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Second Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2004

"A" Readings: Isa. 11:1-10 • Rom. 15:4-9 • Matt 3:1-12

The Repent your Sins; the Kingdom Is Coming

By Rev. Jeffrey Lawrence

We are blessed in our community to have a very fine Catholic hospital, St. Mary’s. I always sense God’s presence there, especially in the staff – including the doctors, nurses and other personnel who are not Catholic or even Christian.

Not too long ago, one of the non-Christian doctors shared with me a very personal and moving story. Hs patient – one of our parishioners –was dying and nearing the end. The doctor was greatly impressed with this man’s peacefulness and acceptance that death was approaching. In fact, the doctor himself had been struggling for a long time trying to find peace with God. He knew that he had sinned in the past, but didn’t quite know how to make the leap to real faith and happiness.

So during a quiet moment at his patient’s hospital bedside, the doctor said, "I want you just to tell me what it is, this believing and being so happy and calm all the time… this faith in Jesus that you have and all that sort of thing. How is it that you can be so peaceful?"

"Doctor," said the man, "I have felt that there’s nothing I could do myself to heal my body, so I put myself totally in your hands. I am trusting in you. This is exactly what every poor sinner must do with Jesus."

The doctor instantly saw the truth in his patient’s words, and thanks be to God, his eyes were opened in faith in a profound new way.

What the doctor experienced is precisely what St. John the Baptist speaks of in the Gospel of today’s Mass. "Repent!" he says, "for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

How does that imperative, that command, strike you? "Repent!" or "Reform your lives" as it’s translated in the Lectionary. Most people hear this as an ominous threat: "You better straighten out your life, Buster, or else…!" In fact, you might remember the story that Jesus tells in St. Luke’s Gospel about the tower of Siloam falling on people and killing them even though they weren’t any worse sinners than others who were spared. Our Lord said, "I tell you, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:3).

But I propose to you that St. John the Baptist wasn’t giving us an ultimatum that way. Instead, he was saying, "You don’t know the incredible joy that you’re missing out on! Jump out of your life of sin and discover how many blessings will start coming your way." 

The Scriptures teach that when we repent and cast away our sins, we make ourselves "a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezek. 18:31). God will refresh us (Acts: 3:19), because "He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in loving kindness" (Joel 2:13).

In other words, the Lord tells us that he loves us so very much, that no matter how terrible and sinful we’ve been in the past, he’ll gladly wipe the slate clean – if only we are sorry for what we’ve done and honestly try to amend our lives.

Just being sorry is not enough, although it’s certainly a good start. St. John the Baptist says that we’ve got to give some real evidence that we mean to reform our lives. He wouldn’t let the Jews get away with saying, "Well, we’re the chosen people because we’re descendants of Abraham" – and we won’t let us get away with saying "We’re adopted children of God, because we were baptized Christians and Jesus died for our sins." No, that’s just pride and arrogance, says our very forthright Baptist.

"Show evidence," he says. God demands proof.

Have you ever had someone repeatedly do something irritating – but they keep saying, "I’m sorry"? You might get to a point when you blurt out, "Stop saying ‘I’m sorry!’ If you’re really sorry, just don’t do this anymore. The apologies don’t mean anything if you keep going back on your word."

Exactly! Don’t say, "I’m sorry I sinned, Lord" – and then do the same thing all over again. Talk is cheap. Instead, give some evidence that you’re trying to change.

The best evidence you can give is by the witness of your life. Our Lord said to the people in his Sermon on the Mount, "Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16). When you do this, God is glorified because "you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples" (John 15:8).

One of the most excellent demonstrations of repentance you can give God is worthily using the Sacrament of Penance. Begin with a thorough examination of conscience. Stir up your heart with love for God, and be very sorry for all your sins. Resolve that starting then and there, you will really, really make an effort to reform your life. Yes, there’s no denying that it can be hard to change old habits and patterns, but with motivation and God’s grace, it can be done! Try to figure out especially how you can avoid the old familiar near occasions of sin. 

Follow this up with a good confession. What a joyful blessing to have your sins wiped away and to receive a fresh infusion of sacramental grace! Promise yourself, too, that you’ll come often to confession so you can continue to fortify yourself. 

What a beautiful way to prepare for Our Lord’s coming at Christmas. And what a beautiful way to enjoy his presence all through the year, too.

"The kingdom of heaven is at hand," says St. John the Baptist. Yes, indeed… it’s easily within your grasp. May our loving and generous God touch your heart today and safely guide you there.

God bless you!

Suggested reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1468-1470.

Reverend Jeffrey Lawrence is a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. serving at St. Stephen’s Parish in Streator, Ill. A convert from Judaism, Fr. Lawrence practiced law, was creative director and a principal in an advertising agency, and was a consumer magazine publisher before his ordination to the priesthood as a "late vocation."

This homily originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, America's leading pastoral magazine

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