Below is the “ish” text of my Advent 2 sermon preached at Epiphany yesterday morning. I say “ish” because I ascended the steps of the pulpit with a general outline but elaborated and colored as the Spirit led. If you would prefer you can listen here.
When I was growing up there was a little church near my house that we would pass on the way to the store. For about 15 years they had a sign that read, “Jesus is coming soon, are you ready?” it was on one of those deli signboards with the removable letters. The reason it stood out was not because of the message, but because the “N” in “soon” was backwards. For 15 years this sight amused and fascinated me. “If Jesus really is coming soon, you had better flip that ‘N’ around.”
But, if the “N” wasn’t backwards I probably wouldn’t have taken much notice then, and I surely wouldn’t remember it now. So, I now wonder, did some clever church member do it on purpose to give us pause? …to force us to keep awake? Whatever the reason, I was a little sad when I went home for a visit a few years back and discovered that there is a new message up. I don’t even remember what the sign says now, but I miss that backwards “N.”
Signs come in many different forms.
Matthew makes it a point to tells us about the absurdity of John’s dress and eating habits for a reason: they were outlandish even at the time. When John came a’ Baptizing – you noticed. I cannot tell you how many sermons I have heard for this day on our liturgical calendar that have started with the preacher singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell. (Despite great temptation, I will not be doing that this morning.) And while some of those sermons have been terrific, I find that we spend so much time parsing Isaiah out of John’s speech that we lose track of the rest of the message. We all remember this imperative that John echoes forward from Isaiah: “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord!” But before John calls us to prepare – he explains how we are to prepare – he calls on us to repent. – Or does he?
Repentance, as we commonly accept the term, brings up images of self-chastisement, guilt, and feelings of inadequacy. We think that if we use our time to repent we are being called to feel badly about our actions and ourselves. But that is not the repentance we are called to here. The word that is translated into “repent” here is the Greek verb metanoia. While this word was translated into the English “Repent” starting in the second century, scholars insist that a more accurate translation would be to say that we are called to “Turn our hearts from sin and towards God.” How different would your interpretation of today’s Gospel passage be if we heard John cry out, “Turn your hearts from sin and towards God; The kingdom of Heaven has come near!”?
Suddenly we are able to hear John in a different way when the repentance he is crying out about is a call to recognize God’s power to transform our lives. Metanoia, is a call to mindfulness, the kind of mindfulness Liz Kinchen urged us to pursue through our New Year’s intentions last week, and through that mindfulness we are opened to receive vision from the mind of Christ. Through that mindfulness we open ourselves to receive the Grace that is constantly being offered to us by a God who wants only to be in relationship with us. Suddenly, when we hear the Baptist’s cry as it was intended, we hear it in a new way because some of the prickly edges have been worn away by our new knowledge.
Signs come in many different forms: there are men in camel hair clothes, sticky with honey from the midday meal screaming about repentance – a stranger on a frigid street corner with a cardboard sign asking for help – the way the light hits you on a particular afternoon, or even the news of the death of an amazing world leader who spoke truth to power, spent years in prison, and freed a people – signs come in many different forms. Whatever the sign is, we have to be open to noticing it. Sometimes, we might even get called upon to be a sign for others. Whatever the sign is, be open to noticing it. Regardless of when it presents itself, we may never be ready for the message or maybe that message will be exactly what you need to hear to get ready for the coming of the King.
We all need a backwards “N” in our lives to make us stop long enough to ask, are we ready? We need that backwards “N” because I am fairly certain there won’t be anyone wearing a camel hair tunic cinched with a leather belt showing up in our lives anytime soon.
Whatever the backwards N is in your life this Advent season I hope it invites you to go home and ask yourself, am I ready to have my heart broken open by God? Am I ready to turn away from sin and turn my heart toward God? Don’t worry if you aren’t there yet, we are only in Advent 2, and it is the beginning of the year… and God issues that invitation every minute of every day. Listen to the cry of John the Baptist. Give yourself over to metanoia. And remember: Jesus is coming soon, and His birth will change you if you let it.