Some people have a hard time with Advent. They see it as a giant wet blanket on the “holiday season,” much like, some folk think certain strands of Christianity itself cast a wet blanket on the enjoyment of life.
In my experience the act of repentance that is called for in the Advent season is a necessary preparation for the deeper joy of Christmas and a deeper appreciation of what life really holds out for humankind.
Often, when I hear people calling for full tilt enjoyment of life, “methinks they protesteth too much.” I get the feeling that the fault they find in Advent and Christianity in general is a bit of a projection of their own hang-ups. And I don’t think I’m imagining this.
Nowadays it usually takes the act of becoming a dangerous politician or a household name celebrity to have your secrets revealed. You get to the top of the polls running for president, or become a legend in athletics, and suddenly hoards of people have an interest in exposing the dirt in your life. It is oh so heady to have those thousands adoring you on your way up, but you can bet there will be just as many gloating on your way down. But the point is that this is a fantastic power for uncovering the things you would have preferred to keep hidden.
And we all have those things. We all walk through life with a Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads—the invisible threat of humiliation if our darkest secrets would come out. It’s not that we have all had affairs or sexually abused someone else, but we have had our fantasies, our bending of the truth and violation of ethics to gain advantage. We all have our moments of cowardice and our shameful compromises we would hate to have to admit to anyone.
The flip side of all of this is that most of us also harbor a false belief or a false religion. Even those, or perhaps especially those who proudly profess to no religion at all. The false belief is that we aspire to be exceptional. Creeping around in the shadows of our imaginations, weaving its way around all those secrets we count on keeping hidden, is the thought we cannot shake, that we are supposed to be above it all. The original design of our lives was to be better than this—more clever, more immune to hurt and doubt, more attractive, more self-sufficient.
Believing we should be more and suppressing the memory that we are less makes it hard to enjoy waterfalls, sunsets or the natural rhythms of pain and pleasure, birth and death. It makes it impossible to genuinely attend to the beautiful lives of lovers and strangers. It can make it very hard to keep Christmas.
All of this is addressed wonderfully by this week’s lessons for Advent.
Isaiah 40:1-11 is a prophecy. The breath of God takes hold of the prophet who has been told in the past to proclaim punishment. It says, “Now change the tune. Now comfort my people.” But the comfort contains this reminder—this explanation: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
The comfort is not that we can do better next time. It is not that we will someday get it all right and the economy will rebound and the government will work and the job creators will all actually create jobs and we will all learn to live in harmony. No. We will continue to lie and cheat and mess things up. Yes we will. But God is able to take our sorry selves and do some pretty wonderful things through us in spite of it all.
2 Peter 3:8-15 says that there are three pretty great things that can open us up to the comfort—that can open us to the best the future has to offer. One is the patience of God. That is, we have to have a different attitude toward time itself, the big half of reality (besides space) that we have the most difficulty dealing with. When we are interpreting time from a bad place, we see slowness. We blame God instead of seeing the power of sin at work in ourselves and all around us. We go to the extreme of saying, “Since bad things happen, even to good people, then there can be no such thing as God—problem solved.” But the problem remains.
When we interpret time from a good place we see patience. We continue to harbor sin. But sin is bigger than us—bigger than we can sweep away by blaming it all on God. Sin is a power that we inherit somehow and get hopelessly tangled in. But the history of suffering is also the story of God’s patience with humanity.
But 2 Peter also says this remarkable thing: “There is a new heaven and new earth coming, and we can both wait for it expectantly and hasten it.” I myself believe this concept of a new heaven and new earth is a way of talking of God’s certain realighment of the one reality we have always had to deal with. All of Scripture says that God is the ultimate sovereign of the one totality. Any rebellions going on in human hearts or in the mysterious world of the demonic will be short-lived and end in failure. The ultimate enemy of Death will be last to fall by the wayside.
This Deathly Enemy sustains itself in the meantime through that very yo-yo dynamic that I spoke of above—people want to be in the center of things, they want to be exceptional, they want to be in control. But their failures humiliate them and they then are haunted by the idea that they deserve only to be outside the circle completely. They say they just want to be free of religion to enjoy Christmas and life completely, but what they feel is something altogether dimmer and darker. It’s just all such a disappointment that it feels like God has failed us. This kind of yo-yo dynamic stokes all the fires of addiction and sin and the creepy things we do to each other.
But, the third great thing 2 Peter says is that the new heaven and new earth are “where righteousness is at home.” That is, the new is the old restored. The new heavens and earth are the one single reality restored to a state of a right relationship with God—where God is in the center of the circle and we are part of the circle. We are in place. Not in the center and exceptional. Not “spiritual” or more than human. But at home with righteousness we are content to be human and material (as well as spiritual) and fallible and grass-like in our inconstancy; but also sustained by the gracious and forgiving and constant Word of God.
And finally, the Gospel for this Sunday in Advent, Mark 1:1-8, tells us what is so great about Advent and Christianity is linked to baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Even a baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Nothing opens us up to the ecstasy of Christmas or the ecstasy of existence like experiencing repentance. Of course we kind of mess up even the idea of repentance when we think of it as all our doing—as a kind of ashes and sackcloth routine we go through. But repentance is nothing without God’s opening move. God sends us the prophetic truth: All flesh is grass (Isaiah 40:6) and in the final Big Bang of the earth’s future ending/beginning “everything that is done on it will be disclosed” (2 Peter 3:10) (Does this sound like the opposite of the big come-on empty promise of Las Vegas, where everything supposedly will stay there and stay hidden?)
Repentance is mostly God’s doing and is a fantastic liberation. No, your secrets will be revealed. And this Truth will get the monkey of your secrets off your back. And you can finally quit running away from righteousness – from the right relationship where you are grass and God is constant—where you are fallible and God is forgiving—where you can be human and God can be God again.
When your Heavenly Parent opens up that front door of the house where righteousness is at home, and you come in and confess your sins and are baptized, then all of Christmas can happen for you. Then you will know water and the fire of the Holy Spirit.
Then you will experience the ecstasy of life.