Advent 2 A: Reclaiming Repentance

Matthew 3:1-12Isaiah 11:1-10

Dear Partner in Preaching,

What do you think: Is there any chance we can reclaim the value of the word “repentance” this Advent? Or, for that matter, Advent itself?

Here’s why I ask. I’m guessing that most of our folks assume repentance means saying you’re sorry. Or better, that you’re really, really sorry and will never do it – whatever “it” is – again. And, sure, that’s a part of repentance but, honestly, a pretty small part.

As you know, the heart of the word repentance means turning around, starting over, taking another direction, choosing another course. All of those actions by their nature call into question the value or rightness of one’s current behavior, but the emphasis is less on what is wrong with what we’re doing now and what is right and important and necessary about what we will do differently.

Repentance also underscores that change isn’t necessary for change’s sake, but rather that change is necessary because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all God’s people and – taking Isaiah’s vivid imagery in the second reading seriously – for the whole of creation. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and changing course.

Once you name it that way, of course, repentance can get pretty daunting pretty quickly. I mean, goodness, but there are so many things I could repent of, we as a community and nation could repent of, even we as a species could and should repent of. Pollution and climate change. Poverty and food scarcity. Racial injustice. The lack of clean water. Overflowing prisons. The divorce rate. The number of children with only one parent or living below the poverty level. Crime and violence. And the list goes on. Which means it’s not long before it’s mighty tempting to give up on the whole repentance thing, hunker down with our current and comfortable friends and biases, and get back to watching our favorite television series on Netflix.

So here’s my suggestion: rather than inviting repentance in general – which is too unspecific to be helpful – and rather than calling for a global-issue sized repentance, I’d invite you to consider asking your congregation to do three things.

First, ask them to take a moment to daydream what God’s vision would be for them. What, that is, do they think God wants them to be and to do? “Daydream” may be the key word here, because God invites us to dream something beyond what we can presently see. In some ways, that is exactly what the Isaiah passage chosen for this Sunday is – God’s dream about a different world where there is no predator or prey, no fear or hatred. It’s not a goal to be achieved, but a dream by which to set a course.

Second, ask your folks to choose one – just one! – element of their lives of which they would like to repent – that is, change direction – and name this Advent as a time to do that. Is there an unhealthy relationship they want to repair or address? Can they imagine using their time differently and toward better ends? Is there some practice or habit they might take up that would produce more abundant life for them or those around them?

Third, then ask if they can identify one element of our communal lives that needs repentance and to think how they can contribute to that. Can they spend time volunteering at a local charitable agency? Or make an additional donation? Can they get to know someone who is quite different from them – ethnically or politically or generationally – and try to build a more robust community in this way? Can they identify one communal issue and begin praying for it daily, open to how God might direct their time and actions to contributing to change?

If we can invite folks to think of repentance more concretely and, indeed, engage in just two acts of repentance – one personal, one more communal – we might go a long way in redeeming not just repentance but Advent itself. Because Advent, too, has shrunk, I think, in our imaginations. For too long we’ve somehow concluded that Advent is the season when we are scolded for not preparing for Christmas adequately: Slow down, stop buying presents, make time for church, don’t get caught up in the holiday glitz. Do you know what I mean?

Again, maybe that has something to do with Advent, but I just don’t think that’s what Advent is really all about. Rather, I think the point of Advent is to make room for Christ’s arrival, to be surprised again that God was willing to enter into our lives and history and take on our vulnerability in order to give us hope. God isn’t supposed to do that. God is supposed to sit up in heaven alternatively smiling or frowning down at us depending on our behavior. But the God we know doesn’t do that. The God we know in Jesus comes down out of heaven to take on our lot and our life and give us hope by being with us and for us, not screaming repentance but inviting more abundant life and helping us to see in the face of our neighbor not a competitor for scarce resources but a brother or sister in Christ. If Advent is a time to slow down, it’s so that we can have more authentic life, not less Christmas.

Which means that if we can invite folks to imagine that “it doesn’t have to be this way” – whatever “this way” is oppressing them right now – and encourage them to take action and step toward God’s dream for their lives and our communities, Advent might itself be a more meaningful season.

Okay, so that’s my suggestion. But I’ll be honest, even as I name it I’m worried it all seems so small. And, indeed, I suppose this could devolve into little more than call for an early New Year’s resolution. Except repentance isn’t like that – it’s not a once and done activity. Rather, the Sundays in Advent become a microcosm of all of our Sundays – and, indeed, all of our days – opportunities to discern God’s call, see where we have left the path, and turn toward God’s vision for us and our communities once again. So perhaps this sermon and season is just a small start, an initial but critical first step down a new and straight path, but I hope for this very reason it may be an important start toward more abundant life.

Thanks for thinking this through with me, Dear Partner. I trust you’ll know how to give this text life in your community and am grateful for your ministry. Whatever else John the Baptist was, he was first and foremost a witness to the coming Christ. And your words and witness continue to matter and to make a difference in the lives of your hearers as they perceive in Christ God’s promise and ongoing activity in their lives and, indeed, this world God loves so much. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,