Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Many years ago, I was made priest-in-charge – an oxymoron if ever there was one – of a small Episcopal church community in a semi-rural area of the Upper Midwest in the United States. The church building and congregation dated back to the late nineteenth century, making it very old indeed by American standards. Some of the families had been there for decades. As I arrived, the people of the community were relatively few in number and a bit older, but they welcomed me warmly with kind words and even home-made baked goods. I felt I was off to a good start in my ministry among them.
One morning soon after beginning my ministry there, I arrived at the church office and noticed a note slipped under the door, a not uncommon occurrence in the days before the Internet and email. People sometimes wanted to alert the priest that someone was in hospital, for instance; or that someone’s daughter had had a baby. So I picked up the note and unfolded it, expecting just some such news. In neat hand-written block letters, the note read, “Dear Father Frank: Please do not try to change us.” And that was it.
Please do not try to change us.
Seven simple single-syllable words. I thought my stay at that parish might end up being shorter than I had originally planned. And to this day, I have no idea what it was that I had said or done at that church in my first couple weeks which caused this presumably unhappy parishioner to pen his or her secret message to me. Did I change the Order of Service…? I cannot remember. A light-bulb perhaps…? Did I preach too long…or too short…? Did I miss the men’s breakfast bible fellowship…? I have no idea. But I still have that note somewhere in storage back in the States. I used to pull it out occasionally and ponder its words and message.
The rest of my tenure at that church, interestingly called the Church of the Advent by the way, went without any further complications or unpleasantness. I stayed nine years, so I must have done something right. In fact, it has become my second favourite congregation in all my years of ministry – right after Saint Margaret’s of course. I have no idea if I actually did change that congregation or not. I do not now even remember if I tried particularly hard to do so. I have not been back there in decades. Have they changed in the intervening years…? Probably. After all, as they say, if you want everything to stay the same, everything will have to change.
There is of course no record as to whether or not John the Baptist might have received similar hand-written messages slipped under his desert tent-flap after his rousing sermons preached in the wilderness near the Jordan. After all, he tried mightily to change his congregation, the people who had come out to hear him in this remote spot far from Jerusalem and other population centres. Keep in mind that the trek to the Jordan would also have been redolent of the very crossing of the Jordan into the Promised Land centuries before; a crossing which brought profound change to the people of ancient Israel.
Unlike my congregants back in the US, the people of John’s time seemed ready and even anxious for change. After all, they were unhappy with their lives. They were poor and living under an oppressive foreign regime reinforced and maintained by their very own leaders among the competing parties of Sadducees and Pharisees, call them the conservatives and liberals of the age. They had no hope for the future, except perhaps a hope that the promised Messiah might come and, yes, change things. So, something had to give. Something had to change.
Very little is known about John the Baptist other than what we know of him from all four Gospels, including our account this morning from the Gospel of Matthew. By the standards of most any age, John seems to have been an eccentric, to put it mildly, at once a sort of hermit cut off from society yet also something of a rabblerouser and rebel. The Gospels, Matthew included, from their early Christian perspective, present him exclusively as a kind of forerunner of our Lord. It is not entirely clear whether he and his own disciples saw him that way. He is sometimes described as the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first Christian saint, surely an oversimplification but perhaps not by much.
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
John tells the people in no uncertain terms to “repent” and he is described as one who has come to “prepare the way of the Lord.” If this is not a call to change, I do not know what is. The Greek word used here translated by our English word repent actually has the root meaning and sense of turning oneself around; to completely change one’s way of thinking and understanding. Which is much more than simply being sorry or regretful of something or some action one committed, of one’s sins. John’s call to repentance is in fact a call to profound change at the deepest levels of one’s existence; in other words, a call to turn oneself around.
And we do this not so much by introspection alone, although that too is called for. For, John’s message is a call to action. “Prepare,” he demands, “the way of the Lord.” And preparation takes hard work. John immediately takes his listeners, and us, from ourselves and turns us to the other, to the one “more powerful.” John becomes the first in Matthew’s Gospel to proclaim, “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” a message which becomes the hallmark of our Lord’s own preaching. Alas for the people of my congregation decades ago, it turns out that the Gospel is all about change.
Well, John’s preaching is unlikely to have changed the people of his time in spite of the fact that he lost his head over its proclamation. I am certain I did not change the people of my congregation years ago nor, rest assured, shall I change you. It is only the Lord who can do that; only the Lord can change everything “with the Holy Spirit and fire” as John tells us, and with “his winnowing fork is in his hand.” Sometimes we all need a bit of winnowing. We need to get rid of the chaff and get back to essentials, to repent. As John makes clear, we cannot do it on our own. Christ is the only one capable of turning us around and making of us a new people.
The kingdom of heaven has indeed come near.
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs