Heavenly Father, you have spoken. We give you thanks for the gift of the Bible. Give us grace now and always to heed Your word and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ, the Word, our Redeemer. Amen.
I saw a great image floating around the internet this week. It was a photograph of a rather disheveled man. Big scraggly beard, long unkempt hair, a bit of a crazed look in his eyes. The text on the photograph read, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” The character in the image was, of course, John the Baptist by whom we are confronted today and every Advent.
John, like all prophets, makes us uncomfortable. He has one job, according to Luke, to prepare the way of the Lord and to do this by calling Israel to repent. This is a hard word, a word which confronts, disturbs, unsettles, speaks against, all the while calling and consoling. It is a hard word but it is God’s own word. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius,” writes Luke, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” This is the role of the prophet, to be a mouth which speaks only the word which God gives him or her to speak, a word which confronts Israel and then the Church, calling her—calling us—to turn our disobedient hearts back to God, to prepare for the coming of our Lord, that we might live. This is where I want to direct our attention this morning. In a word, I want to talk about repentance.
Repentance is a fruit of the word of God which comes to us through the prophets. Let us then begin with the word of God. The first thing to note about the word of God from our gospel reading this morning is that it came to John from outside of himself. The word which the prophet is given to speak, the word which the Church is given to speak, is not a self-generated word. As it is written in the second epistle of Peter: “no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God,” (1:21). Prophets are given an unfamiliar word that shakes up the familiar. Christians are people who claim to take God seriously but I wonder if we fail to take God seriously enough, for often the god which we take seriously looks and sounds a good deal like us. Our god is too familiar.
If we can come to church week after week and never be made uncomfortable by the God we gather to worship then the god we worship may not be the God of the Gospel.
God is God and we are not, so too His word is His word, and not our word. Yet it comes to us, gathers us, and beckons our response.
And so God addresses us and this address is the very ground of our being. This is to say that God’s word is that which not only creates us but sustains us and all that is to the very depth of our being. In a few moments when we offer our gifts of bread and wine, Beth will say a prayer over the gifts on behalf of all of us, saying, “God our strength, we are nothing without you.” Indeed, apart from God’s creative and sustaining word we are nothing. Literally, we are no-thing. Apart from God, nothing that is would be at all, you and I included. We simply are, because of God. Without God, nothing. Nothing at all. To confess this, as Christians learn to do, is not to despair. It is the furthest thing from despair—it is to hope. It is to remember that everything we are, everything that is at all, is only because God is. We live and move and have our being, says Paul, in God. This means that everything that is, is gift. And the word of God is gift, to Israel, to us.
Perhaps you’re wondering, “how does all of this come to bear on me?” Well, we have a written record of God’s word come to Israel in the Old Testament. And, in the New Testament, what we have is the teaching of the apostles as they looked back upon Israel’s Scriptures and read them in light of the risen Jesus and understood them as pointing to him to begin with. We can say with confidence then that the Bible simply is the word of God, the self-revelation of God to us in history. Indeed, when I was ordained a deacon back in May I made the following vow to the Bishop and to the Church: “I solemnly declare that I do believe the holy scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.” So, if you ever run into a clergy person that tries to skirt around this or deny it you have something with which you can hold them to account!
Now, here’s a provocative claim that I feel comfortable making only because I’m not the first to make it, but it will bring this to a sharper point for us. The Bible simply is Jesus. In other words, to hear the words of Holy Scripture proclaimed, is to hear the words of Jesus, is to hear the Word, Jesus Christ, the very same word of God which the prophets proclaimed to Israel.
So then, when we gather together and hear the Scriptures proclaimed, and when we lock ourselves away in solitude and read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them ourselves, we are being confronted not simply with words about Jesus, not even simply with the words of Jesus, but we are being confronted with the risen and living Jesus himself, who himself calls us through the life of Israel and the life of the Church to forsake our sins which lead only to death and to return to him with our whole heart and live.
The Bible is a gift to us, which as we patiently and over time hear, and as we read it and submit to it in our life together as those whom God has called, we are purified and cleansed in our hearing it and submission to it. Purified and cleansed because it is as the Scriptures are opened that we behold Jesus, and God uses the Scriptures providentially to form our lives over time so that we come to resemble His Son, whose Body we have been made. As such, this practice of hearing God’s word prepares us for the coming of our Lord. Like a refining fire and like fullers’ soap, to quote Malachi, our hearts are purified and cleansed that we might stand with confidence before Christ when he comes again. Is your spiritual life lacking nourishment?
Are you struggling in one way or another in some part of your life? Do you need guidance and wisdom? Read the Bible, hear the strange word of God, and trust in God’s grace to turn your heart towards Him.
We’ve circled back now to that word without which the Christian life is not possible. Repent. Repentance is at the heart of the Christian life because to repent means to forsake our sins and embrace and hold fast to the hope of Jesus Christ. As we prayed together in this morning’s collect: “Almighty God…inspire us…to turn our disobedient hearts to you.” We confess a number of things when we pray such a prayer. We confess that our hearts, like Israel, have turned away from God in disobedience. That we are not naturally inclined towards obedience because we have been born under sin’s oppression. We thus confess that apart from the grace of God we are unable to turn to Him. But God is faithful and He gives us the grace to respond.
So then, we pray, “inspire us…to turn our disobedient hearts to you.” The etymology of the word “inspire” means, literally, “to breath or blow into or upon”, to fill something with life by breathing into it. We might think of someone performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a person who has drowned—literally breathing life into death. In a similar way, we turn our disobedient hearts to God as God inspires us to do so, as He literally fills us with His breath, His Spirit (Spirit and breath are the same word in Hebrew). Christians believe God’s promise that when we turn from our sins to God and are joined to Christ in baptism we receive the Holy Spirit. As John says concerning the one who is coming: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” (3:16). But we are also called to turn anew to God each and every day. In fact, we might say that for the Christian every day begins with repentance, with turning our hearts to God. For example, if you follow the Anglican rhythm of praying the daily office (and if you don’t, you should consider taking up the practice for the remainder of Advent, it will revolutionize your life), you know that Morning Prayer begins with the petition, “Lord, open our lips,” (“And our mouth shall proclaim your praise”). This expresses our utter trust in Christ, that unless he opens our lips and fills us with his Spirit, we have nothing to say at all, we are nothing at all. But if he so opens our lips and fills us, then we have something to say—we have everything.
Brothers and sisters, may this Advent be for you a holy time marked by the diligent reading and hearing of God’s word and the courage to respond in faith and turn to Christ anew each day, each moment sustained by Him. If we are willing to be such a people here in this place then we have nothing at all in this world to fear and everything in Christ to hope for. Amen.