Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist is on the scene, calling for repentance, and people are flocking to him.
Does this surprise you? John the Baptist, with “You brood of vipers!” on his lips, draws a crowd from all over, of all kinds of people. Are they simply curious? Perhaps initially they do what we all do when they see an oddity: They pause and look and attempt to figure out what’s happening. However, we learn in the Gospels that they do more than gawk. They stay. They listen. They respond. They confess. They get baptized. What is going on here? What are people seeking and what do they find in this seemingly harsh word from John the Baptist?
Two Harvard Divinity students, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, did research a few years ago they titled, “How We Gather.” (They have since gone on to do additional research, which you can find and download at https://sacred.design/insights.) Their initial work “maps the merging landscape of Millennial communities that are fulfilling the functions that religious congregations used to fill.” Thurston and ter Kuile discovered six consistent themes in places like CrossFit and CTZNWELL: community, personal transformation, social transformation, purpose finding, creativity and accountability. Some of these themes are unsurprising — community and purpose finding, for example. But how about accountability? Are we church people taken aback to learn that others are seeking accountability? Thurston and ter Kuile define accountability as “holding oneself and others responsible for working toward defined goals.” This seems apt for something like CrossFit, but what about in other areas of our lives? Could John the Baptist’s strange appeal be linked to this need for accountability in all aspects of our lives? Don’t we have a longing, somewhere in us, to live with integrity and be the people we say we are or aspire to be?
Many of the organizations featured in “How We Gather” talk of qualities like “rigor” and “challenge” and “practice.” In the final pages of this report Thurston and ter Kuile note, “We suspect that something will fill the opening left by struggling faith institutions, and we wish for it to be a network of organizations that meet millennials with love, depth and vigor.” Love. Depth. Vigor. Perhaps John the Baptist’s large numbers ought not be a surprise after all. Maybe those of us in the pews and pulpits, fearful of our fading influence and declining attendance, have expected and offered too little. I wonder if in our anxiety about the rapid change in the world and our need to articulate the gospel through new mediums we exchanged the deep, vigorous, loving word of God for cheap grace wrapped in what we hope is relevant and entertaining.
We need John the Baptist. All of us. Every year. He is so bizarre, cast in stark relief to the cheery, vapid Christmas music, the meaningless advertisements of empty consumerism, the shallow depictions of perfect families — and that is exactly why we need his camel hair and call to repentance. We know, even as we think aspire to them, that those messages of more and perfect do not hold up in the messiness of our lives. Families are complicated. No home is perfect. No gadget or bobble gives purpose or meaning or hope — not for long and not really. We recognize we often hurt others, especially those closest to us. We know we do not care for the creation that sustains us. We say and do what we ought not and fail to act in ways we know we should. Somewhere in us we long to be held accountable and given the chance to repent and attempt to do and be better.
John the Baptist affords us this opportunity on Advent 2 every year. It is a new liturgical year and God loves us enough to hold us accountable, to be who and whose we are. Jesus is coming and we can be ready to meet him, not perfectly, but honestly, knowing he comes with merciful judgment that frees us to imitate him, haltingly, but surely.
I am not fond (not initially anyway) of being called on my viper-ness. It stings. And yet, I need people in my life who love me enough, who believe in me enough, who know God’s grace and power well enough, to call me to repentance, trusting that transformation is possible and I am worth the trouble of the work and the time and the energy it takes to help it come to fruition. John the Baptist, the gospel and the church offer that kind of accountability and, believe it or not, others in this world are searching for it, too.
The Marshall Project recently published an article on an art project in a California prison. Acclaimed French artist, JR, collaborated with prisoners, correctional officers and victims of crime to create a massive, ephemeral mural on the roof of the prison. It featured the faces of those who participated. It enabled a group of people to work together who ordinarily would not have. Barrett Fadden, one of the incarcerated men involved said this, “As a direct result of JR’s project here, I have seen men change their lives for the better, two of whom I am now sponsoring through the twelve-step program. I think the biggest misconception about people in prison is that we are somehow less than human, and beyond helping. But we are not worthless, we have value and we can change.”
People, all people, have value. They can change. Accountability assumes both these truths. John the Baptist demonstrates God’s belief in both our value and our potential to be transformed for good. Advent invites us to confess, fully and without fear, knowing that repentance leads to merciful forgiveness with the coming of Jesus Christ. It is a new liturgical year. John the Baptist is here. Jesus is coming. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Thanks be to God.
- How do we hold each other accountable in our congregations? How ought we hold each other accountable and for what?
- When have you experienced the transformation of confession and repentance?
- How can churches offer the love, vigor and depth people outside of our communities are seeking?
- Do you think you would have been draw to John the Baptist? Why or why not?
- Do you believe you, and others, have the ability to change? Is transformation possible?
- The Isaiah text talks of judging the poor with righteousness and equity for the meek. What might this look like in our communities this Advent?
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