Mark 1:1-8--Isaiah 40:1-11--II Peter 3:8-15a
St Andrew’s, Carbondale
Back when the personal computer was a relatively new thing—and, I’m afraid to say, I’m old enough to remember that—we had to learn some new vocabulary; most of the time, familiar words used in an unfamiliar way. One of these words was “peripheral,” used as a noun. A peripheral is something that performs a useful function—a printer, for example—but is more or less useless unless a computer tells it to do whatever it does. A printer, or a speaker, or a set of headphones, are absolutely dependent on being connected somehow to a computer (keeping in mind that a smart phone or an iPod is actually a small computer). That's why they call it "peripheral."
Practicing Christian faith in this complex world of ours is in some ways like using a computer. There are fundamentals and there are peripherals. Both fundamentals and peripherals are necessary and good, but they are of benefit to us only if we remember which ones are which. As Catholic Christians, we have an overflowing abundance of spiritual “peripherals” to pave the way and illuminate and otherwise assist us on our journey back to God.
This is especially apparent during this time of year when we prepare for Christmas:
Advent Wreaths in our homes, Advent Calendars to heighten the sense of anticipation in our children, seasonal music, even the Salvation Army bellringers outside the stores. During the rest of the year we have retreats and quiet days, spiritual direction, small groups,various classes, icons and other forms of Christian art, birthday blessings, symbolic vestments, kneeling-standing-sitting and making the sign of the cross, Sunday School classes, books of prayer and books on prayer. The list could go on, virtually without end. We are surrounded by religious peripherals—good and gracious gifts from God which are his instruments in drawing us to himself.
Surrounded to such a degree, in fact, that it becomes a challenge to distinguish the peripherals from the fundamentals. It is alarmingly easy to become so involved in the practice of Christian religion that we lose touch with the practice of Christian faith. Jesus, and the centrality of our relationship to him, can, if we're not attentive, become lost in the shuffle. And it is precisely to this possibility that an unkempt and ill-mannered John the Baptist addresses himself on this the Second Sunday of Advent.
What a sight he is! Skin tanned into leather by the desert sun, wearing a crudely put-together outfit made of camel hide, chowing down on grasshoppers and honey pilfered directly from the beehive. In an era before theme parks, John the Baptist is a one-man “Six Flags Over the Jordan.” His message is like a slap in the face, like a splash of antiseptic on an open wound. “Snap out of it! Listen up! Something very important is about to happen and—trust me on this—if you're not ready for it when it comes, you’ll be sorry. If you think I'm in your face, wait till you meet who comes next. I’m nothing compared to him. And the best way to get ready to meet him is to change your ways, to stop what you’re doing and start doing something else. The way to prepare for the one I’m telling you about is to repent.”
The news that commands our attention this morning—it’s good news, actually, though we might not experience it that way yet—the news that commands our attention is that the first thing we've got to do to prepare for the coming of Christ is to repent. Repentance prepares us to joyfully celebrate the feast of Christmas, to welcome into our hearts yet again the Word made Flesh, God incarnate, the one who came in weakness to be our savior. And repentance keeps us prepared to welcome that same Christ when he returns into our world in triumph to be our judge.
Now please understand that when I talk about repentance I’m not talking about regret, or feeling sorry for what we’ve done or left undone. Sorrow for our sins is appropriate, but that’s not repentance. Repentance is what the captain of a large ship does when it’s headed toward the rocks. First, he’s got to stop the forward momentum in the dangerous direction. When we repent, the first thing we’ve got to do is stop what we’re doing, to get quiet and still. The next thing the ship’s captain has to do is turn the vessel around, to change the direction it’s headed, to point the bow of the ship away from the rocks and out toward the open sea. When we repent, after we stop, we’ve got to turn, to turn toward Christ. We’ve got to face Christ, Christ who is both savior and judge. Before we can receive his forgiveness, we must receive his judgement. The third thing the ship’s captain has to do is power up the engines once again and start moving in the new direction. In the movement of repentance, this means focusing intently, keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus and following him as he leads us out of the mess we've gotten ourselves into.
The whole thing is like a parent dealing with a toddler in the midst of a temper tantrum. A swat to the backside gets his attention—John the Baptist does the honors in that department. Then the parent grasps the child by the shoulders and turns him around, away from the toy or the book or the person that is the object of the tantrum. Then the parent might even gently hold the child by the jaw and make unambiguous eye contact and say, “Look at me.” God calls us to repentance through such vehicles as John the Baptist. But he knows repentance doesn't come naturally to us, so he’s around to help us out in various ways.
Repentance is not only unnatural, it can be downright unpleasant. So we do well to bear in mind what’s at stake. What’s at stake is our preparedness. Whether we’re ready or not, Christmas will come. But at least we know when that coming of Christ will occur.
Other comings of Christ are unannounced. Christ may “come” for any of us, in a special personal way at any time, according to his purposes. If we have not prepared through repentance, he will be like a painter arriving on a job site and finding that the wall has not been scraped or primed, and therefore cannot be painted. And Christ will come for all of us, publicly and permanently, on the last day as he has promised, that great day when, in the words of II Peter, “the heavens and the earth will pass away with a loud noise and the elements will be dissolved with fire.”
If he comes on that day and we have not prepared for that coming through repentance, he will be like a master chef arriving in the kitchen to find that no one has washed and chopped the vegetables or measured out the spices, or prepared the raw meat. So there is quite a bit at stake. Repentance may not be as glamorous as some of the “peripherals” of Christian religious practice. But without it, they have no meaning. Repentance leads to forgiveness and reconciliation. And forgiveness and reconciliation lead to conversion of life. And conversion of life leads to full preparedness for whatever coming of Christ we care to contemplate. And preparedness means the wall will get painted and the meal will get cooked and all will be well.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.