As many of you know, I lived in the Dominican Republic for about four years as a Peace Corps Volunteer. There were so many things about that experience that I could never have anticipated. But one of the things that surpised me most was the sheer amount of time that I spent during those four years eating mangoes.
I joined the Peace Corps straight out of college and I got sent to the DR as an education volunteer. I had all these big, romantic dreams of how I was going to make a difference and change the world, starting with the community center in the town where I had been assigned to work. I was a 22-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in music who had never lived anywhere outside of Nebraska. But I marched in there with confidence, completely convinced that I would know exactly how to help all the people of this poor, underprivileged, third world community.
My main assignment was to teach computer classes at the community technology center in town. And I really wanted to do a good job! So I carefully put together detailed lesson plans to help my students work through programs like Word and Excel and even Photoshop. I had everything laid out and ready. However, 9 times out of 10, I would get down to the center and the electricity would go out. Or it might even be out already by the time I got there. And let me tell you, it’s pretty hard to teach a computer class when you don’t have electricity.
And so, on the days when the electricity went out – which was pretty much all of the days – the center staff and I would all just go hang out behind the center, where there were a bunch of mango trees. And we would sit and eat mangoes all day. It was nice for a while, but I’m sure you can imagine how incredibly frustrating that became, day after day. It felt like I was wasting all my time eating mangoes instead of doing the work that I was supposed to be doing – instead of “making a difference” for this community.
It took me a long time to realize just how important that time actually was. For one thing, that time spent eating mangoes was my education – it taught me that the community struggles that I though I could somehow easily solve were much more complex and systemic than I could have imagined. And it was an important time for building relationships. It hit home that two of Peace Corps’ three main goals have to do with relationship. Developing friendships across national boundaries with people from around the world was exactly what we were supposed to be doing. And even though I did eventually manage to leave some functioning projects (ones that didn’t require much electricity!) it was those relationships that left the biggest impact on the community and on me.
Those four years in Peace Corps were a profoundly humbling experience for me. I had to repent of a lot of the grand ideas that I went in with and learn from others instead. I’m sure you all can think of times in your own lives when you felt humbled like this. Perhaps it was when you tried something new or started a new job. I think just in the process of getting older, life finds lots of little ways to humble us. I’ve never gotten to be a parent, but from everything I’ve heard from other people, having kids sounds like an intensely humbling experience. You go in thinking you know exactly how you’re going to do things – and instead you find yourself constantly having to adjust your expectations and open yourself to life as it actually happens. In other words, you might say you end up eating a lot of mangoes.
The churchy word that we use to describe this process of being humbled and learning to change our ways is: repentance. Repentance is a major theme in our gospel reading for this morning.
John the Baptist comes on pretty strong in this passage. He’s dressed like a total weirdo, for starters, and he’s literally shouting at people like a street corner preacher: “REPENT! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!!” And he has some especially strong words for the religious leaders who come out to the river to see what all the fuss is about. The version we read today translates his words verbatim as “you brood of vipers,” which is already pretty spicy – but the original meaning behind them is actually closer to, “you SOBs”! And he says to them, you can’t just keep counting on who your ancestors were. So you have Abraham as your ancestor – big whoop! Do you think God can’t raise up other ancestors to Abraham from these freakin’ rocks? You have to open yourselves to God’s transformation; turn your hearts back to God. Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
John’s angry and urgent attitude can be really off-putting to read. But it’s a little easier to understand why he’s as impatient as he is when you read a text like our first reading this morning from Isaiah. John is expecting the arrival of a Messiah who will be like the “root of Jesse” described here, and he is expecting it SOON. Matthew’s gospel especially makes a lot of connections between the writings of Isaiah and the life of Jesus.
And in this particular passage, what Isaiah is describing is basically the kingdom of heaven that John the Baptist is preaching about. And it sounds pretty intense! Isaiah writes:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,Isaiah 11:6-9
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
That is an incredibly radical vision of peace and justice in God’s kingdom. And it doesn’t sound very much at all like the world as we know it now. Isaiah uses these really surprising, even unnatural, images of creation to emphasize just how different God’s kingdom will be from the systems that we humans have set up for ourselves. It’s not necessarily that we should expect lions to literally eat straw or for our babies to go around playing with poisonous snakes. But we should be prepared for the kingdom to be radically different from what we’ve known – to be radically different even from our ideas of what it will be like. We do know it will be a place where no one hurts or destroys, where all lives will be welcomed and valued, and where all creation will live together in peace. But Isaiah is telling us that it will be even more than what we can imagine.
That’s the kingdom of heaven that John is trying to prepare the way for. And to be clear, John’s call for us to repent is NOT a call for us to feel crappy about ourselves. That’s not it at all. It’s a call for us to realign our lives with Christ. It’s a call for us to turn and open our hearts, to reorient ourselves and our priorities toward God’s radical kingdom of peace. That is repentance. And while it can feel crappy sometimes, that’s not the goal of it.
John uses the image of the wheat harvest in the gospel, which is actually really helpful. The farmer brings in the wheat from the field – seed head and stalk and all, the whole plant except for the roots. Then the threshing and winnowing process is meant to get at the most valuable part of the wheat plant – the actual grain of wheat. Now if you’re the wheat, I can’t imagine that it feels very good to be chopped down and beaten and burned until your chaff is all gone. But the farmer doesn’t do it because they hate the wheat or because they’re trying to punish it. On the contrary, it’s because of how deeply they value the wheat! The discomfort of that transformation is meant to bring out the best parts of us, to welcome us into the granary.
The humbling experience of my time in Peace Corps was uncomfortable, even painful at times. But I feel like that experience of repentance was a threshing and winnowing that helped bring me closer to being the person that God has called me to be.
This is what God is calling each of us to do. And Advent is the perfect time to slow down and reflect on where there might be a little extra chaff in our lives. It’s a good time to wonder where the Spirit might be calling us to turn back to God, not just in our lives as individuals, but also in our life together as a congregation, as a church, as a nation, and even as a world.
Advent is a good time to pray for God’s wisdom and to pray for God’s guidance so that we, too, might “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” And if you’re anything like me, there’s a fairly good chance that that fruit might end up tasting a little bit like mango.