The most underappreciated element of Advent and Christmas is repentance. John the Baptist preceded Jesus with the message to Israel for “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And this year more than most I think of the need for repentance in preparing for Jesus’ arrival at Christmas. I know this is in part because throughout 2020 I have seen various people connecting the COVID crisis, social unrest, and elections to 2 Chronicles 7:14
if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
I have been pondering this verse lately and I have come to the conclusion there is much truth in applying it to 2020. We need to repent and change our ways if we expect God to bless our land, Like John said:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." Matthew 3:7-10
Here is the difficulty, we all want to be John the baptist pointing people toward Jesus; and we are more accurately the Pharisees he condemns. Our need today is not to call out the sins of others, our need is to call out our own sins and those of the tribes with which we allign. What did it mean for Solomon and his people to repent? Did repentance in Israel mean calling out the sins of Edom or Tyre? No, and likewise my concern for repentance should be the Church not countries like America. And specifically, I should be concerned with the places in the church where I have influence and most closely allign theologically. I cannot be concerned for the repentance of those who have no allegiance to the Church, just like John had no expectation of Roman repentance.
Often the temptation for us is to focus on the flagrant sins of others, mistakenly thinking that those are the sins which are angering God. We, like the Pharisees in John 8, sit with stones in hand while Jesus is asking, “Which of you has no sin?” I see so many pastors calling out the sins of America, and somehow they are never the sins which their communities commit. What is the greatest sin in this country– in many ways it is not racism or abortion– rather the greatest sin is my unwillingness to deal with my own selfishness, greed, and hatred. I should not be focused on how other congregations get it wrong; I should be focused on how I and the people I love fail. I so often want to lash out at individuals in the Christian community for the ways they express themselves and today I sit here realizing that I am the chief of sinners. This post began with my anger in reading a post (and the comments) on Facebook by a Christian leader for whom I have lost respect. The original idea for this post was to blatantly and forcefully call out this individual for pointing out the sins of others while never mentioning the sins which this individual justifies. As I was writing the first draft, I recognized that I, in calling out this leader [who, of course, would never read my post], was participating in the very same action.
You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. Matthew 7:5
I have my own issues, I have my own sins, and if I am going to call others to repentance then I need to set the priority on cleaning out my own house. I need to work on loving this individual [whatever that means for a person I do not know] before I can ruthlessly criticize another person’s actions. There is a time and a place for calling out the injustice and sin of a public figure [I have done so before and will probably do so again] but I must recognize repentance starts at home. I cannot call out another person’s need to repentance before I am sure that my own heart is right. I must recognize that my sins are important to God because I am part of God’s people; America’s sins are not necessarily as important to God because not all Americans would identify as God’s people. It becomes imperative for me to ask myself is my life, my house, my congregation in line with God’s ideals? Are the places in my life prepared for Jesus’ arrival? I am not John the Baptist calling out the Pharisees of America; I am the Pharisee being told I am a viper– I am not a legitimate child of Abraham. Advent is about me considering my circle, bringing repentance to my own life and those around me. If we want God to bring healing to us and our communities we cannot call on others to repent, we must take the burden upon ourselves, because we are God’s people, called by God’s name.