John appears near Jerusalem, with bugs in his teeth from his locust meals, with the wild in his eyes, howling at the world to repent. A voice crying out from the wilderness, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).
Something happened to John the Baptist, drawing him into the wilderness. Something tugged at his life, pulling him into the desert.
In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter three begins with John in the wilderness. Then, in chapter four, we find Jesus in the wilderness, in the company of devils and angels. And when Jesus reemerges from the desert, ready to speak to the world, he sounds just like John. “From that time,” it says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17).
Whatever happened to John the Baptist also happened to Jesus. Both of them, led by some force, by some voice, by some stirring in the spirit, both of them led into the wilderness, alone with beasts and spirits, and returning to the world to say the same thing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
A call to repentance. To repent, metanoia in Greek. It means something fundamental has changed in your mind. Something has happened to your thinking, to how you make sense of the world, to what the world means, to what your life means. The ground has shifted in your mind, an earthquake in your life. The map of your world has been redrawn and you’re left grasping for new landmarks, new coordinates. What was familiar now has become baffling, a world now made strange, mystifying—and not just the world, but you become a mystery to yourself, as you and your world unravels and is remade into something so new that you can’t quite understand it yet. You can’t quite know what it all means. You are living without fully grasping what is happening, what is about to come, what is soon to arrive.[i]
Isaiah says it will look like a lion eating straw like an ox (Isaiah 11:7)—a lion, a skilled killer, with deadly claws and bloodthirsty fangs, will let its identity unravel and become like an ox.[ii]
Lions eat fifteen pounds of flesh each day. That’s what their bodies need. That’s what is natural—to kill and to eat whatever animals they can sink their teeth into, pigs and zebras, giraffes and goats, antelope and wildebeests. And, in Isaiah’s vision, the lion is undone, as it learns how to graze in the fields alongside sheep and cows. What kind of lion is this? What will become of the lion when something so fundamental to its existence as eating habits are changed? Isaiah prophesies a world that is the undoing of our world.
In the wilderness, John gets a glimpse of something that shatters his reality, that unfastens his grasp on life. And now he’s dressed like a camel, his beard matted with honey and locusts, prophesying a fire burning through the old world like chaff (Matthew 3:12)—because something unspeakable has shaken our foundations. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
John catches a glimpse of heaven, and he is drawn out of his mind. All he can do is call others to this same repentance, to loosen their grip on the life that they wanted, as they welcome heaven into the world.
These stories—about lions becoming oxen, about John becoming a camel, about God becoming human—there’s a craziness to it all, a madness to what is being described. The world feels wobbly in these stories, like the ground is shifting as we try to keep on walking. And not just the world out there but also the world inside of us, inside our heads—and that’s what repentance means. It’s the way we have to rearrange things inside of our heads in order to deal with the surprise of the news of a new world. Repentance is the way our lives shift because of the shock of the gospel—the foundations of our world quaking, rocking in Mary’s womb.
When we see John in our passage for today, we see him after he has been shocked into imagining a new world—where the wolf shall live with the lamb, as Isaiah says, and where the poor will receive justice, as we read in the Psalm, where God’s love showers the earth, divine love as a gentle rain (Psalm 72:6).
John has fallen in love with the promise of this new world, and he can’t help but call others into it, to cry-out along the riverbanks, desperate for others to see what he has seen, to desire the advent of a world that’s unspeakably good.
That’s what captures me. This love that looks like madness, because John loves a world that is yet to come. John loves a promise that will shake the foundations of our lives.
To love God’s world, to love the world that God wants us to have—that’s what repentance is all about. It’s to let the quake of God’s love shake off all that grips our lives in patterns of destruction, what we call sin—all the ways we hurt ourselves and others, all the ways that forces beyond us hurt us and our neighbors.
Repentance is to devote ourselves to God’s world, a world where, as the Psalmist says, God will judge the people with righteousness and the poor with justice, where God will defend the cause of the poor, deliver the needy, and crush the oppressor (Psalm 72:2, 4).
That’s what it means to believe in God. That’s what it means to be people of faith, to be faithful people—to love this world, to let God’s love change our minds again and again, drawing us further and further into the advent of God’s promised world.
The advent of this promised world is not only about us. It’s about God. Because this season of advent celebrates God’s desire for us, to draw close to us, to be with us, to become one of us, to know our human condition from the inside.
There’s an ecstasy in the heart of God, of living beyond the protections of heaven, of trembling the wall between heaven and earth, of letting all that keeps God from us come crashing down. That’s what we see in the incarnation of Jesus—the ecstatic love of God in the flesh, divine love that refuses to be separated from us, love that lets itself become vulnerable: a human child, to be held by us.
This is the shock of the gospel during advent—that God became a crying and hungry child, an image that shatters all of our thoughts about what the word “God” means.[iii]
When we join the donkeys and cows gathered around Christ’s manger, when we peek over the shoulders of the shepherds and magi to gaze down at Jesus, do we know anymore what we mean when we say “God”?
To repent, metanoia in Greek. A fundamental change in your mind, in your thinking, in what the world means—a shift in what your life means, and perhaps what you think God means. During advent, our map of God is redrawn, and we’re left grasping for new landmarks, new coordinates.
God, who we think of a distant, as ungraspable, as beyond us—this God wants to be held by us, Jesus in Mary’s arms, the strangeness of God becoming even stranger, because so familiar, an infant.[iv]
Repent, for the child of heaven has come near. And this one from God is our undoing—the undoing of our world, the undoing of our lives—because when God’s love gets close (close to our world, close to our lives), the powerful lose hold of their oppressive grip and we discover that our lives are no longer our own. We lose our grip on ourselves, because God’s love draws us into another, into a neighbor, into the lives of God’s beloved people.
[i] Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge University Press, 2010): “Becoming what we are only by way of the influence upon us of the divine image incarnate in human flesh, we become incomprehensible to ourselves in that what we have become is no longer anything explicable in simply human terms… By attaching ourselves to the incomprehensible that has attached itself to us in becoming incarnate for this very purpose, we become in the strongest sense incomprehensible ourselves. One with Christ, incomprehensible in his divinity, we take on the very incomprehensibility of the divine rather than simply running after it, working to reproduce it in human terms” (56).
[ii] I’m indebted to this sermon for turning my focus to the lion: https://signonthewindow.wordpress.com/2016/12/04/2092/
[iii] Tanner, Christ the Key: “Jesus is not the comprehensible stand-in or substitute for an incomprehensible divinity but the very exhibition of the incomprehensible divinity of the Word in a human form or medium. Jesus displays in his life what it means to be an incomprehensible image in the flesh of an incomprehensible God” (54-55).
[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (Cambridge University Press, 2001): “The familiar is what we are used to, and what we are used to is the most difficult to ‘know’—that is, to view as a problem, to see as strange, as distant, as ‘outside us’” (215).