In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
Last Sunday afternoon Blaire came home and shared the story they learned in Sunday School- in great detail. The story of Jonah and the BIG fish. She gets to the part when the fish burps Jonah onto shore (and although she wasn’t quite sure of the details there) Blaire proclaims with excitement in her eyes, “And God gave him a second chance.” Jonah had been running away from a hard thing, God’s command to be a leader who proclaimed a baptism of repentance to the people of Ninevah; his job was to say “your violence makes God sad, turn over a new leaf; Start again. The irony in the story is that Jonah is also in need of a second chance. So, clearing the seaweed off his shoulders, he decides to proclaim a baptism of repentance in Ninevah after all, because that’s exactly what has saved him.
Prophets often share the way of the Lord with others because of a compelling spiritual moment in which rough ways are made smooth, in which they’ve experienced inner clarity like never before. Think Saul who becomes Paul on the road to Damascus- blinded in order to truly see Christ. John the Baptist is another prophet, sent to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching a baptism of repentance--a fancy way of saying turn in a different direction; choose a new path; if you’re truly sorry, don’t do that thing again. Whatever choices are in your control and are hurting you, hurting others, even making God sad, make better choices. John the Baptist is passionate about this message, because he believes we are people worthy of second chances. Because turning away from the world’s insatiable hunger for more (more power, more popularity, more possessions) is what saved him; what can save us all. What can bring us actual peace on earth.
Did you notice where John finds himself when the word of the Lord comes to him? He’s in the middle of nowhere--wilderness; not surrounded by a crowd, no warm and comfortable home; certainly not holding any high office. His story begins, though, with a long list of important people in Jesus' day. It’s as if this contrast matters: the Emperor, the governor, the rulers of Galilee, even the high priests- yet none of them are given the word of the Lord. Only this dude who eats bugs & weirds everyone out by how badly he smells; telling folks that a baptism of repentance is how you find peace of mind, heart, and soul.
Why repentance? Why is repentance the way to peace? I’ll say it again: Because true repentance hinges on the belief that people are worthy of second chances- yes, even us.
Do you believe this? I think it took Jonah a good long while before he believed the violent folks in Ninevah were worthy of a second chance. Heck it took awhile for Jonah to believe HE was worthy of a second chance. I bet John the Baptist would have even doubted his own message had he been alive to witness the Roman Empire torture and kill his cousin Jesus. Are even those who murder worthy of repentance? Jesus says it's true with his dying breath: Forgive them, for they know not what they do.
That my friends, is what makes Christ the Prince of Peace. He does the unfathomable- gives a second chance to those who kill him. If that’s not counter-cultural in our day and age, what is? If you are searching for peace, Jesus says you won’t find it in rage, in resentment, in restless searching for more.
No, only in repentance. And as a people forgiven, we practice forgiveness as a way of being; we prepare the way of the Lord by preparing our hearts for peace. Repentance means willing to let our hearts be changed: our attitudes, our opinions, our need to be right all the time. That changes when we get serious about Christ’s ways above ours.
When we live in the light of grace, our daily decisions will change; We’ll prioritize our time differently; We’ll engage people around us in a new way; we’ll find ourselves talking less in favor of listening more; we’ll act from a heart of contemplation rather than reactionary rage; we’ll see the world as it could be, even when others cannot. That’s how John the Baptist led others to Christ. Preparing the way of the Lord with a vision of peace: "Every valley shall be filled- every mountain made low. Crooked things made straight, and rough ways made smooth.”
God is a God of second chances.
When I forget to love my neighbor as myself, because I'm overwhelmed with my own issues, Jesus offers me a chance at repentance, turning my heart back to God.
When we enact violence against people who don't look or sound like us, Jesus offers us a chance at repentance, turning our hearts back to God.
When you forget that you bear the image of God, Jesus invites you to the table and says, “beloved child, you are welcome back into my holy embrace. I am a God of second chances.
The work of the Kingdom begins within each of our hearts. It’s the only way to lasting peace, so may we find our hearts opened to the gift of repentance in our lives this Advent. When I'm tempted to act from a place of human insecurity or pain, it helps me to know that I have a role in preparing the way of the Lord...who I am and how I act is significant to God's coming kingdom. The same is true for all us who long for the day when all flesh might know the gift of peace from the Prince of Peace. Transformation from the inside out, until the whole world is aglow with repentance and grace.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.