One of my favorite parts of this time of year is watching the classic 1946 movie It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart as the faithful George Bailey. At one point in the film, an employee loses a large sum of money and George is at risk of going to prison and losing everything – his job, his family, and his reputation. Having been told he is worth more dead than alive, George jumps from a bridge into a roaring river, in theory aiming to end his own life. The irony, of course, is that even in this last desperate act, he is thinking of others: He jumps into the river to save Clarence, his guardian angel. Even at the last, he is willing to sacrifice his own life for someone else. That is truly bearing fruit worthy of repentance.
But then his guardian angel, Clarence, fishes him out and shows him what the world – his world, his town, and those he loves – would be like without him. Near the end of the film, George returns to the bridge and cries out to God: “I want to live again! Please God, let me live again.”
In today’s Gospel reading for this second Sunday in Advent, we see a lot of people who, like George Bailey, are looking for the chance to live again. John the Baptist has begun preaching a simple message in the wilderness: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. People from Jerusalem and all Judea are hastening to the wilderness to confess their sins and receive baptism. The burden has become too great to bear. They need relief. They want to live again.
And it’s not only George Bailey, or the people coming to be baptized, who are burdened. You and I are burdened as well. It seems as though we all are bearing burdens greater than ourselves. Some are burdened with an illness that has no cure or debt too great to be paid off. Others are burdened with self-hatred or with addiction or with unrelenting anxiety and fear.
But there is a greater burden, one that we all struggle with: the burden of sin. It is a burden that you bear and I bear, one that lives in all of us, and so something deep in our souls responds to John’s invitation: Repent. Repentance is much more than an intellectual changing of our attitudes; it is a radical transformation of the whole person.
Repentance in Greek is metanoia, which means to turn around. To turn around means turning our backs on everything that has drawn us. It means a complete reorientation, turning toward new goals, new priorities, a new path.
At this time of year, perhaps more than at other times, we seem to be inexorably traveling along a path toward consumption. Everything we hear, everything we see urges us to get more stuff, that possessions will fulfill our deepest longings. But when we turn around, when we repent, we confess that possessions have not made us happy. To turn around means to take the first steps along an unknown path, trusting that starting all over again is what we need.
On the one hand, the way forward is marked with bright, tempting signs urging us to spend money, to buy stuff, to fill our homes and our lives with belongings. On the other hand, when we turn around, all we see is that we are in the desert, in a bare and barren wilderness, confronted by a wild man wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. What has drawn us away from all that is known and familiar? What has led us out into the desert where everything is strange and new?
Because in the wilderness, without all the signs and glitter and temptations, we have laid down the burden of needing to keep up with everyone else – who, it turns out, is struggling just as you and I might be. Faced with the blank slate of the wilderness, we are free to confess our sins, to lay bare our hearts before God, to acknowledge our shame and our sin and our need. At last we are free of all the wrong turns, free to make the U-turn, the turning around, the metanoia, of repentance.
Repent, John says, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. The kingdom of heaven is as near as the beating of our own hearts, but when we are bowed down with burdens, we can’t see it. Sometimes it takes being called into the wilderness, being urged to turn around, to see what was near us all along.
What George Bailey was missing out on was that he had lost sight of what it was he possessed that made life worth living. His wife, his brother, his mother, his children, his friends – all of them loved him and cared for him. At the moment of his despair, they were praying that he would turn around – that he would open his eyes and see that he already possessed the greatest gift, that of love.
George Bailey, like each of us, is made to be part of God’s creation for the purpose of loving one another. All our burdens hold us back from loving one another. All our hurt, our anger, our pain, and our guilt are keeping us from looking around us and seeing that the gift we need, the gift we desire most of all, is near at hand.
Bear fruit worthy of repentance, John says, and tells us that the Messiah will come with his winnowing fork in his hand to clear away the chaff. When you and I find the courage to turn around, to step onto a new and unknown path, Jesus the Messiah is here to help us, through the Holy Spirit, to clear away the baggage of our fear and guilt and resentment and all that burdens us. And that is a message of hope.
“I want to live again,” George Bailey cries, and, “I want to live again,” say the people so desperate to be freed from their burdens that they have the courage to travel into the wilderness, to confess their sins and thus to be set free. “I want to live again,” you say, and I say, and we each of us says, and every week we are given the great gift of confessing our sins, of laying our burdens down, to live again – to live into the kingdom of heaven that is so very near.