Growing up in Oklahoma, there was no shortage of locusts. Walk outside on a hot summer night and the strange chirping, rattling song filled the air, becoming background music to any activity. My friends and I cautiously picked them up and held them by their wings. Their high pitched screech surprised and scared us to screams every time as we dropped them and ran for safety, giggling the entire way. When the locust would shed, we would find the strange, brown eco-skeleton, clutching to trees, an empty shell resembling some type of alien creature. So on Sundays, when I heard the story of John the Baptist in church, I couldn’t get past the fact that he ate locust in the desert. It always made my stomach turn to think about him crunching down on those beady eyes and I was sure the honey wouldn’t help.
To be honest, I thought John the Baptist was a little strange. Why did God pick him to announce the coming of Christ? Was he the weird cousin that rarely made the family gatherings, the one who left everyone whispering quietly in the corner of the room?
It doesn’t seem so. In Matthew 11, Jesus called him the greatest of men. John had disciples and people were drawn to him, in spite of his desert life. He was filled with the Spirit and was a man of great courage who always spoke the truth. He was even willing to speak truth to King Herod, which ultimately led to his death. The Bible says that Herod knew John to be a righteous and holy man. He didn’t understand the Spirit of God in John, but he liked to listen to him. I imagine he was dynamic, but also deeply humble, as he always pointed people away from him and towards Jesus.
I don’t want to eat locust, but I would like a heart like John’s.
The core of John’s message was about the difficult topic of repentance. I love to write about the meaningful, hopeful moments, the great stories of God’s love, but do we really need to think about repentance? We can’t ignore it though. It is one of the first words both John and Jesus spoke as they began their ministries.
The Greek translation of repent in the New Testament means “to turn around, to change your mind.” I have thought about that definition all week, trying to understand it.
And then I had a dream. In the dream, two groups of people congregated on the large, white steps of a church. The groups were in opposite corners, each hovering around something that looked oddly like sandboxes. The two crowds stood for hours organizing what was inside of the boxes, but no one ever entered the church. They never seemed to make any progress, but they never stopped working.
I actually don’t know if the dream was about my church, the corporate church, or just about me, but regardless, I woke burdened by the lack of peace and unity I sensed watching all of it. I prayed that God would show me if this dream was just a reflection of some bad indigestion from the night before or something He might want me to think about. This activated the “zoom” lens and I saw myself standing outside that church, feverishly trying to sort that box, trying to get everything to fit inside, trying to make it all look the way I thought it should look. Take a closer look, and there really isn’t much inside the box at all. I sorted a few items on one side and tried to cover up a few others, but the worst part was that I just kept focusing on the same few items over and over again. My head never looked up once. No one standing with me looked up either. We were all just hunched over, so focused on whatever was so important in the box.
I kept reading the Gospel passages about John the Baptist. If repent means to turn around or to change my mind, how was I supposed to do that? I think so often I just want to feel better. I don’t want tobkeep messing up and making mistakes and can’t we just fix this already?
As I kept reading, I realized that John had been preaching about repentance for quite a while before Jesus started his ministry. He was, in fact, preparing the way of the Lord. Getting people to think about their hearts.
But as soon as Jesus comes, John says something new. He says, “LOOK.”
“Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
He says it the next day too. “Look, the Lamb of God.”
And right then, two of John’s own disciples leave him to follow Jesus.
Advent is important because it reminds me to take my eyes off of myself and to look for my savior. It challenges me to consider all of the ways I am searching for meaning and fulfillment apart from God. It allows me to be honest and confess my sin, but also to rejoice that Jesus came for sinners, that He is the Lamb of God, the perfect, complete sacrifice for our sins. He is the one we have been waiting for.
In her lovely book, Wild in the Hollow, Amber Haines beautifully captures what repentance might look like:
“I confessed how unsatisfied I had been and how God had not been enough for me, and this became the turning point, the invisible part of transformation that no one can skip – confession and repentance. Even if I had sold everything I owned to give to the poor, I wouldn’t have been free without confession and repentance, and aren’t those some archaic words? Change wasn’t going to happen for me without this invisible part that involved a knowing, trust and rest so secure that I was able to face my own empty desires….Repentance is a sorrow toward one’s own sin, a recognized need, and a change of mind. Repentance is the turning point, a place of very active transformation and also a place of release. Repentance always has a directive, a place to go. Repentance is the opposite of being stuck. When I exposed my thoughts to my friend and my God, I was not stuck pulling forever at the roots.” (p. 172-173)
Or perhaps not stuck forever sorting the sandbox in my dream. Can we move from the steps to the sanctuary? Can we humbly confess together that we get stuck and need a savior? I don’t know about you, but I get tired of the sorting. I want to look up and not miss the Lamb of God this Advent. There is no greater gift this season.