Last Sunday Pr. Liebster preached on forgiveness because, as she indirectly admitted, she was too chicken to preach what she thought was the more difficult subject: repentance. She had a choice, so now I have none. Now I must take the Lutheran road less travelled.
Actually, and seriously, repentance sometimes may be the easier theme on which to preach. Or, it is at least as difficult a theme as forgiveness. Repenting and forgiving, forgiving and repenting, the sequencing is not always clear. And often it is more difficult for a person to forgive another than it is to repent of one’s own dark heart. Sometimes one must repent for not forgiving while another must forgive for the other’s not repenting.. I can name times in my life when I have repented because I was forgiven and I have forgiven before another repented. And if I were to hold back forgiveness from another person because of my demand for repentance first, then I have both matters wrong. I will have condemned myself. After all, we pray, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Where there is no forgiveness, there will be no repentance, and where there is no repentance, there was never forgiveness. Where there are both, love abounds, and the endless wedding ring of forgiving and repenting is complete.
Have I confused you enough now?
I speak of this complicated yet daily experience because, deep into Advent, we hear John the Baptizer cheerily calling out to his flock, “You brood of vipers! Repent! For the reign of God is at hand!” Now there’s a cordial welcome to church for you! There’s a differentiated fellow who doesn’t care if others don’t like him. Were John the Baptizer around today, his tweets would be totally viral! He’d have millions of followers! We’d bask in the schadenfreude of John taking down everybody else! He seemed so happy and skilled at calling for repentance with no evident care or skill at being forgiving. But John knew his time in the spotlight was but for the proverbial fifteen minutes. He had urgent stuff to say and had to say it quickly. As the warm up act for the featured star, John had to be precise about what was expected of the crowd as well as of the star. He spoke prophetically, which means to speak truthfully, about life in God’s kingdom now about to arrive. Nor did John care about being remembered for honesty and transparency. Anyone who expresses the desire to be known for that already implicitly confesses failure in so doing. He just does it. He can do no other. John just calls the things of God for what they are…which is what Luther defined the job of a theologian of the cross. Without announcing forgiveness, but already premised on the good news of forgiveness’s arrival, John was direct about repentance: “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Bear fruit worthy of repentance. I’ve long wondered about that phrase. The grammatical ordering can sound like the oddity of chicken fried steak. How does one train a chicken to fry a steak? How does fruit repent? One afternoon this week while walking my dog Fiddich, a woman opened her door to bring her dog out for a walk. That dog, having seen Fiddich, started barking bloody murder, at which the woman immediately yanked her dog back into the house and slammed the door. At that weird moment I realized that I had the ordering wrong. She had turned around, rather urgently actually, and turning around is the literal meaning of repentance. The fruit appropriate to her turning around was that her dog was no longer barking bloody murder. To turn around, to do a 180, to change a behavior from a wrong to a right, to change the course of a life from death to life, that is the meaning of repentance. If repentance is true, then your life bears appropriate fruit. The fruit is reconciled relationship with each other and God’s world. Which is precisely what John was talking about.
Consider his crowd. It was the mix of daily worker and peasant people and contracted government employees and military personnel, of the occupied and the occupier together! All of them together had come out to the wilderness not for a burning man party, but to learn about and to receive the coming kingdom by the compelling words of this truly alt dude in the desert. Tax collectors asked what they should do to turn their lives around. Tax collectors then were independent contractors for the government, basically schedule C people They collected the required tax for Rome and then for their own gain charged as large a commission as they could get away with. John tells them that repentance means not to defraud, but work for a more mutually just social order. John advised similarly for soldiers; don’t demand more with your spear point; don’t extort by violence. Be content with your proper wages. In that context of empire and greed, John proclaimed that the citizen of the new reign of God will not coerce and cheat and steal. John at his first season of Advent preached prophetically—which was to speak plainly and truthfully. He preached that it was no time for complacency, that waiting was a doing, that repenting was a turning from the screams of the world not into one’s secure abode, but directly into the less travelled way into the world with words and hands of reconciliation.
It is a counter-intuitive thing to do today what John exhorted, what with Christmas so much about improving the economy and empire and excess. It is a counter-intuitive thing to do Advent as if it is not the same, as if it matters differently even than last year or a decade or a millennium ago, as if at even “more seasoned” time in our lives we could actually do more than just endure another set of holidays or rest on laurels, or wax nostalgic even to the excess of proudly holding our own griefs against another. Effective things can be done with this new time of Advent so to make for a consequential Christmas. Given our situations right now, what must we turn again from and toward, personally and together, for this December 25 to have new and necessary consequence?
We can turn. We must turn. Indeed, we can do no other. Why? Because there are no bad trees here! Jesus elsewhere in Luke speaks of how bad trees bear bad fruit and good trees good fruit. The bad does not bear good and vice versa. I think of a certain tree at our Iowa home. It is the ugliest most decrepit pear tree one could imagine in all the universe. The trunk is almost all hollowed out; branches have withered, but others ungainly and imbalanced have sprouted distortedly from the top, as if hair grew long and spiked from half a man’s head. Every time I’ve thought often about sparing the tree its further suffering, it has surprised me. It bears fruit. Lots of fruit. Its fruit is not attractive by worldly standards. But forlornness is only my projection onto that old wonderful tree. Instead, it produces baskets full of large, juicy, and sweet pears. The tree demands to point toward the sun, it turns always the right way. Then it feeds birds and deer, even coyotes, the Schedule C creatures of the animal kingdom. And the tree feeds, above all, humans..
That tree does that because holy love already is there. When sun shines and water falls, branches reach out. At any and all times of our lives, no matter what our station and situation, we repent gladly because love already blazes and forgiveness showers like rain. It is the season to turn, turn, turn. Time gladly to repent. For the kingdom of God is at hand. The difference will be, shall we say understatedly, consequential!
Duane Larson December 16, 2018 Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX