, it will give you a new perspective, it will transform your thinking and it will change the way you live. You will become part of the movement which makes God’s future a reality. Repentance is about a new way of living in the present which is informed and energized by that glorious vision of the future.
To repent is to experience an earth-shaking, life-changing vision of God’s reality that rocks our world. It’s about joining a movement, and aligning ourselves with where that movement is heading. It’s about doing whatever we can to create moments and spaces where God’s great future can become reality now, if only for a moment, if only to give us a glimpse of what is to come, if only to encourage and give hope to those around us.
That’s what Paul was doing. That’s what he’s doing in his letter to the Romans that we read from this morning. Paul can see it, he has that great vision of all people living in harmony. Now Paul knows that the world around him isn’t like that. He’s not blind, he can see the wars and the ethnic conflict, he knows first-hand the barriers and enmity between Jews and Gentiles, even within the early church. But Paul has a vision of all people living in harmony and he devotes himself to building communities where that vision can become a present reality, a microcosm in the here and now of the coming kingdom of God. He works tirelessly to bring people together. He travels back and forth amongst his communities. He explores and interprets the Jewish scriptures to show how God is the God of all peoples, Jewish and Gentile. He writes letters, he does theology, he breaks down barriers, he overcomes years of tradition around food laws and circumcision. All because he has a vision of a world where all people, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and masters, all people can live together in harmony and can welcome each other as Christ has welcomed them.
And so for Paul, to bear fruit, to prepare the way of the Lord, to repent, what that means to make this glorious vision of harmony a present reality by creating little microcosms of the vision in these small communities that he is building and supporting.
That’s what repentance looks like. To see the vision, to align yourself with the vision and to become part of the movement which will make God’s future a reality.
Now, in order to align ourselves with this great vision, we are going to have to be realistic about the areas of our lives that are misaligned. The ways in which we’re complicit with the barriers and obstacles that are working against the kingdom of God. John, our guide, recognizes this, and that’s why he offers us the sacrament of baptism and the opportunity to confess our sins, to leave behind the ways in which our lives are misaligned and to start again. There is baggage we have to leave behind when we join the movement, as John makes abundantly clear to the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to see him in today’s gospel. But the reason we leave that baggage behind is so that we can go forward and bear fruit. We are a forward-looking people.
So I don’t know about you, but I find all this quite encouraging, and even exciting. God has given us this great vision of a holy mountain where none will hurt or destroy, of all people, in all their diversity, living in harmony with one another, welcoming one another. We are invited, we are called to be part of this movement, to align ourselves with God’s vision, to cast aside the baggage that keeps us misaligned, and to bear fruit by making this vision a present reality. And we can do that right here in this community, this St. Albans community: by welcoming, by living in harmony, by being a community not of hurt and destruction but of healing and encouragement, by working as imaginatively and as tirelessly as Paul worked to create a community which, if only for a moment, if only by the grace of God, is a glorious microcosm in the present of God’s future reality.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Can you see it?
Homily: Yr A Advent 2, Dec 4 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps 72; Rom 15.4-13; Matthew 3.1-12
Image by Jonathan Kos-Reid, Creative Commons