Advent 2        8 December,  2013        Isaiah 11.1-10; Rom 15.4-13; Matt 3.1-12

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near.

Saying sorry is part of life and for none more so than rail companies, constantly apologising for delays, cancellations and leaves on the line. A few months ago I was on my regular weekly train journey south when there was a rather serious incident on the line. It was nobody’s fault and nothing anyone could do, other than sit and wait... for over two hours. The passengers were pretty cheerful on the whole but after about an hour of being completely stationary by a field somewhere between Stoke and Stafford , there followed an unexpected announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention, please? Owing to an electrical fault is would appear that it is not possible to open or close any of the toilet doors on this train. All toilets are therefore out of use for the remainder of this journey".  A gasp went round the carriage and, like a Mexican wave, everyone crossed his or her legs. Moments later came a second announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, we apologise for the continued delay to this train and we will shortly be passing through the carriages with complimentary tea and coffee for all our customers".

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near.

Making a simple apology or saying sorry isn’t the same as repentance, any more than committing a specific misdemeanour is the same as sin. Both sin and repentance are ongoing and relational – the one about turning away from God, separating ourselves and being apart; the other about trying to offer ourselves to God, breach the separation and draw close. This is why it is not enough, after causing hurt or offence, simply to call out ‘sorry!’ and carry on as before. Before we can repent we actually have to process what we have done. At the other extreme, neither is it right to indulge in a great drama of breast beating, wallowing in the misery of being a worm. True repentance is a rather more challenging proposition than either of these but, strangely, it also has the potential to be more joyful: that is, if it involves genuine acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a change of heart and a desire to put it right – not just a cup of tea when there is no chance of finding a lavatory.

The death of Nelson Mandela reminds us particularly of the relationship and the relational nature of sin, repentance and reconciliation. As many here know better than I, where South Africa was and where it is now could only be brought about by the repentance of many and the forgiveness of even more. 

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near.

When John the Baptist proclaimed his message of repentance, he specifically offered baptism but, of all the ways in which the sacrament of baptism is used or described today, I suspect that repentance is one of the least fashionable. Welcome, yes; thanksgiving, yes; grace, yes but repentance...? Nonetheless, Common Worship now positively identifies the liturgical material for penitential rites as ‘recovering baptism.’ Think for a moment of the questions in the baptismal liturgy:

·        Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

·        Do you submit to Christ as Lord?

·        Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

What are these if not a call to the active living out of repentance, a relational and joyful repentance of turning from darkness to light, coming to Christ as we ‘repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour’? The y sound surprisingly positive but then true repentance – like baptism – is.   

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near.

Yesterday you will all have celebrated the feast of St Ambrose. In my household this is a major solemnity and all rites were duly observed by my own young Ambrose – at length. One of the very few Ambrosian things we didn’t do was to read aloud either of Ambrose of Milan’s treatises Concerning Repentance. Ambrose writes against the Novatians, who claimed amongst other things that although baptism itself could indeed wash away sin, crimes committed after baptism could not necessarily be erased. The logical conclusion would be to wait until your deathbed before being baptised – do it too early and, like sweeping up the falling autumn leaves in October, you realise that you have wasted your time, because a whole lot more are going to fall and you’re going to need to do it all over again...only with baptism, of course, you can’t. So you wait as long as you can, to minimise the risk of post-baptismal sin.   

How strange and downright miserable this is and how different from John the Baptist, with such urgency in his preaching of baptism and repentance, or from Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch who demands to be baptised right now, or from John Chrysostom, who writes of baptism being lively, life giving, something ‘done with rejoicing and gladness’ rather than ‘amidst lamentations and tears’.(1) For God is not so mean as to offer forgiveness only once.   

The re is, of course, something particular about the grace of Baptism which reconciles and restores us to God, renewing our individual and our common humanity. It also opens and reveals for us the understanding that even as (or especially as) Christians we will go astray, again and again and again and that the Baptist’s call to repentance is one which will never leave us. Our repentance must be relational, it must be life-long and it must also be filled with hope rather than sadness, rooted in our trust in God, our desire to be right with him and in our joyful building of the Kingdom. 

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near.

For John the Baptist, repentance and the coming of the Kingdom were inseparable. For Ambrose, the other problem with the Novatian schismatics was that like the Donatists they questioned the authority of the Church Catholic and claimed to have the moral high ground on maintaining the perfection and purity of the Church. How could they? The Church on earth is not pure. It never has been and nor is it now. Only when the Kingdom comes will all finally be well. Whereas now, if we are serious about building that Kingdom, the Church itself and we as members of it are all called to repentance. Repentance for a history involving oppression, injustice and turning a blind eye to abuse, as well as for those very issues which Ambrose’s opponents thought they were solving but were actually making worse: schism and disunity.   

Unlike the Novatians, Ambrose knew that the Church, imperfect as it is, really can offer forgiveness and absolution to all those who come before God in a genuine spirit of repentance. We might even say that it is because the Church is broken that it can minister to those who are broken, just as it is because of the humanity of Christ in his Incarnation that we human beings can be restored and renewed by his divinity. If we deny our brokenness, individually or corporately, there is arrogance and pride. Ironically this is only equalled by imagining that we are so broken that we cannot be fixed. For there too, however unintentional, is arrogance and pride. For no one is beyond God’s power, no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and no one is beyond God’s mercy.   

Ambrose’s treatises Concerning Repentance recognise this and emphasise the importance of mercy – both human mercy and divine. For, he says, ‘the most beautiful of all virtues is gentleness'(2), by which he means that true repentance and forgiveness are restorative, healing, a positive outpouring of mercy and love. Perhaps we have glimpsed this in the news from South Africa but we see it more perfectly in Isaiah, where the lion and the lamb are reconciled in peace. 

So, let us remember our baptism; reconcile ourselves to God and each other and in joy and Advent hope, rather than just in sorrow:

Repent, for the Kingdom at Heaven has come near. 

1. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 9.5

2. Ambrose Concerning Repentance (2 books) 1.1