Repentance is not frightening, not for Jesus or Zechariah; it is turning into the warmth and light of God’s gut-level love, which transforms you and continues to dawn over the universe.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Second Sunday of Advent, year C
Texts: Luke 3:1-6; Luke 1:68-79 (today’s appointed psalmody, the Benedictus – translation used here is the ELLC text  as sung at liturgy today); Philippians 1:3-11
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Zechariah’s foretelling of what his son John’s mission will be is breathtaking.
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God’s people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah envisions his son preparing for the coming of God’s light into a dark world, letting God’s people know their sins are forgiven. John would point to the coming dawn of God’s tender compassion, his father sang.
Somehow John’s actual ministry feels very different.
John is one of the people in the Bible one doesn’t actually dream of meeting.
John’s message is strident, harsh. He calls for repentance, a turning into God’s ways, with a fiery rhetoric that alternately threatens and calls out insulting names. We don’t think of the dawn of God’s light, the hope of salvation and forgiveness of sins, when we think of John the Baptist.
So, repentance as we’re used to hearing it from John is frightening. “Turn back to God, you sinful people, or it will be bad for you.” As we’ll hear next week, John warns of God’s coming wrath, of God’s ax at the foot of every fruitless tree.
John’s preaching carries none of the aching hope of Zechariah, the longing for God’s dawn of salvation that John was supposed to bring.
John’s context may have sharpened his focus, and driven his passion.
Luke anchors the coming of John in historic time. We can date his start of preaching to the year 28 or 29, the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius’ reign. Luke insists on reminding us that God’s coming in Jesus happened for real, in datable, recordable time.
But his list in chapter 3 says a little more than that. Luke places John’s preaching in the heart of a number of leaders, people in power, who were feared by the people, some of whom did great wickedness. Pontius Pilate, the oppressive governor of Judea; Herod Antipas, Herod Philip, brothers, and wicked, corrupt rulers both; Annas and Caiaphas, leaders of those who arrested and condemned Jesus. The emperor himself, Tiberius. This is the political landscape when John appears at the river Jordan.
So, Luke says, in an age of tyrants and despots who cannot be trusted, God’s Word came to John, and told him to declare a new reality. Prepare the way, because God is coming into this world that is ruled by such people. Maybe the evil of John’s times fueled his urgency, his fire, his threats. Zechariah’s beautiful vision would have to wait, because a lot of unfruitful, unfaithful people were going to need to change, or be cut down, if the way was to be ready for God’s coming.
But what Zechariah saw happened. Not in his son John, but in the one John pointed to, in Jesus.
The ministry and preaching of Jesus reflect Zechariah’s hope. Jesus showed people God’s salvation, proclaimed the forgiveness of sins. Jesus embodied God’s “tender compassion” as Zechariah sang it. Jesus acted so differently, John began to worry that Jesus wasn’t the One John was sent to prepare the people for.
We don’t want to disregard John’s urgency. The world always lives in an age of corrupt tyrants, and avoiding facing the evil of our day, or participating in it, is not a faithful path for us, any more than it was for our forebears. But we do follow Jesus, not John. We are saved by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and Jesus is the face of the Triune God for us.
So as we hear John’s call to repentance this Advent, what if we listened to it through the song of Zechariah? Through the promise that old man sang that did come to pass in the Son of God, God’s Word-made-flesh?
Zechariah promises that out of God’s tender compassion, the “dawn from on high shall break upon us.”
Zechariah is mixing a metaphor here. He speaks of dawn, the breaking of light into the darkness of night, the gradual lightening of the sky before the glorious sun breaks over the world.
But this dawn, Zechariah sings, rises out of God’s tender compassion. And “tender compassion” isn’t strong enough to convey Zechariah’s words. He literally sings of the “merciful heart of God.” Even “heart” isn’t enough. The word is literally “guts, insides, bowels.” The ancients located the center of love in our guts, so true love is gut-level love, love you feel in your deepest insides. God’s dawn, Zechariah sings, is a dawn of the deepest mercy of God for the world.
So, Jesus had John’s urgency to preach repentance, but he did this by declaring this gut-level love and mercy of God, saying, “turn from your sin, to this.”
When you’re in the dark, lost, afraid, and you see a glimpse of light, the relief and joy to turn into the new path of hope is overwhelming. When you’re freezing to your bones, and your blood is ice, and you sense a beckoning fire, leaning toward the warmth is delight. This is repentance.
God’s dawn is the advent of the merciful love of God rising out of the guts of the life of the Triune God, aching to restore the creation, to embrace all God’s children, to heal all things. A love so powerful it will face death to bring the universe back into the inner life of the Triune God. A love that offers forgiveness of sins, restoration into relationship with God, true salvation and healing for all. Repent into that, my friends. That’s where you want to turn.
And this is a true dawn, this gut-level love of God, for it deepens and grows until it is known everywhere.
The love and longing Paul has for these beloved Philippians in today’s reading is overwhelmingly beautiful, pouring out of nearly every verse.
And at its center is this astonishing declaration: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” It’s the same word Zechariah uses for God’s merciful insides. The same love that is in the guts of Christ Jesus for the universe now is in Paul’s guts, the deepest parts of his being.
That means this gut-level love of the Triune God can spread to others. God’s deepest, internal love gradually dawns over the whole universe by transplanting itself into heart after heart, transforming each into divine love.
You are the dawn from on high coming from the merciful guts of God. You are. Because you have known this deep, abiding love of God in Christ Jesus, you have treasured your forgiveness, your acceptance, your peace of mind that God’s love has given you. And like Paul, that has changed your own insides, so now that love fires your love for others. It overflows, Paul says, because you share the same heart. And the dawn increases in intensity.
The Talmud tells of such a dawn.
“How do we know,” the rabbi asks, “when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
One student replies, “Night is over and day arrives when you can see a house in the distance and determine if that’s your house or the house of your neighbor.” Another responds, “Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.” A third says, “Night is over and day has arrived when you can see a flower in the garden and distinguish its color.”
“No,” says the rabbi. “No. Night is over and day arrives when you can look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that he is your brother, she is your sister, when you can see that you belong to each other. Night has ended and day has arrived when you can see God in the face of the other.” 
That’s when tyranny and corruption and wickedness fall before the dawn of God’s love. When you and I repent, turn from our sin, into the light and warmth of God’s gut-level love and radiate it from our center, our insides. When we love all God’s children with the same love we know from God, and can see all creation as sisters, brothers, can see God’s face in all.
And so the dawn grows, shining over all who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, guiding all feet into the way of peace that comes with the rising of God’s light over a new creation.
In the name of Jesus. Amen
 Adapted from Rabbi’s Blog, Temple Sharey Tefilo, https://www.tsti.org/blog-rabbi/?p=49 (original halakhic passage is in the Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berakhot, 9b)