[Given December 8, 2013 by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley – St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO)
There is a wonderful South African hymn that goes a little something like this…
Noyana, noyana? [Are you going to get there?] Noyana, noyana? [ Are you going to get there?] Nithini, noyana? [What do you say? Are you going to get there?] Noyana phezulu? [Are you going to Heaven?]
Last Week, Fr. John stood before you and introduced our Advent Sermon Series: “So What: Seeking the Why of Christ and Christmas.” He introduced it by making it clear that we are being challenged as the Church to tell the world why Christ and Christmas matter in a world where there is growing skepticism about the institution of Church and religion in general, and a society where, frankly it’s often hard to find “Christ” in the “Christian” let alone in “Christmas.”
He told us that “Jesus comes to change the game. Jesus comes to reset our expectations. Jesus comes to make life new.”
This morning I want to carry on that theme of “new” and preach from the subject “Norming and Performing.”
Our gospel this morning highlights the story of John the Baptist “preparing the way of the Lord” by standing up in the middle of wilderness and proclaiming “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”
Already, from the beginning of this story we have a new normal being established. Matthew tells us that “John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Now, I like fashion and food just as much as the next person, but what was the purpose of these sartorial and culinary details? It was to underscore the unconventional nature of John. It wasn’t the Temple priesthood in their fine robes heralding in the tiding of the coming Kingdom of Heaven, it wasn’t the Sadducees or the Pharisees. It was an unauthorized, unaffiliated, unconventional preacher out in the wilderness. Through John, God was establishing a new normal.
Yet the New Normal that God was establishing was more than just an unconventional messenger, it also involved an unconventional message. In the face of overwhelming imperial oppression and subjugation, when he had every reason to despair – John had a message of hope.
John the Baptist stood in all of his camel-hair-wearing, locust-and-wild-honey-eating unconventional-ness and proclaimed “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”
It can be really easy to breeze over this statement and only understand it on a surface level.
“Okay. Say you’re sorry for what you’ve done wrong and get ready because Jesus is Coming.”
But John’s proclamation is far deeper, and much more practical, than a quick confession and an Advent party. So, what does that mean?
Well, let me break it down for you.
The word here that is translated as “Repent” is actually the Greek word μετανοια that, if literally translated, means “change your mind.” Tertullian, that second century scholar and theologian said “in Greek, μετανοια is not a confession of sins but a change of mind.” In her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass echoes this more holistic approach to μετανοια when she writes “WE are living at a time of great turning in which we have the opportunity for metanoia, to see differently and to create a global common good that reflects a divine dream of reconciliation, peace, dignity, and justice.”
You see beloved, μετανοια doesn’t simply mean feeling remorseful for what we’ve done wrong; rather, it’s an invitation to see the world differently, to see the world the kingdom eyes. John was not calling for confession but conversion. He was calling for a new normal.
Furthermore, the statement that “the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” is not simply John giving us a heads up that Jesus was coming, but larger than that, Jesus usher in a new way of being that highlighted the high ideals of heaven. You see, later on in Matthew’s Gospel we are given a fuller glimpse into the Kingdom of Heaven when Jesus gives his rousing Sermon on the Mount. He says,
‘Highly honored are the poor in spirit… ‘Highly honored are those who mourn… ‘Highly honored are the meek… ‘Highly honored are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… ‘Highly honored are the merciful… ‘Highly honored are the pure in heart… ‘Highly honored are the peacemakers… ‘Highly honored are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…
You see, beloved, the kingdom of heaven is a place where hierarchy and social strata are flattened, where mourning and persecution are vanquished, where the meek and humble are strengthened. It’s not a “feel good” notion, it’s dramatic shift of the paradigm. It is a change.
So let’s re-read the scripture from the Common English Version of the Holy Bible in light of what we’ve just heard. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Now let’s hear the New Revised Marcus Version, “See the world differently because a change is coming!”
Do you hear the urgency? Better yet, do you hear the opportunity? John’s world was changing rapidly, but for John it wasn’t something to be bemoaned or decried. John was an apocalyptic prophet which means that for him all things were moving towards a new creation. As such, things were always changing because things were constantly being made new.
For John, the changing world around him was only God preparing the ground for the growth of the kingdom of heaven. Rather than fear, John called his new desert community to walk in faith to prepare for the New World that was becoming.
And isn’t that the truth? Things are always being made new.
In his September 1859 address to the Wisconsin Agricultural Society, Abraham Lincoln spoke to the ever changing nature of the world. “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”
Let me give a more modern, yet slightly retro flavor. In the words of their 1976 classic, “Fly Like an Eagle,” Steve Miller Band prophetically announces “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’, slippin, into the future.”
If you live long enough you will notice that time rolls on like a relentless stream and that nothing remains the same, everything changes. Try as we might, we cannot stop it.
But we do have a choice.
We can look towards the New World that is becoming through fear or we can make another choice – we chose to respond from a Kingdom-perspective.
This past week, the world marked the death of a giant among men, former South African President, Nelson Mandela, affectionately and honorably known by the name of his Xhosa tribe – Madiba. Madiba was born into a country where he too had every right to despair, yet, and against all odds, he soldiered on because he had a greater vision for his South Africa. He could have looked at Apartheid through fear or he could choose to overcome that fear through embracing a kingdom perspective. His “long walk to freedom” would cause him to spend 26 years in prison, 17 of them in a 8×8 jail cell on Robbin Island, yet he soldiered on. His visionary leadership would result in the dismantling of the brutal Apartheid government of South Africa and a brighter future, not only for South Africans, but for the entire world. When speaking about courage and fear in the midst of such transition and change, Madiba said “I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear!” Through the difficulties of his journey, Madiba knew that while he was waiting for the kingdom, he must be found working for the kingdom. While the new South Africa was norming, he but be found performing.
A Kingdom Perspective knows that the promises of God are not predicated on the predicaments and perils of the present. A Kingdom Perspective knows that the best is YET to come!
Dear friends, while we are waiting on the best of God, the kingdom of heaven, we are called to perform the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s why Christ matters, because he teaches us how to perform the Kingdom of Heaven. He teaches us how to love our neighbors, how to serve those on the margins, how to speak on behalf of the voiceless, how to forgive and reconcile with those who have harmed us, and how to restore broken relationships and our broken world.
Can I make it plain? I need you to get this.
When you volunteer to teach Sunday School, or mentor our children and youth, you aren’t just teaching, you’re performing the kingdom.
When you lead worship by singing in the choir, or ushering, or serving on the altar guild, or as an acolyte, or praying as a minister of the Order of St. Luke, you aren’t just leading, you’re performing the kingdom.
When you volunteer with Fabric of Life or at the food pantry, or go on a mission trip to Haiti, or work with the young people at South West High School, you aren’t just serving, you’re performing the kingdom.
When you dare to love your neighbor even when your neighbor has harmed you, when you dare to praise God even through the bad situations, when you dare to keep the faith even against all odds, when you dare to open your hearts to the Spirit of God, you aren’t just doing a good deed, being a good person, or even being a good Christian, you are performing the kingdom.
What you do in this place and in the world is no small task, it is performing the kingdom while we wait it in its’ fullness.
So, if you’re wandering “are we ever going to get there?” Look at your neighbor beside you and say “Keep performing.” Just keep performing – keep serving, and loving, and giving, and building because the kingdom of heaven is coming, we’re just the opening act.
 Diana Butler Bass. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, p. 259.