There are lots of wonderful old traditions we celebrate this time year: the annual church rummage sale. The men’s pancake breakfast. The live nativity scenes. Going Caroling. Maybe in some churches the youth group sets up a tree in the sanctuary; and the younger children make ornaments to hang on them. Perhaps we have an “Angel Tree” or a box to donate gifts for those who would not otherwise have a Christmas at all. And then there’s my personal favorite: all those Christmas cookies!
These are all beautiful and very worthwhile traditions; they express who we are and what is important to us. And, many if not most of them are centered on Christ’s call to take of each other and take care of those in need. This is a good thing. But, such traditions, as wonderful and good and appropriate to Christmas as they are, are not what Advent is about.
Advent is about who we are about to become, not about who we are now. Advent is about preparing for the gift of God: the Christ Child who is not yet here. It is a call to prepare for what is about to happen.
So, what is Repentance? And, why is it a theme of this, our Second Sunday of Advent? I’d like to begin by exploring what Repentance isn’t.
Repentance is not the result of judgment. Judgment is not something we’re looking for when we come to church, nor should it be. Too many of us come to churches like this Church because of the judgment we’ve endured elsewhere. We come here for healing. We come here to find hope. We don’t come here to be judged!
Maybe we’re divorced, and our former Church kept hitting us with that scripture that reads “Whoever divorces … and marries another commits adultery…”
But, aside misinterpreting that scripture, judging another for divorcing their spouse ignores the pain and the abuse, the isolation, the unfaithfulness, or the failure to thrive (among other things) that are usually a part of a dysfunctional, or dying, or dead, marriage.
Instead of bringing healing and growth, such judgment and inflexible teaching only brings more pain. Christ’s message is about healing and redemption, not oppression or judgment.
Now, we could tell the same story about almost any realm of human frailty or failure: abortion, addiction, hurting others, greed. And in light of those failings, which we all have and which we share in common with so many others, too many churches have a single, simple answer: “Repent before God judges you!”
It’s really easy to provide simple and inflexible answers. And, they sound so majestic, so godly. But, they’re rarely adequate to the challenges we face in this complex and constantly changing world. Simple answers almost never make room for empathy or compassion or love.
Facile answers forget that Christianity is built upon the New Testament, which teaches that we are all flawed and all in need of God’s mercy. They ignore that Jesus not only demanded we love all others without exception, but taught that judging others is reserved only to our perfect and loving God. A god who does not judge by what his eyes see, nor decide by what his ears hear; but instead does so with righteousness and equity.
Maybe we came here after being judged for not being “normal” because of how we dress, or our weight, or our tattoos and piercings. Maybe or our skin color, or who we love; or our gender identity, or where we came from, or our economic status.
But, it doesn’t matter what we are being judged for: being judged is the problem. Our faith does not teach that we must work to conform to anyone’s judgment of what “normal” is. In fact, our faith is not about being judged by anyone, not even God. It is about being loved by God, who loves us exactly as we are; and who insists that we return, and share, that love.
Judgment is not Repentance, nor does it lead to Repentance. Nor is Repentance something we have a right to demand of others. Those who sit here with us neither need, nor desire, judgment: especially not the judgment of their all too human fellow believers. Not even the judgment of those who are perceived as having some form of spiritual authority over us.
In the Old Testament, most prophetic passages speak to the future: “And in that day God will do… something.” Or, “When these signs come to pass, then we surely know that it will be the time ordained by God for … whatever.”
But, John the Baptist in this morning’s Gospel reading said “Repent for the Kingdom of God has come near!” He’s speaking of now, not the future. It’s already happened. We are no longer waiting for it. So, we know that the Messiah’s arrival is immanent. We must be ready, time is short.
“Bear fruit worthy of Repentance!” he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” His point is that we cannot rely on our own goodness; nor on the great faith of others, not even of own ancestors, for our salvation. We cannot escape responsibility for ourselves. Good breeding or worldly position and success have nothing to do with God’s judgment of us. And, nothing to do with our worth as creatures of our loving God.
The Baptist teaches that Repentance is not a symbolic act, but a deep change of our very identity. And, that change will produce fruit. And, that fruit is our readiness for the coming of the Messiah.
But, we still haven’t answered the question: “What is Repentance?”
Many define Repentance as the process of frankly and honestly reviewing our past life and actions. Doing so leads us to feel regret and express contrition for our past wrongs and failures. It drives us to commit to living a more responsible and faithful life. Repentance is about changing, for the better.
That’s a good definition, I suppose. But, why bother? What is it about our faith and our relationship with God that leads us to repent?
Well, for one thing, the call to repent is not a call to submit oneself to judgment. Remember, people do not come here to find judgment, but to find hope. God knows this. Jesus came to provide that hope. And so, that is exactly why Advent is observed before we celebrate the birth of Christ: Repentance is not the act of groveling in the filth and failure of our existence, begging for God’s mercy. It is the process of preparing for God’s Hope.
We know God loves us. But, would that love have any meaning or value if God did not expect something of us in return? The death of Christ on the Cross is proof that Love does not come cheap.
So, while the Love of God is freely given to all, there is a price to accepting it. And, that price is Repentance: the process of realizing and turning away from our flaws and failures; and resolving to do better. It is how we work to become all that God hopes for us to be. Because God does have hope for us: hope that we will better ourselves. Hope that we will not succumb to the evil and corruption of this world. Hope that we will never give up on God, just as God will never give up on us. Hope that we are as capable of loving others, and God, as much as God loves us.
Advent is a time of introspection, but that process of looking inward and repenting has no value if there is no hope for the future. Why would we bother dealing with all that painful stuff we’d rather forget about?
But, if you think about the Lord’s Prayer that we say every Sunday here in this Church, its central theme is repentance. Through it, we are asking for help in becoming what God wants us to be. There is a focus on Repentance here in Advent, but it is a process that goes on within us, and here in this church, all the time.
So, Repentance is about Hope. About returning the love of God. About allowing that love to transform us, then sharing it with others as God does, and calls us to do also. It is Hope founded on the certainty that we are loved, and always will be, for all eternity.
The Baptist told the Pharisees and Sadducees that the work of preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Messiah is not done, and never will be. Repentance is rooted in a Love that never gives up. A Love that is never conquered: a Love that is freely given, but calls us to give back as well.
So, I think a better way to think of Repentance is to see it as the process of giving up who we are, to become who God wants us to be. It is how God’s hope takes root and grows within us. And, it is a process that never ends.
Repentance helps us understand that because of God’s Hope, we don’t need all that old stuff that was part of who we were: those old addictions, old wounds and resentments, hurtful behaviors, selfish goals, useless possessions, pride.
Repentance helps us to let go of all that stuff: all of it. And in leaving all that old stuff behind, we are cleansed: made ready to move on. Through repentance, we are always coming closer to being all that God hopes for us to become; and prepared for the immanent return of the Hope of God.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, December 4, 2016 (Second Sunday of Advent).
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)