Texts: Malachi 3:1-4 (a refiner’s fire); Luke 3:1-18 (John the Baptist)
“When they said repent, repent, I wonder what they meant.” That is the refrain of a 1992 Leonard Cohen song called “The Future.”
I first encountered Cohen’s song twelve years ago at a discussion group at Bellefair United, which was a church near where I lived in east Toronto. Bellefair was once home to former Moderator Rev. Bruce McLeod. A few years ago, it merged with another church, and the former Bellefair is now a luxury condo, a common fate for many church buildings these days.
One night, the leader of the discussion group played us a recording of “The Future.” He said he would love it if a church ever played this song at a Sunday service. But this seems like an unlikely event. Despite the song’s biblical themes, most of us would find its words inappropriate.
On the other hand, today’s Gospel reading might also be considered inappropriate. Just like Cohen’s “The Future”, Luke’s account of John the Baptist is filled with violent and frightening phrases — “you brood of vipers . . . the coming wrath . . . an axe at the root of the trees, which will then be thrown into the pit . . . [Jesus’] who will gather the wheat into his barn and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
These apocalyptic images are part of what the Baptist calls the Good News. He offers a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in the Jordan River, and he prepares his followers for the advent of Jesus with words of both doom and salvation. Cohen’s song puts it this way: “I’ve seen the future, baby. It’s murder.”
So is this what Jesus’ advent means — the axe and unquenchable fire? As Malachi wrote in our first reading today: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire!”
Enough of Advent, you might say. Let’s get to Christmas already! Perhaps. But first I hope I can redeem the Spirit of Advent a bit by look further into the scary words from today’s bible readings.
Like Cohen, I often wonder about the meaning of the call to repent. Some think it is only about feeling regret for what one has done.
For me, repentance also carries an image of turning away from actions that don’t fit with our values, and towards God’s Love. And with this image of turning to the light, repentance becomes for me a path to Advent peace.
Repentance is about turning away from things like addictions; from neglect of one’s duty as a parent or a spouse; or from ignoring the needs of one’s neighbours. All of these are about moving from the small self of the ego to our dependence upon family, the wider community, and God’s Spirit.
Recognizing that our ego — with its fears and desires — is a temporary illusion is a key insight. Repentance reveals there is something larger and more eternal than us — the God who is Love.
Advent peace is not about getting the Christmas presents we want. It is not about a picture-perfect family moment around the dinner table. Advent peace flows from a trust in Love that is beyond the traps of selfishness.
The dire images from the Bible that accompany the call to repent — things like wheat and chaff, and pure metal and unrefined ore — might suggest that only a few will respond. But I think the images apply to everyone. All of us contain both wheat and chaff. All of us contain both pure metal and raw ore. Repentance burns away some of our selfishness and so prepares room for the birth of the Christ within us.
Repentance does not necessarily require effort. Painful events in our lives turn us towards the light. Our failures as parents, spouses, or citizens often wrench us away from preoccupations and toward the Love that shines even in the darkest night.
Unfortunately, repentance often hurts. It might even feel like being cut by an ax or burned by a refining fire. But it can free us from our old small selves and lead us closer to light of the Big Self of God.
The sacrament of communion helps me relate to this process. At the communion table we remember the Passion of the Christ. But we might also remember Jesus’ call for us to take up our own cross and follow him. Communion is not only about Jesus’ death and resurrection. For me, it also symbolizes the death of some of my own fears and distractions.
If Communion were just about the past, it might not seem relevant. But if it is also about the deaths of idols and illusions in my own life, then I can rise from the table having turned away from things that have held me back and toward a new life that is closer to eternity and Love.
During Advent, we wait both for Christmas and the awesome coming of the Day of Judgement. Neither is a one-time event, I think. Christmas, of course, comes every year. And the Day of Judgement can refer to any of life’s many baptisms by fire. These baptisms can be painful, but in them God’s Love shines bright and turn us toward the Christ within and beyond us.
Advent reminds us of this sober but joyous news. Out of the ups and downs of life flows the deepest peace we can ever know — our union with God.
To close this reflection, I end with the lyrics of one of the songs from Cohen’s 2012 album, “Old Ideas.” In a prayerful fashion, it echoes the Passion of the Christ.
Cohen is Jewish and has also practiced Buddhism for years. As such, we might be surprised to hear Christian references in his work. But then Malachi and Luke, just as much as John and Jesus, were Jewish too. Cohen cheekily refers to these facts in his song “The Future” when he sings ‘I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.’
Well, hardly. But of the 100 or so writers who did write the books of the Old and New Testament over a span of about 1,000 years, all were Jewish.
Cohen is a poet steeped in the religious culture of his youth and the secular culture of our times, and he often incorporates images from both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament into his work. Here, then, are two stanzas from his 2012 song “Show Me the Place.”
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, I’ve forgotten I don’t know
Show me the place where my head is bending low
Show me the place, where you want your slave to go
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place, I can’t move this thing alone
Show me the place where the Word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
With his wild rantings in the wilderness, John the Baptist shows us that place. It is a Communion Table at which we remember how God’s Word became a man and where we re-enact our own suffering and resurrection into God’s eternity. It is a table where we can find life’s deepest peace.
And so this Advent, we say again . . .
Come, Lord Jesus Come.