“A gospel is a form of strategic story-telling that aims to change your life.”[i]
Today we begin the gospel of Matthew. Are you ready to change your life? If not, then I suggest that you stop listening now. Pull out your phone, put your earbuds on, doodle in your booklet. Whatever it takes to distract you.
But if you are ready to change your life, then here we go. This is how we begin.
“Repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand.”
When I was walking the Camino in Spain a few years back, I met a young man named David, and walked with him for a few days. David was 23 years old, bright and engaging. He had been raised in a home that was half Buddhist, half Christian and intentionally non-practicing. He had just quit his dream job with a tech start-up in Silicon Valley. When he found out that I was a parish priest, he was surprisingly enthusiastic. “What I really want,” he said, “is to be part of a community where we can talk about important questions, questions like how to live a good life.”
What does it mean to live a good life, and how do we get there?
My favourite poet, Mary Oliver, has a poem in which she provides these instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I think that John the Baptist is trying to get us to pay attention. Calling religious people a brood of vipers is a pretty good way to get our attention. But what he really wants us to pay attention to, what he really wants us to see, is this thing he calls the kingdom of God. It’s at hand, he says. It’s come near, it’s so close you can reach out and touch it – can you see it?
To repent is, in the first instance, to change the way you see. It’s about vision. We talked about vision last week. Isaiah had vision, vision that propels us forward, vision that changes lives. Isaiah had a vision of a holy mountain, of God’s holy mountain, with all the peoples of the earth streaming towards it. “They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain.” He 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, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.” That was Isaiah’s vision.
Seven hundred years later, John the Baptist appears, and he wants us to see that the great movement of God that Isaiah could see, the great movement of God that will bring Isaiah’s vision of peace and justice to fruition has already begun. That it is drawing near. He calls it the kingdom of God, or in Matthew’s gospel, the kingdom of heaven. It is the presence and action of God in our world. Can you see it?
We start by changing how we see. We need to see more than what our eyes can see. When Isaiah talks about the one who is to come, he talks about one who sees not just what his eyes see, but who sees God’s justice and righteousness and acts accordingly. When you look at nature, do you see God’s creation? When you look at the person beside you, do you see a child of God? When you look around you, do you see the kingdom of God, do you see God at work in our midst? When you pay attention, are you astonished by what you see?
One of my favourite scientists, Albert Einstein, is quoted as saying that there are only two ways to live your life. One is to live as though nothing is a miracle. The other is to live as though everything is. As though everything we see is infused with God’s Spirit
Repent. Pay attention. Be astonished. For the kingdom of God is at hand.
The call to repent is the beginning of the Christian life. It’s the starting point of the gospel, and the aim of the gospel is to change your life. Sometimes we get confused. Sometimes we think that repentance is about feeling sorry for what we’ve done wrong in the past, which makes it all sound rather backward-looking.
But the way John speaks is forward-looking. Look, the kingdom of God has come near. Repent. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. Bear fruit, bear fruit worthy of repentance. Repentance is forward-looking, it’s active and it begins now.
To repent is to undergo three movements:
First, to change how you see.
Then, to change your understanding.
Then, to live into your new way of seeing and understanding the world. And that will change your life.
To repent is to see differently, it’s opening up to a new way of seeing, it’s about suddenly seeing God’s future in the present. And once you’ve caught that vision, it will give you a new perspective, it will transform your thinking and change your understanding. And that will change the way you live. You will become part of the movement which brings God’s future to fruition. Repentance is about a new way of living in the present which is informed and energized by that glorious vision of peace and justice, a future which is drawing near, and draws near in a very tangible way in Jesus, the one to whom John points, the one who is coming, the one who shows us what this kingdom of God thing really looks like.
To repent is to be astonished, to experience an earth-shaking vision of God’s reality that rocks your world and changes your life
We can think about that change in two ways.
The first way is in terms of transformation. Ice melts into water, seeds grow into plants, caterpillars become butterflies. There is a transformation in our vision, in our perspective, in our ways of thinking, being and acting in the world. Transformation, we all know, is difficult, we know it can take time, we know it can be challenging, but it is also an exciting way to think about the changes in store for us.
The second way to think about change is in terms of purification. The metaphor of purification is perhaps more challenging, maybe less appealing than the metaphor of transformation. But if we are going to lean into our new ways of seeing, our new ways of perceiving God in the world and our new ways of understanding, if we really are going to change our lives, we’re going to have to let go of some things.
Which is why John also uses those frightening images in today’s gospel. Trees being cut down. Baptism with fire. Burning the chaff. He’s a truth-teller, this John the Baptist, and the truth is that there are things we need to let go of, and letting go of things is really hard
Letting go of the things in our lives that are not bearing fruit can be painful. Bad habits. Unhealthy patterns in our relationships. Stuff that makes us feel safe or comfortable. Our own self-interest, egos, our pursuit of status and power. Every grain of wheat comes with both fruit and husk. There is the part that you keep, and there is the part that you throw away. When we repent, when we change our lives, when we ask the Spirit of God to come into our lives and to help us change, there will be the good parts that we keep, and the bad parts that we throw away, kind of like separating the wheat from the chaff.
That’s our reality. That’s our truth. And John the Baptist is nothing if not a truth-teller. If you heed his call to repent, your life will change, and that will be a process of both transformation and purification. No one said it would be easy.
Which is why we do this together, in community with each other and in communion with God. We need to work through this stuff together, we need to talk to each other, to listen to each other, to pray together, to support each other and to hold each other accountable.
Tell about it.
Today, the gospel begins. Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.
Homily Yr A Advent 2, December 8 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps 72; Romans 15.4-13, Mt 3.1-12