Advent repentance

November 4th, 2017

A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8

The way in which the church prepares for Christmas compared to the way the rest of the world prepares for Christmas is confusing to many folks—including many in the church. Two examples: the “mood” of Advent is “penitential” and more somber (which surprises folks), and we don't sing Christmas carols, which baffles people.

These reactions to Advent aren't surprising, since we do bring our “secular” experience into church with us. If everyone else is singing Christmas carols, why can't we do it in church? After all, we're the ones who gave the world the Christmas holiday. However, the result of such expectations is that we frequently come to view Advent as “so many spiritual shopping days before Christmas,” rather than seeing Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for a face-to-face encounter with the God of time and eternity.

The words of a Christmas song go something like this: “Oh, the real meaning of Christmas is the giving of love everyday.” That sounds nice, but it is not the real meaning of Christmas! In the church we prepare for Christmas in a different way, because for the church, Christmas is a holy day, not a holiday. There is a profound difference between the two!

Christmas is a holy day because God became one of us! Christmas is a holy day because God began a journey toward a cross and an empty tomb to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves! Christmas is a holy day because the invisible God of the universe became visible in a way that we could see directly! If Christmas is merely a “holiday,” then it is understandable to see Advent as a time when we try to get into the holiday spirit. However, since Christmas is a holy day, Advent is a time for us to prepare for an encounter with the Holy One.

You might not care too much right now about meeting the Holy One. Right now you might be more interested in singing Christmas carols, or buying Christmas gifts, or baking Christmas cookies — and generally getting into the Christmas spirit. However, before you “tune me out," let me make a couple of observations: First, the day will come for every one of us when we will meet the Holy One, whether we want to or not. I am not saying that to scare you. It simply is. Secondly, if your life today is in any kind of disarray, an encounter with the Holy One will make a big difference.

Meeting the Holy One face to face goes so far beyond such an experience that we cannot even begin to comprehend it. The prospect can even be frightening, for in the presence of God, you and I look shabby by comparison. Yet, that is what Christmas is about. God came to wrap us in the mantle of God's holiness so that our lives can take on a new look, a new luster, a new value, a new direction—a new hope.

How can we prepare ourselves for an encounter with the Holy One? Look at John the Baptist. I will grant you that his appearance is not in keeping with Christmas. A camel hair outfit is certainly not as festive as a Santa suit. Nor does his message ring with the “holiday spirit.” However, he does address the matter of preparing to meet the Holy One, for that is what his message of repentance is all about.

In order to comprehend fully what this means, I think we need to examine our traditional notions of what repentance means. The Greek word for “repent” means “to change.” But somewhere along the way we've picked up a different notion of repentance. I suspect our understanding of repentance is more associated with “hell fire and brimstone” and is characterized by cartoons with a long-bearded man and his sign which announces the end of the world and calls people to repent, lest they be damned eternally.

It's no wonder that people get turned off by this matter of “repentance.” That's heavy stuff. If I had to live under that kind of a cloud, I wouldn't be too crazy about repentance. No, repentance simply means to change —to turn around and walk in a new direction. In short, to “reverse direction.”

However, because Christmas is a time of tradition, it can be difficult for us to understand Advent as preparing to make changes. But if Christmas is really about an encounter with the Holy One, then Christmas must also be about change—changes in our values and priorities, changes in our attitudes, changes in the way we treat others.

What changes are we supposed to make to prepare ourselves? That is a fair question, but I will answer it with another question: “What are we currently doing in our lives that keeps us from being sensitive to God's presence in our life and the lives of other people around us?” Let me put it another way: “What are we doing that keeps us at arm's length from God and from someone else?”

For some of us, it is working too hard. For some of us, it is too much ambition. For some of us, it is too much greed. For some of us, it is a negative attitude and outlook. For some of us, it is inner hostility and resentment. For some of us, it is a chip on our shoulder. For some of us, it is a hatred that we won't let go of. For some of us, it is even too much religion in the form of false piety and arrogant self-righteousness.

The specifics of what God calls each of to change is different. But they do have something in common: we are called to drop the barriers that we erect in our lives which prevent us from being open and sensitive to the spirit of God! As long as we have erected barriers in our lives against other people, the net result will be a barrier against God!

My friends, if you're looking for the holiday spirit, you won't find it here. But if you are looking for an encounter with the Holy One — if you are looking for the presence of the living God who sent his Son to change the hearts and lives of people — then you've come to the right place! To paraphrase the message of John the Baptist, “Reverse direction, for the kingdom of God has arrived!”

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