2nd Sunday of Advent
Here we are on the second Sunday of Advent, talking about deserts, locusts, wild honey, camel's hair, and vagrant prophet named John. We're only 21 days from Christmas. Shouldn't we be talking about Santa Claus and reindeer and elves and presents under the tree? We're hearing hymns like the “Dies Iræ,” – “Days of Wrath” – and “Go Labor On.” When we should be listening to “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.” The Gospel is all broods of vipers and repentance from sin and divine anger and winnowing chafe and unquenchable fire! We could be forgiven for thinking that the Church is being a Grinch or a Scrooge for throwing cold water on our Christmas Spirit. AND. . .we'd be right for thinking so if we were in the Christmas season. But we're not. We're in the season of waiting for Christmas, waiting for the birth of Christ and his second coming at the end of the age. The locusts and vipers and deserts and days of wrath are here to prod us into being ready for the Just Judge and the trial we all face after death. So, John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness, preaches: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Just yesterday, a UD student asked me what “repentance” means. I said, “It means to turn around, to return to God.” The Greek word in the NT is metanoia, meaning “to change one's mind,” to alter one's plans or purpose. When we put ourselves on a path, believing we are taking the best route to our goal, and it becomes clear that that path is taking us into darkness, we are urged to metanoia, to turn around, to repent. There's a time limit on our ability to repent. We call that limit “my life time.” Each one of us has exactly as long as we will live to turn around. At death, an eternally binding decision is made: to live with God, or without Him. He will honor our decision either way. Of course, He wills that we return to Him in love. However, love requires that we return to Him freely. John the Baptist is sent to sound the alarm: time is running out; the Kingdom is at hand; repent! Leave the path toward darkness and death and return to the Father. That's what Advent is all about – getting ourselves ready for the coming of the Just Judge, the One who will listen to our eternal choice and honor it. Santa Claus, reindeer, elves, and Christmas trees are wonderful signs for the proper season. Right now, however, we are in a season of repentance and anticipation.
Thus, the violet vestments and alarming hymns. And I know it all sounds so old-fashioned – repentance and judgment and days of wrath. But “old-fashioned” cannot be applied to the Gospel. The Word is eternal, so it is true now, back then, and tomorrow. It has always been true and will always be true. Pretending that we're too mature or sophisticated or modern to worry about sin and salvation is Pride writ large. Calling our sins “mistakes” or “struggles” doesn't dilute their affect on our immortal souls. Our moment before the Just Judge will not a “check in” with our Cosmic Therapist. He's not there to affirm our OK-ness, or hand us a salvation participation trophy. He'll be there to hear our choice. What do you choose? Eternal life or eternal death? And we need to be clear here: we don't make this choice after death; we make it everyday, every hour, every minute. Any time we think, speak, or act, we are making that eternal choice. We are saying to God: I want to be with You, or I can get along w/o You. Spend these next 21 days examining your choices. Spend them pondering how you have loved; how you have shown mercy; how you have been generous with everything God has given you. And if you start to think you're a hopeless sinner. . .well, repent! God always, always welcomes a sinner.
And if all this contemplation of your sin depresses your Christmas Spirit. . .good. It should. It's not Christmas yet. It will be. But not yet. Paul calls us to a life of hope, a life of endurance and encouragement. We've been given a spirit of courage not cowardice. So, we are more than able to be honest with both our sin and God's mercy. And we don't have to wear animal skins or eat bugs in the desert to find our peace. All we have to do is bring ourselves to God in confession and ask Him to show us our sins. In the presence of His perfect love, the marks of our disobedience, the times we have chosen not to love, will glow like fire. And all we have to do is take responsibility for our failures. We will receive His eternally-given forgiveness and turn again toward our perfecting end. Then we go back out with the words of John the Baptist ringing in our ears, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Now, we start again as imperfect Christs showing the world what the mercy of God can do with sinners like us.