Today we are going to do something a little different. We are going to try an exercise I found recently.[i] I want you to pull out your bulletin or a scrap of paper, and grab the pencil in your pew or a pen you brought with you. Next, I want you to make a quick “to do” list for Advent. I want you to put all the things you need and want to get done: maybe shopping for gifts, decorating the Christmas tree, sending those Christmas cards, or attending the kids’ school Christmas concert. Maybe you want to make some end-of-year charitable contributions, or need to get those Christmas Eve services on your calendar. I want you to put all the things on the list and feel free to be fairly exhaustive about what you want to get done in these next two and half weeks. I am going give you a second, as I imagine your list is probably as long as mine. And this is probably the only time I will ever encourage you to make a to-do list during the sermon, so enjoy!
Now, I want you to take a deep breath, clear your mind a bit, and I want you to daydream about what you hope Christmas will be like this year. Think about the kind of day you want to have or maybe the kind of relationships you want to be a part of your life. Think about what kind of world you want to live in this Christmas, and maybe even beyond Christmas Day. Your hopes can certainly be about your immediate wants and needs, but they can also include your larger families, communities, and the world. If you want, go ahead and take just another moment to write a brief sentence below your other list that captures your hope for your life and the world this Christmas. As you are thinking about the kind of world you want to live in, think about the passage we heard from Isaiah today: a world where the wolf shall live with the lamb, the cow and the bear graze together, and a nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp. Perhaps this kind of harmony and peace is a part of your Christmas hope and can certainly be a part of your dreaming today.
Okay, now that you have your to-do list and your Christmas hope in mind, I want you to work backwards. Look at the to-do list you made and circle those tasks that might contribute directly to your own deep hopes and longings about your life and this world. Certainly, there are going to be some items on your list that are important in the short-term, but maybe do not contribute to your larger vision and hope. Here is where our invitation lies today. Perhaps this Advent can be a time of putting things in perspective and channeling our energy and resources to those things that matter most to us, to our families, to our communities, and to God.
Of course, that invitation may not have been what you initially imagined when you heard John the Baptist’s words today in our gospel lesson. His words of repentance and judgment are honestly more scary than comforting this time of year. I have many times wondered why we have to hear John’s words now, as we approach that blessed holy night, as opposed to some other text about happy anticipation or blessed expectation. But John does not mince words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I have been reading a lot these last couple of weeks about the season of Advent and people’s varying opinions about whether Advent is a penitential season or not. I have been part of parishes that have insisted that Advent is not a mini-Lent, and refuse to take on anything that resembles the penitential nature of Lent. But I have also been a part of parishes who see the themes in our collects this season and hear words like John the Baptist’s words today and cannot help but to claim the penitential nature of Advent.
Part of the challenge is that we all get a bit hung up on the fact that we think of repentance as being about guilt, inadequacy, and unworthiness. We imagine that repentance is about our standard of moral worthiness or about our feelings of remorse. Barbara Brown Taylor explains, “The kind of repentance most of us shrink from is all about us, in case you hadn’t noticed. It is all about me, me, me, the miserable sinner. No wonder it is so revolting.” But, Taylor suggests that there might be another way to look at repentance. “The other kind of repentance, the healing kind is far more interested in God. It spends more time looking at the kingdom than the mirror. It has more faith in God’s power to make new than in our own power to mess up.”[ii] In fact, some have argued that repentance is about God’s desire to realign us with Christ’s life, God’s hope to transform us into Christ’s image.[iii] Real repentance is not about our failings, but about God’s desires for us.
I think many of us want to avoid texts like our gospel lesson today, because the last thing we want to hear as we try to struggle through those Advent to-do lists is that we need to repent, and think about the kingdom of heaven coming near. But John is not trying to push us to feel bad about ourselves this Advent season, or even to wallow in apologies. Instead, repentance is about “re-orientation, a change of perspective and direction, a commitment to turn and live differently.”[iv] Our gospel lesson today is not trying to get us to limit our hopes or define ourselves by our ancestry or piety, but to dream bigger dreams, and to work toward those bigger hopes on that Christmas hope list you just made this morning. This is what John means when he says to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Now if you imagine that I am saying that you have more work to do this Advent season, you are partially right. I am inviting you to take up the work of living into your bigger hopes and dreams this season. But I am also giving you permission to let go of those things on that to-do list that are not allowing you to focus on the real joy of this season: the joy of a life of repentance – of re-orientation. Now you may not be able to get out of that party or those Christmas cards, but maybe your presence at that party will be marked by your new Advent re-orientation. Maybe those cards will have a different message than you originally planned, or your approach to completing them may be full of love and compassion instead of obligation and annoyance. John’s words for us today are a wake-up call, but not the wake up call that fills us with dread and self-criticism. John’s wake-up call is a reminder of the hope of this season – the hope that is ours to claim when we are ready. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “Hoping for More,” as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2901 on December 2, 2013.
[ii] Barbara Brown Taylor, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” Journal for Preachers, vol. 21, no. 1, Advent 1997, 18.
[iii] John P. Burgess, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 46.