2 Advent A—12/8/19
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-7; Matthew 3:1-12
Pr. Scott Kramer
If you’re a local sports fan, you know what the big story was this past week. Chris Petersen, Husky coach over the past six years, suddenly resigned. Well, coaches do resign, but typically in order to take a more prestigious, challenging, and usually better-paying coaching position somewhere else. What made this announcement such a big deal is that Petersen resigned without any new coaching opportunity in hand, and here’s why: Controlling balance and maximizing the quality of one’s life is the definition of success, he [said] – and you cannot do that in this job. There is no balance…It’s out of whack. It’s crazy.
Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. Chris Petersen is a good-looking, healthy, middle-aged white guy who has been making almost $5 million per year as Huskies coach. It’s one thing for a guy like him to make such a decision. It would be quite another, for example, if he were a single parent just trying to put food on the table!
And yet, on this Second Sunday in Advent, Chris Petersen’s decision offers us a pretty good example of something not that different from Christian repentance. 1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2Repent, for the kin-dom of heaven has come near!
When we think of “repentance,” we probably think of confessing some wrongdoing and expressing remorse. That’s certainly one important type of repentance, but for followers of Jesus that definition is just not big enough. The word for repentance that John the Baptist uses, and which appears in the Bible over and over is “metanoia,” which means a change of direction.
You see the difference, right? It’s possible for me to confess my sins over and over–for a lifetime, even–without making any significant change of direction. But what the God who loves you wants is not the satisfaction of hearing how bad you feel about what you’ve done wrong. Our God desires more than anything for you and for me and for all people a transformed life. That transformed life is often marked by what these four Advent candles represent: hope, peace, joy, and love.
In your life, how many of these candles are lit? If hope, peace, joy and love are a big part of your life, then it may be that there’s some story of repentance behind it–somewhere in your life, a change of direction—maybe not once, but over and over again.
Chris Petersen at age 55 reached a fork in the road, and found that he had a choice to make: Do I continue along this road of fame and fortune, power and glory—and, sacrifice my family and relationships and physical health along the way–or, do I change direction?
Among ourselves, dear friends, you have stories of repentance. Stories of recovery from alcohol and other addictions. Stories of leaving a toxic workplace and unbearable work hours for the sake of family and physical health. Stories of leaving a toxic relationship. Stories of risking coming out to the world and not hiding your God-given self. The word “repentance” may not have occurred to you as you made those choices, but they are examples of metanoia–a change of direction, away from death, toward life.
Sometimes we make such choices only after we’ve hit bottom. Only when we experience the painful and destructive consequences of one path do we begin the courageous work of changing direction.
It can be much more difficult to change direction when we see no need for change. When things seem to be going well for me (or, “good enough”), why would I change? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The problem on our human journey is that by myself I often can’t see that something’s broken until it’s too late—or nearly too late. I need the support, challenge and perspective of others!
For disciples of Jesus, we find hope and confidence in the stories of our faith. These stories challenge and stretch us to new understandings and new directions, even when it wouldn’t occur to us that repentance—a new direction—was needed.
For example, on your bulletin insert this morning you see a chart labeled “Seasonal Themes,” with one column marked “Christmas” and the other marked “Solstice/Winter Festival.” Preparation for Christmas in our culture involves such a hodgepodge of distracting and contradictory stories and priorities that I’m never surprised this time of year when people say they’re exhausted, overwhelmed or depressed.
|Immanuel: “God With Us”: God’s presence in human form||“Christmas” tree “Christmas” presents;|
|Angels = “Messengers”||“Jolly” Santa/Reindeer/Elves|
|Mary/Jesus/Shepherds/”Kings”: Single Mother, Baby, Poor, Foreign, Strangers||Family/friends “Season of Giving” “The Holidays”|
|Peace on Earth Prince of Peace Joy to the World “He lifts up the lowly, and exalts those of low degree”||White Christmas, “Merry” Christmas, “Christmas” cookies, “Christmas” cheer, Jingle Bells|
|No room for them in the inn||“Christmas” parties|
|12 Days||One day|
As you see in the chart, there’s a lot we call “Christmas” that has little to do with the life-giving miracle of God’s ongoing appearance among us in human form. I’m not saying that winter festival is bad. In the rain and the cold and dim light of winter, we Northern people need a winter festival!
But, a winter festival has no saving power. A winter festival cannot save us from despair. It can’t save us from fear. A winter festival cannot provide the sustained hope, peace, joy, and love that every human soul longs for. When we pin our deepest hopes on experiencing a “merry” Christmas, or exchanging the “perfect gift,” we can only be disappointed.
The story of God meeting us on our turf in the very human person of Jesus, on the other hand, connects us more deeply not only with our Creator but with each other. While winter festival encourages reconnecting with family and friends, the story of “God With Us” asks, “And, who exactly is your family?”
The Christmas story answers that question in ways that may shake us up. Our family includes a single mother named Mary. Our family includes a man named John who might just have some mental health issues. Our story includes a homeless family, for whom there was no room at the inn. Our family includes refugees, hunted down as they flee to a foreign land. In our family appear foreigners, who recognize the Christmas story almost before anyone else. In our family appear workers at the bottom of the social order. In Jesus’ day they were shepherds; in our day, they’re orchard workers, housekeepers and lawn care people–ignored, exploited, despised or feared. And, in the Christmas story, every character is a person of color. It’s right there in plain sight for us to learn from—or not.
If our hearts and energy are mostly invested in cultural values and celebrations, national stories and personal beliefs, we are not likely to connect the dots between the Christmas story and our own stories. We are not likely to hear the words of the prophet Isaiah, where he says in today’s reading: 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. Or, for example, the words of the psalmist, who declares: 4Let him defend the needy among the people, rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor.
Where we fail to connect the dots between God’s story and our own, there is unlikely to be a change of direction. And where there is no change of direction, hope, peace, joy, and love may remain elusive. This helps explain John the Baptist’s sharp warning in today’s reading toward those who cling tightly to their own religious and national identity.
In the course of his fork-in-the-road announcement this past week, Chris Petersen offered this quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius: Every person has two lives to live, and the second one begins…when we realize we only have…one life.
Friends, the kin-dom of heaven has come near! It is as near as our breath, as near as the story of God’s love that comes to us again through prophets and angels and shepherds. May the Holy Spirit lead us to hear the story of God’s love again as if for the first time, and may the Bethlehem star lead each of us, whether in small ways or big ways, to a change of direction.