Advent 2B Sermon (2023)

2nd Sunday of Advent
Texts: Mark 1:1-8;
2 Pet 3:8-15a; Isa 40:1-11

Facebook live (sermon begins at 27:50):


Repentance is a strong theme in both our New Testament readings today. 2 Peter expands our notion of God and time — that for God, a thousand years is like one day, and one day like a thousand years. Why is that important? Repentance, he says. Even for us today, two thousand years after Jesus came the first Christmas, we can take hope in the fact that those two thousand years are like a couple of days for God. If we are impatient for the world to get better since the first Christmas, God is still patient. “The Lord,” says 2 Peter, “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Repentance. God sent Jesus to save the world. And even if it seems like God is being slow after all these centuries, that’s because God still wants to give us a chance to repent and to join in the work of salvation. Wow! Is that grace, or what?

The Gospel of Mark also begins with Good News about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, and a message about repentance. Do you remember what we said about the Greek word (euangelion) for Good News a few weeks ago? It was used by Caesar to announce things like his military victories. Mark begins his story about a guy who ultimately gets crucified by Caesar and coopts their word for “Good News” to announce it. And then he follows that announcement by introducing the story with a wacky guy named John the Baptist, who sounds like a homeless person hanging out at Monument Square. He baptizes people, we are told, with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

Repentance. It’s really an important word. We’re going to spend two weeks talking about it. We sometimes use it in the sense of confession — a baptism of confession for the forgiveness of sins. We say we’re sorry, and God forgives us. But repentance actually means something quite a bit more than that. The Greek word is metanoia, which literally means “after-mind.” In other words, it’s the mind you have after you change it. Metanoia is about a changed mind and a changed life. You used to see things a certain way and act accordingly. Now you see things a wholly different way and act accordingly. Last month we talked about Ebenezer Scrooge, a popular figure at this time of year. He’s a brilliant example of metanoia, repentance, a changed mind and heart and life. As Dickens opens his story about Scrooge, he sees the world and Christmas as “Bah, humbug!” After the visit of the ghosts on Christmas Eve, he comes to see the world in a completely different way and lives the loving Spirit of Christmas all year-round. That’s metanoia, repentance.

So here’s the thing about introducing this Good News with John the Baptist and repentance: if the world is ever going to see a Messiah who gets executed by the Romans as Good News, then it’s going to take one heckuva changed mind. Isn’t it? The whole world is going to have to begin to see things completely differently for that to happen, right? A crucified Messiah? How is that ever going to make sense?

We think we’ve found the way that that makes sense, right? We have this logic about the cross that goes something like this: we are all sinners deserving of God’s punishment. God doesn’t really want to punish us all, like we read in today’s Second Reading, but if God is a just God then God has to. Since God is also a loving God, God sent Jesus to take our place, to take the punishment for us on the cross. Does that logic sound familiar? That’s how a crucified Messiah can make sense, right? By some version of Jesus taking the punishment for all of humanity upon himself on the cross. It’s sometimes called “substitutionary atonement” — that God sent Jesus as a substitute for our punishment.

Well, I’m here as your pastor to tell you this morning that that logic has quit making sense for an increasing number of people in this world, including myself. I think it’s one of the reasons why our children’s and grandchildren’s generations are mostly missing from church. This scenario of a God who lets his Son take the punishment for all of humanity has quit working for rapidly increasing numbers of people. They can sniff that there’s something not quite right with the whole scenario.

One of my favorite authors, Brian Zahnd, who’s a long-time pastor at a mega-church in the St. Louis area, he calls this the Monster God scenario. He went through a time of repentance while pastoring his congregation, a time when he changed his mind about the basic logic of the cross which he had been taught. As you can imagine, he lost a significant number of members through the process. But he was also very careful to do his best to take others with him on his journey of repentance, changed mind. Not only did many of the members stick with him and go through repentance, too, but he also began to attract many new members — people for whom the old logic of the cross had also quit working. They found his repentance of that basic Christian message to be just what they had been looking for, too.

If I’m going to be your pastor here at Bethania for a while, I think it’s important that you know I’ve gone through a process of repentance, a changed mind, when it comes to the basic Christian message about the cross, about why we would need a crucified Messiah. I’m suggesting that we study one of Brian Zahnd’s books beginning after the first of the New Year. It’s called Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (holding up book). It’s a riff on a very famous sermon by the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards, titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” That sermon by Edwards had used to be the model for his own preaching. But this book (holding it up) explains his repentance, his change of mind. How it is that Pastor Zahnd came to see the cross as not so much about an angry God, but “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God.” I’d like to explore this urgent need for repentance with respect to our message. If the ultimate aim of our mission is to help people change their minds along the lines of understanding a crucified Messiah, the we first need to repent of our getting that basic part of the message wrong!

I’ve titled today’s sermon “What the World Needs Now Is . . . Repentance — Part 1.” We’re going to need Part 2 next Sunday, when we get our second installment of John the Baptist. This morning I’m simply setting up what I think we need the most in terms of repentance for our church life. We need to change our minds about that basic message of a God who sends his Son to take the punishment for us, so that if we believe that basic logic we get a ticket to heaven. I believe in going to heaven when we die. But I’ve undergone repentance on how it is that we get there, to heaven. It’s not because Jesus suffered God’s wrath, God’s punishment. No, it’s because Jesus on the cross suffered our wrath. Our punishment. Mark’s story of Jesus climaxes with our bringing punishment on God’s Son. We execute him. He suffered the terrible consequences of what we too typically do to one another. We are the ones who are hell-bent on punishing one another. Jesus suffered that kind of punishment from us, not God, in order to show us how much we human beings need fundamental repentance. We need changed minds and changed lives if we are ever going to survive. Next week, in “What the World Needs Now Is . . . Repentance — Part 2,” I’ll explain further through the words of John the Baptist what that repentance looks like — what it’s all about.

This morning I’d like to finish by setting up why the world is in such desperate need of repentance. In today’s reading from 2 Peter, there’s a couple verses of language about a fiery ending to things. What do we usually think of when we think of fiery endings? Hell, right? That place where God supposedly sends us if we don’t believe that logic of the cross about Jesus taking the punishment for us. Well, hell is an idea that our children and grandchildren can’t run away from fast enough. Not because the idea is so frightening, but because it’s such a terrible idea. What? God is supposed to send Gandhi to hell because he doesn’t believe that Jesus took the punishment for us? Shoot. I don’t believe that anymore, either. Neither do many other Christians. Neither do many of our children and grandchildren. No, the fiery imagery in the Bible should have us think less and less about God’s punishment and more and more about the fiery consequences of so many of our actions. That hell is about us.

Take the ovens of Auschwitz, for example. The Jews have come to call this the Shoah, the Holocaust, their word for “burnt offering.” A sacrifice. A burnt offering, a Shoah, a holocaust, is what the gods commanded of the people of Israel to show repentance for their sins. Now that word has come to name the consequences of human evil, the Nazi genocide, the Holocaust. This is another area of needed repentance, of changing our minds. We need to be aware not so much of the flames of hell as God’s punishment, but as the fiery consequences of our typical way of trying to punish each other. The thing that ended the Holocaust of World War II, were the holocausts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, we have hot wars in Israel and Ukraine. How easily could either of these wars escalate into a worldwide war of nuclear holocaust? We don’t want to think about things like that!

Or the news this week was that 2023 was the hottest year ever on record. It seemed like the Great Lakes region was the only place in the Northern Hemisphere that didn’t experience record heat firsthand. But we did get the huge smoke clouds from the Canadian forest fires. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg (who actually turned 20 this year) says that we need to act like our house is on fire, because it is. We’d rather not think about things like that, right?

But this is what we are invited to do. Not to simply be afraid, but to find it in our hearts and minds to repent, to change the way we are doing things — that God is showing us in Jesus Christ. That’s the Good News of Jesus the Messiah. God does think about these things and has sent Jesus to help us think about them. But it will take a massive repentance. It will take a fundamental change of our minds and our lives. Next week (Advent 3B), we will hear the Good News in terms of John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” We’ll use that as a way of understanding the message of the cross.

Today we’ll end by celebrating God’s patience. That the passing of two thousand years since the first Christmas are but two days for God, who patiently is waiting for us to repent. Giving us the time for this massive repentance that we might finally join in the way of salvation. That’s the Good News. Amen.

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethania Lutheran Church,
Racine, WI, December 10, 2023

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