There’s nothing quite like having to drive home after a long trip. No matter how much fun you’ve had visiting relatives or seeing a new place, the car ride home is almost always unbearable. Driving to your destination is always filled with anticipation; each mile you travel is a mile closer to your goal, and so even a long drive can be exhilarating. The drive back, however, is almost always excruciating. As you think about all of the chores you need to attend to when you arrive home (opening mail, unpacking suitcases, doing laundry, feeding cats, emptying litter boxes), the endless road stretches ahead of you with no sign of your destination. You try desperately not to look at the clock, thinking “it must have been hours since I last checked the time.” When you finally do peek at your dashboard clock, convinced that at least an hour had passed, it has invariably only been five minutes. The journey can feel even longer when you haven’t enjoyed yourself on the trip. In either case, all you want to do is get home. This is why every delay, every traffic jam, every construction zone is a hundred times worse driving home. The old adage is true: the shortest distance between two points is under construction. After a long journey, we wish we could make the way home as short as possible, a trip without obstacles or obstructions. After a long journey, the only thing we really want to do is get home.
In our gospel reading for today, we encounter one of the stranger characters in the New Testament, a prophet who calls his people home. We’d already met John the Baptist at his birth, when his father Zechariah sings the song that we read just a few moments ago. (By the way, the first two chapters of Luke are a lot like a Broadway musical; all of the important characters burst into song at regular intervals). From this song we learned that John was destined to be a prophet of the Most High and was going to prepare the way of the Lord. Today we see him fulfilling his destiny on the banks of the Jordan. Luke begins the story of the baptizer by putting John’s ministry in historical context; he wants us to know exactly what was happening in the world when John was baptizing. After telling us who was ruling the various territories where our drama takes place (including Abilene), Luke tells us John was going around the Jordan “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This is a little surprising. We’ve recently heard that John the Baptist’s role is to prepare the way of the Lord and to give God’s people knowledge of salvation. The Song of Zechariah doesn’t say anything about repentance. And yet John the Baptist was telling people that in order to accept the forgiveness offered to them by God, they had to repent of their sins. Repentance is something that tends to make us a little uncomfortable; we’d really prefer to avoid it, not because we’re not sorry, but because we’d rather not dwell on the things we’ve done wrong. John the Baptist and his message of repentance force us to confront and deal with those aspects of our lives that we would prefer to keep under wraps. And when we’re forced to confront our sins, when we’re forced to confront those things that we’ve done wrong, it can be unsettling. I think this is part of the reason we only trot John the Baptist out one or two Sundays a year: he makes us uncomfortable and threatens the status quo. We cannot, however, remove him from the equation: the gospel and our preparation for the coming of God into the world simply do not make sense without John’s message of repentance.
But what does John’s baptism of repentance look like? As you probably know, the word we translate as “repent” comes from the Hebrew word for “turn.” In some ways, we’re talking about a very simple and clear cut action: facing one direction and then turning around, going the wrong way and then turning around to go the right way. But if we look at the Greek word for repentance, the waters start to get a little muddy. The word that appears in our gospel reading for today can literally be translated “going beyond the mind.” It’s kind of a bizarre concept and a little difficult to wrap our heads around. What does it mean to go beyond one’s mind, to transcend one’s normal way of being, and more importantly, how does that inform our concept of repentance?
The passage from Isaiah that Luke quotes to describe John and his mission gives us a window into John’s baptism of repentance. On one hand, this passage seems very simple: the prophecy foretells that there will be a voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord; surely John is just the fulfillment of that prophecy. On the other hand, the passage that Luke quotes comes from Isaiah’s prophecy about Israel’s return from exile. We’re all familiar with the verses that come just before the passage Luke quotes: “Comfort ye my people saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” These verses are about the end of exile, the end of the punishment that God had inflicted on God’s people for their faithlessness. These verses that Luke quotes aren’t just about getting ready for the Lord’s coming, they’re about the fact that God is creating a highway for his people from their exile to their homeland. These verses about the valleys being exalted and the mountains and hills being made low emphasize that the return from exile will not be filled with pitfalls and difficulties, but will occur along a superhighway, a straight and smooth path from a strange land where God’s people were oppressed by foreign powers and unable to worship their God to a place of comfort and safety where they can worship God without fear. Luke doesn’t quote this passage from Isaiah simply because he wants to tell us that John is preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness, but because he wants to evoke this sense of returning from exile, this sense that God’s people have been freed from oppressive powers, that God has liberated God’s people from bondage. It’s no wonder that this theme of freedom appears so frequently in the song of praise Zechariah sings when his son is born: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free.” In other words, John’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance is intimately tied to this idea of being freed from bondage and going home. For John the Baptist, repentance is liberation from the powers of oppression. For John the Baptist, repentance is release from exile.
And this brings us back to the notion of repentance as “going beyond the mind.” Because part of what this process of repentance requires is for us to discern where in our lives we are held in bondage, to determine where we are in exile, to examine those places from which we need to return. Repentance, in other words, requires us to move beyond the status quo and discover those parts of our lives that draw us away from God. More often than not, this discernment will lead us to discover subtle forms of idolatry. I don’t mean to suggest that any of us are worshiping golden calves; I really don’t think that is happening. What I mean to say is that most of the things for which we need to repent generally involve us giving power to something or someone that is not God, making the claim that a creature has more power over us than the creator. This most frequently happens when we decide that certain things in our lives that are indispensable, that we simply cannot live without that big house or that exciting job or that fancy car or that new iPhone or that cup of coffee in the morning or that intractable political position or that extramarital flirtation or that drink at the end of the day or that grudge we’ve been holding for years. Sin is ultimately giving power to those things that are not God, and John the Baptist tells us not to allow these things to have power over us. Instead, we need to go beyond our minds, we need to transcend the status quo, we need to repent and remember that God calls us out of exile, that God has released us from bondage and leads us along a straight and smooth highway into a place of comfort and safety, that God has called us home. Now I’m not saying that this is easy. The work of repentance can be excruciatingly difficult, because it forces us to turn away from things that we don’t think we can live without. It forces us to upset and unsettle the way we live our lives. Moreover it’s work that’s never done. Just after we have turned away from one of the oppressive powers in our lives, another rears its head. But the good news is that when we make that turn, when we go beyond our minds, when we repent, we realize that God has created a highway through the wilderness. What’s more, that highway has always been there for us, awaiting that moment when we would abandon those things to which we had given power and turn back to God. During this season of Advent, during this season when we anticipate the coming of God into the world, may God give us the grace to resist the oppressive powers in our lives, to turn away from those things that we think are indispensable, and to set out on the highway that God has prepared for us, confident that we are on our way home.