Written by Pastor Ed
Truth that Leads to Repentance
December 7, 2014
Our theme for today states, “Oh, that you would reveal your peace.” Peace is a central idea in Advent and Christmas. It is what the ancient Jews longed for and it is the message that the angels gave to the shepherds out on the hillside. We all long for peace, whether in our personal lives or in the world.
The words of Isaiah, echoed in our call to worship and opening hymn speak of comfort. “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God.” (Is. 40:1) and the images of that chapter are those of a pastoral scene. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in his arms.” We all want our lives to reflect that kind of calm.
And as long as we can experience that, we feel content, satisfied. Life is good, as all the advertising says. Yet that scene is often broken, as it was in the first century, by the voices of the prophets, both ancient and modern who suggest that the peace we so often enjoy is not a true peace but rather a lie.
Such a voice was that of John the Baptist, who follows in a long line of prophets, stretching back to Elijah, whom he emulated. We sometimes think of prophets as fortune-tellers. But as Caroline Lewis says in her commentary about prophets:
“They are not fortune-tellers, not forecasters of the future, not doomsday prognosticators. They are only predictors of what is to come if that future makes sense because of or due to present behavior. They are analyzers of the “now” for the sake of moving toward a different future.”
The prophets were, above all, truth-tellers. They were, in some ways, the ancient equivalent of modern news commentators, although I hesitate to make that comparison because many of today’s commentators are hardly truth tellers. The prophets essentially said, “If you keep on the way you are currently going, this is what will happen.” It was always a call to change the now, in order to alter the future consequences.
But the truth is not always something we want to hear. As Gloria Steinem famously said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will really make you angry.” (to paraphrase it a bit) We all think the prophets are great, so long as their truth is directed at the other person. But if their truth hits a little too close to home, then we tend to label them as rabble-rousers, dismiss them as liberals or conservatives, whichever one we aren’t, and write them off as ideologues.
You see, we want peace and comfort, but often we don’t want what it takes to truly achieve it, for peace and comfort can only be achieved when the truth is told. And the long line of prophets tells us that truth, when it is really truth, will lead to repentance.
John the Baptist, as portrayed by Mark, is such a truth-teller. Into a world of proper religious observance, a priestly order with proper vestments and liturgy came a man who defied all the conventions. He didn’t wear the proper clothes and his diet was unorthodox to say the least. And his message was clear, “Repent.” I’m not sure we can understand how that would have sounded, or gone over, in the religious community of the day.
Perhaps it would be a bit like an account Walter Brueggemann related in a talk he gave at the Society of Biblical Literature several weeks ago. (I got it from Richard Kauffman) Walter relayed this account;
“Some of you will remember when James Foreman conducted a campaign of church sit-ins in order to advance Black Power. These sit-ins were designed to be dramatic and disruptive, and “terrorized” white congregations in the 70s. In a local disruption in St. Louis as a part of the national campaign, Osie Pastard led a sit-in in a downtown Methodist Church. In the midst of the service, his presence being anticipated, Pastard stood up in the midst of the liturgy. The pastor said, ‘What do you want?’ Pastard answered, ‘We have come to pray.’ The pastor, without any sense of irony, said, ‘You cannot pray here; this is a worship service.’ The liturgy had the intended effect of silencing real dissent, and so reinforcing white ideology and control. Interruption was acutely unwelcome.”
John the Baptist would have met the same kind of resistance to his message from the religious community of his day. His was an interruption in the peaceful flow of things. And in fact, we know that the prophets often met resistance and even imprisonment or death because of the truth they were telling. John’s message was not only a call to repentance, but a warning that if you thought his message was unsetting, just wait until the next prophet comes along, who will be even more powerful. The one who will bring the Spirit to blow the current order out of the water. The one who will not only speak the truth, but who is the Truth.
The writer of II Peter also suggests that God is holding off that final day of reckoning so that people will have time to repent. So, he says, we ought to lead lives worthy of our calling, waiting for that day with anticipation, recognizing the truth around us which will lead us to repentance.
Unfortunately, it seems to me, unlike the people who heard the message of John the Baptist and repented, we today are more like the religious establishment of that day who were not ready to hear the truth. Or we only want to hear the truth that fits our view of the world, the way that leaves me comfortable. Unfortunately, there are lots of people out there who would like us to believe they are telling the truth, but are like those ancient false prophets shouting,” Peace, peace”, when there is no peace.
Are we willing, and able, to hear those voices among us today that are calling us to repentance around the truth? Are we willing to face our own prejudices and hear when truth is spoken to us? Do we, even as the example Walter Brueggemann gave, use our religion and comfortable pews to exclude and make unwelcome those who would call us to greater faithfulness?
The Truth and Reconciliation process was designed to help us hear the truth about our treatment of First Nations peoples and call us as a nation to repentance. The stories told were painful to hear, as the truth often is. It was not only about bad treatment by individuals, but about a system that oppressed and treated First Nations as less than human. And yet I have heard far too many people dismiss the stories as fabrications or attempts to work the system to get reparations. Peace can only come when it is based on the truth.
Many credible voices are warning us that if we do not change our ways, the environment will continue to deteriorate, the climate will continue to warm, and the results will be disastrous, severely threatening our current way of life. Weather will become even more extreme. But to listen to the truth would mean giving up some of our comfortable ways now and so, many people dismiss the truth and only listen to those who tell them what they want to hear.
Our news sources are full of stories of violence in the Middle East and there is an outcry over those who go off to join the organizations labeled as terrorist by our governments. And they are doing terrible things. Yet we overlook the voices that call on the Western nations to see the reality on the ground, the apartheid like state of things in Palestine where justice is meted out by bulldozing the houses of those who commit crimes, leaving their families homeless and bitter. Where our bombing tactics only serve to radicalize more people and lead to greater violence and bloodshed, not less.
But the voices who call for more humane solutions or for an end to Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people, voices who have been there and speak the truth of the situation, like MCC, are called naïve or even terrorist sympathizers. Peace will only come when the truth is accepted and repentance happens.
But it’s not just out there where we must look when we hear the prophets call. Who are the John the Baptists among us who are calling us to repentance and change? Will we listen to those, like Greg Boyd, who are telling us that if we don’t lose our cultural baggage and our exclusive ways as Mennonites we will dwindle away as many main-line denominations are doing? Can we open ourselves to hear the call of those who ask us to follow more closely the one we claim as our Lord and Saviour, whose birth we anticipate during this season? In a recent article, Greg suggested we will need to do three things.
1) They will need to detach their identity, values and mission from their distinctive ethnicity and culture as much as possible and instead anchor these in their distinctive kingdom theology, values and practices.
2) They will need to let go of whatever vestiges remain of the isolationist mindset of traditional Anabaptism and to instead intentionally move outside their comfort zone to forge, cultivate and nurture relationships across ethnic and culture lines. In keeping with this, they will need to learn how to not merely tolerate, but authenticallycelebrate, the diversity of other ethnicities and cultures. Imagine a worship service in which an older white ethnic Mennonite happily dances to loud Reggae rock while a Jamaican Neo-Anabaptist with waist length fluorescent dreadlocks joins in four-part harmony, and you have a glimpse of what traditional Anabaptist groups need to strive for.
3) Finally, I believe that for traditional Anabaptist groups to welcome Neo-Anabaptists, they will need to explore creative ways of connecting with them as they assume a learning posture in dialogue with them. And one of the most important things traditional Anabaptists must be willing to receive is a rekindled appreciation for, and a fiery passion for, the beautiful vision of the kingdom that was given to them five hundred years ago, but that has for many come to take for granted.
He acknowledges that this may not be easy for us to do. And Greg is not a critic, but a supporter of Mennonites. He is calling us to live up to the faith we inherited from our forebears.
Many years ago I discovered that I needed to listen carefully to even my harshest critics because there just might be some truth in what they were saying. That didn’t mean I had to accept all their criticism as truth, but it did mean I had to discover what was the truth in what they were saying, and then be willing to accept that truth and seek to change. And that’s a hard thing for most of us to do.
Sometimes knowingly, often unknowingly, we harm others and ourselves by the things we do and say which, while we think they are peaceful, are really just scabs on wounds that have not healed. And sometimes the only way for healing to happen is for those old wounds to be broken open so that the fresh air of truth can begin the healing process.
And so, as we come to our time of confession, and as we go through this Advent season, let us prepare ourselves to hear the truth which leads us to repentance and true peace.