The Second Sunday of Advent, Year C – Luke 3:1-6
Last Sunday I spoke with you about the future and I suggested that the coming of the future is a theme that runs throughout this Season of Advent. I wasn’t talking about the foreseeable future, the future we plan and prepare for, the one we can reasonably expect to happen. I was talking about the unforeseeable future, the one that is beyond our knowing, power, and control, the one for which we hope against hope. That unforeseeable future is bigger than what we imagine ourselves capable or possible of. It holds the possibility of the impossible, a new life, a fresh start, a transformed life.
Haven’t there been times in your life when you’d have given anything for a new life? When you needed a fresh start? When you ached to have your life transformed? Or maybe you’ve felt your heart break at the pain of the world. Maybe you were touched by the desperation of a woman or child you will never meet. Maybe you’ve wept over the seemingly endless acts of violence or injustice across the world. In whatever way those things have come up for you that was your longing for the unforeseeable future and the opening of yourself to the possibility of the impossible.
That unforeseeable future is contained in the word of God that came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. It’s the promise of Advent. It’s the hope in today’s gospel (Luke 3:1-6). It’s at the heart of John’s proclaiming a baptism of repentance. And the coming of that future, its advent in our lives, necessarily focuses our attention on the past.
What do you see when you look at your past? What are the feelings and thoughts?
For some the past is a painful memory, a chain that still binds, a lost chance, a failing grade. For others the past bring about a smile of gratitude, maybe nostalgia, or even a longing for the good old days. For most of us the past is probably a mixture of the two.
Regardless of how we view our past, regardless of what did or not happen back then, to the degree we are enmeshed, entangled, or enslaved to our past, “we can expect the future to look like the past” (Caputo, The Weakness of God, 169). We repeat the same patterns, tell ourselves the same old stories, and listen to same old voices. And not much changes. Life becomes static and we are stuck in the past trying to live a life that is no longer.
John’s call for repentance is the call for us to face and deal with our past. While we cannot undo or alter the past, we can break free from it. “When God holds sway, the past is dismissed. Where God rules, the past does not rule” (Caputo, The Weakness of God, 169). That does not mean the past has no consequences for our future. It means that the past does not necessarily have to define us or determine our future. The question behind repentance, therefore, is not about what we have done or left undone, what has happened or not happened to us, but about what has laid claim to our life. The past reveals who and what has laid claim to our life.
In that regard, repentance is not so much about changing from bad to good, wrong to right, sinner to righteous (though there is certainly nothing wrong with any of those). It’s about freedom from our past. It’s about a change of heart that let’s ourselves be laid claim to by another (Caputo, The Weakness of God, 143). It’s about letting ourselves be laid claim to by something new, something different, something unimaginable and impossible. Maybe that’s the difference between John and all those other people named in today’s gospel.
The word of God did not come to Tiberius, emperor of Rome. It did not come to Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea. It did not come to Herod, ruler of Galilee. It did not come to Philip, ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis. It did not come to Lysanias, ruler of Abilene. And it did not come to the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. Instead, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah.
The word of God did not come to the palaces and headquarters of the powers that be. It came in the wilderness. It did not come to the emperor, the governor, the rulers, or the high priests. It came to a wild man, a prophet, a voice crying in the wilderness.
The word of God laid claim to John’s life in a way it did not lay claim on those other lives. Perhaps political power, economic security, and religious certainly had already laid claim to their lives, whereas the powerlessness, insecurity, and uncertainty of the wilderness had laid claim to John’s life. Maybe that’s the gift, the grace, that the wilderness times of life bring us. And I wonder, which is it for you?
What has laid claim to your life? And in what ways has that claim bound you to the past and denied you a new life, a fresh start, a transforming future? Maybe it’s fear, anger, disappointment, guilt, regret. Maybe it’s loss, despair, or sorrow. Maybe it’s busyness, ambition, the need for approval, to be successful. Maybe it’s a broken relationship, a broken heart, a harsh and critical voice. There are thousands of claims being made on us.
I don’t want us to rehash the past and talk about what we could’ve or should’ve done, or how we can improve ourselves. That’s not repentance and that’s not what John is proclaiming in today’s gospel. Those are just more fraudulent claims on our lives. I want us to let the past be our teacher, a voice that calls us into a new life. I want us to face and deal with our past in order to wake up, to break free, and let ourselves be more fully claimed by faith, hope, love; God’s faith in us, God’s hope for us, God’s love of us.
What would your life look like if the primary claims on you were faith, hope, and love? What doors would open to you? How would that change your relationships? How might you see and engage the world and others differently?
I don’t know what claims your life today. I don’t know the stories of your past. But I can tell you this. This repentance, this breaking free from the past, fills the valleys and low places of our lives, brings low the mountains and hill that were previously beyond our reach, straightens the crooked parts of our lives, and smooths the rough ways.
What claims your life today? Which claims are fraudulent and need to be denied? And what would it take to open yourself to be laid claim to by something new, some different, something that promises the possibility of the impossible?
John Caputo, The Weakness of God – A Theology of the Event (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).