The Second Sunday of Advent
Watch the Sermon Here
So some preacher has to say it every year, and it might as well be me. It’s Advent, everyone, not Christmas. And yes, Advent is always a bit of a rough go at church, preaching penitence and keeping to a somber set of hymns and decorations while the world is going nuts with Christmas and tinsel. I mean, today’s even the Feast of St Nicholas, and rumor has it the old saint himself may be here outside our church a little later today. But inside the church, it’s all John the Baptist, not St. Nick.
On the other hand, this year maybe it’s a bit easier to keep Advent. Maybe we’re readier to be somber, as the coronavirus news gets grimmer and grimmer. I’ll admit that I wasn’t ready at all for us to go back to online-only worship – many of us on staff were kind of depressed about that this week. But we may as well do it in Advent, the season of waiting: We’re all waiting anyway, for a vaccine, for things to feel ‘normal,’ for something to get better, so liturgical waiting, well, it kind of fits.
Which is not to say that St. Nicholas has nothing to do today. Clearly people are longing for joy and festivity too, of course – there seem to be more holiday lights up on balconies and windows, and more trees being carried along the streets, than there usually are this early in December. Friends who are die-hards for only buying the tree a few days before Christmas went out and got theirs already, and we’ve got some pressure in our house to follow suit. Someone in my family started playing Christmas carols weeks ago, and the rest of us, well, we’re singing along. We’re longing for fun, and for something to mark out time as different than the same old, same old.
So we’re down with waiting, and we’re ready for joy, both themes of the season. But how’s repentance sitting with you today? Because there it is, several times, in our prayers and readings. Repentance…oh dear. It sounds rather gloomy, doesn’t it. Guilt and gloom, served up right at the darkest time of the year.
‘Repentance means more than just saying you’re sorry,’ says the writer Jim Wallis. Our Sacred Ground discussion groups read some of his book about racism, America’s Original Sin recently, and Wallis tackles there the need for repentance on the part of our whole country. But as he makes clear, repentance is not a call for people to feel guilty and say they’re sorry. Neither guilt nor ‘saying sorry’ does anything for anybody – guilt is an intensely personal, self-focused feeling, not one that truly looks out for the well-being of others. And saying sorry? Anyone with a sibling knows that being told to say you’re sorry goes pretty much nowhere towards repairing whatever just happened.
Repentance, however, is far more than this. It’s a biblical concept, something that the prophets continually call people to. As Wallis writes, ‘In Scripture, repentance means literally to stop, make a radical turnaround, and take an entirely new path. It means a change of mind and heart and is demonstrated by nothing less than transformed behavior. Repentance means we now have to think, act, and live differently than we did before.’
The Hebrew word for repentance is sub, – which means turning from one direction to face another. Turning from evil and turning towards God. When we say the vows at our baptism we use this language, renouncing evil in all its forms, turning from it, and then turning to Jesus as the one who loves and saves us. The Greek word metanoia takes it even further, into a whole complete change of heart and mind, leading to changed behavior. Something of both of these is what John the Baptist is preaching about there on the banks of the Jordan River – and those words shape our liturgy and prayers in Advent.
So yes, it’s part of the deal right now, at this time of year. And it’s a good time of year for it, really. As we go into the end of the calendar year and look to start a new one, it’s timely to ask, what will we do differently? As we begin to wonder about the possibility of coming to the other side of the pandemic, it’s good to start thinking about how we want to live once options open back up to us. As we continue to live in the destructive racial systems and inequalities of our day, it is right to dream and work toward how we might live into God’s desires for us instead. Times like this are ripe for repentance.
Another blessing, perhaps, of the dark times we are in. When things get bad, then we know they have to change. We can’t pretend otherwise.
Richard Rohr’s daily email last week included a prayer from Cesar Chavez, one that those in the farm workers movement of the 1960s would pray to sustain their work. Like much of the civil rights work of that time, the movement was rooted in faith. The prayer is profound, and it’s worth including it in full:
Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
Help me take responsibility for my own life;
So that I can be free at last.
Grant me courage to serve others;
For in service there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
So that I can work with other workers.
Bring forth song and celebration;
So that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
So that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
For they have given us life.
Help us love even those who hate us;
So we can change the world. Amen.
(César Chávez’s “Prayer of the Farm Worker’s Struggle”)
We might make this our own prayer as we go into the new year, as we prepare our hearts during this Advent. If we can live this way, it will be good for us and for the world. Truly seeing and praying for and serving others, joyfully celebrating and loving, this is the life we are called to as Christians. This seems like a good time to start living it. And to ask for God’s help in doing so.
Because the other thing about repentance is that it isn’t all on us. A whole change of hearts and lives is more than we can execute all on our own. The farm workers’ prayer asks for God’s help: free me, show me, help us, so that we can change the world. And so can we: to ask for God’s help as we live through these times, and look for the light that is to come. We are waiting for Emmanuel, God with us – and God is already with us, even now. May this season of waiting and joy be one of turning as well – repentance, turning in every way towards the light. Amen.