Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
We’re in a new church year. I usually look forward to a new church year, because it’s always good evidence that God is sustaining His people in spite of all the challenges we continue to face in this life. We have His promises, of course, that we will have eternity with Him in joy and peace, but just the fact that the Church continues to function amidst the world’s skepticism, hostility, and even outright persecution is also a fulfillment of His promises—both that we will suffer these things, and that His Church will prevail no matter what sorts of things individuals and segments within it might suffer.
A new church year is also a new beginning. Just like the secular world’s celebration of the new calendar year on December 31 and January 1, a new church year is also an opportunity to make changes in ourselves—especially in our spiritual lives. We can look forward to Advent because of its message of hope—the hope that change is possible.
That assumes, of course, that change is needed. I can’t imagine anyone here who is so content with his or her life or with the world that they don’t think anything needs to be changed. And yet as I look back over all the new church years all the Advent seasons I have lived through, I realize how difficult change is. Change is difficult because of the weakness of the flesh. No matter how willing the spirit, there are things going on in my life—and in the world—over which I have little control.
That could lead me to despair. I could just resign myself to the situation and assume that the changes I would like to make are not possible. Or, I could give free rein to my flesh and its desires. I could give in to hedonism and draw whatever pleasures and benefits I can out of life without worrying about the effects on me or on anyone else. After all, if I cannot overcome my own weaknesses, or fight the forces in the world around me, why not just surrender to them?
Fortunately, there’s another option. As a baptized child of God, I can respond to this recognition of my own powerlessness by entrusting my future to another—to One whose power is greater than mine. Then I can live in anticipation and in confidence of the changes which will be worked in me by the other.
Now that is certainly a pious attitude, and it’s easy to say in theory. The challenge is to make sure that I’m not kidding myself. It’s possible I’m just all talk when it comes to entrusting myself to God. Maybe I’m really just succumbing to frustration, despair, and a life of selfishness.
The first thing I need to decide is whether I could do without any change. Certainly the economy is not what we all would like it to be. Many of us—whether due to loss of income or simply irresponsible spending priorities—are living in a downward spiral of unsustainable indebtedness. The government is doing the same thing on a much larger scale.
And, no matter what side of the climate change debate you come down on, it’s pretty clear to all but the most utterly dense among us that we are not being the sort of stewards of the planet God would have us be. The earth needs care it is not receiving from us for it to be the sort of world God created it to be.
We entrust many of these big issues like the economy and the environment to political leaders, but I don’t have a lot of confidence that any elected leaders of either party really have the integrity or the will to do the unpopular things necessary to address our precarious situations.
Some think the situation is so politically intractable that we need a messianic ruler such as the one Isaiah envisioned, “a shoot coming out of the stump of Jesse”—that is, a modern-day King David. They seek a leader on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests; someone whose rule is so beneficial that the creation is at peace with itself—“wolves lying down with lambs,” and all that.
Short of messianic intervention, though, how are we to respond? Even if we don’t scale up all the way from the personal to the cosmic, we find the same challenge at various levels we deal with. You would think that the Christian Church would have the will and mission to harness change, but the Church is itself in a desperate situation and badly in need of change.
Congregations big and small, national denominations, and even world-wide communions operate with entrenched cultures. These can make them powerless to bring about needed changes.
The problems at these various levels of reality are somewhat inter-related. Part of the reason churches are so ineffective is because so many of us use worship and fellowship to soothe our own spiritual and psychological pains rather than as a call to be servants of others and confident witnesses to a world in desperate need of the Gospel. We talk the talk of putting our trust in God for the salvation of our souls, but for most of the week we forget about that and desperately focus on trying to save ourselves.
We try to grapple with the growing demands or desperation of our employment or educational situations, or keep a lid on the pressures or mend the broken pieces of our families. We want to pay the rent or the mortgage, maintain our lifestyle, and continue to run faster and harder on the treadmill of life.
We are sure that if we slow down, we’ll fall behind. We’ll slip through the widening rips in the fabric of our society, and slide into the hell of irrelevance or a total breakdown.
Against these frightening scenarios, our Advent readings speak a message of hope, but it is a hope that doesn’t remove the challenges of this life. Rather, it is a hope that continues to call us to entrust ourselves and our world to God, then to actually live on the basis of that hope, rather than just talking the talk while living in despair.
The Apostle Paul tells us that the scriptures which were written in former days were written for our benefit, so that by their encouragement and by steadfastness we might have hope. And in the scriptures we heard today written by Isaiah many centuries before the time of Paul, God encourages us and gives us hope. The Old Testament passage gives us an extraordinary vision of a future paradise. It will be a place of such peace and harmony that a snake pit becomes a safe place for children.
There is no hurting or destroying in God’s holy place, and it is full of justice and righteousness and wisdom and understanding. What possible better response can we have to such a vision but “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!” Unlike those who hope for some sort of worldly leader to help us from our many temporal predicaments, we know full well the identity of this messianic ruler.
But what are we actually to do with such a vision? How can we make sure it becomes anything other than a cloud of fantasy we stick our heads into when the harsh realities of this life threaten to overwhelm us? After all, we are completely powerless to bring this utopia about. Our best efforts are seldom enough to even get the members of our own families to lie down in peace, let alone wolves and lambs, or Democrats and Republicans, or Israelis and Palestinians.
All our evangelism, our social welfare initiatives, our political activism don’t accomplish it. United Nations resolutions and conflict-reduction conferences don’t make a dent in the tide of hatred and hostility and despair that inflicts our world. What are we to do with a vision that so successfully eludes our best efforts?
The answer, according to John the Baptist, is quite clear: “Repent!” To many people, that word, “repent,” sounds like beating yourself up. It has even come to be caricatured in cartoons in our time. Some guy in a long beard wearing a robe and sandals is holding a sign that says “Repent.” Repent of what? The sign doesn’t say, exactly. But because we know we haven’t done the best we could, the mere word might make us feel guilty or even ashamed.
“Repent” doesn’t sound really sound much like good news. But John’s message of repentance must have sounded like good news to those who came out into the wilderness to be baptized by him, because they came in droves. Now, John was certainly not popular with the entrenched hierarchies of his day. Perhaps when he said “Repent,” they heard it differently than the others. After all, the word “repent” means to turn around, to change direction. Entrenched powers never like change.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” says John. This is not “repent” as in “give up everything that’s good in life.” This is “Don’t miss the boat. Don’t miss the opportunity of a life time. The Kingdom of Heaven is near; don’t get left out of it when the Messiah comes.”
So repentance is not a matter of being naughty or nice. It’s about admitting that we are, indeed, naughty—downright evil, even. It’s about opening our eyes and altering our expectations of what Christ does for us. It’s about realigning our lives so that we are connected to a mysterious, incomprehensible alternative reality coming into the world: The kingdom of Christ. We re-orient our lives because we have encountered One who has risen from the dead; He has blown away all previous expectations of what might be possible. This is about placing our hope in Christ, here and now, and beginning to live accordingly.
But if by “hope” we just mean just some sort of vague wish that one day everything here on earth might change for the better, then we’re back to kidding ourselves. We’re just talking the talk while still living in desperate slavery to the lifestyles of the society around us. The “hope” to which we are called is far more powerful and life-changing than that.
We are called to a hope that is not only a bold and forceful protest against the cynicism and callousness and greed of our society—it’s an out-and-out rebellion against the vocal ideology that we dare not entrust ourselves to anything but what we can manufacture and purchase and control.
This is not so much about looking forward to the day when all will be well as it is about living now in anticipation of it. John does not say “Repent for the kingdom of heaven will come near, someday, way off in the future.” He says, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” In Jesus’ victory over sin on the cross, the reign of God in the world becomes manifest. In the resurrection of Christ, the powers of death and despair have already been broken. In the pouring out of his Holy Spirit upon us at the font and by His Word, we have been set free to live under the new order. In bread and wine at this table, we taste the first fruits of the coming resurrection joy. The kingdom is now!
Yes, we still live surrounded by the unwitting subjects of another defeated kingdom. But that need not deter us from encouraging them to join us on the winning side, nor from celebrating the victory of our coming King, here and now.
And celebrate we will. Another Christmas is coming soon, and we will celebrate the Word of God made flesh, dwelling among us, full of grace and truth. This runs against all the false advertising of the material things we are told we need to make our lives complete. We will celebrate because we know we are powerless to turn the world around or even take a stand against consumer capitalism’s hostile takeover of Christmas.
In our celebration, though, we will show a better way and a better world. We will celebrate because we are being turned around by the One who is turning the world around and turning it upside-down. We will celebrate because next to the resurrection of a crucified man, getting a lion to lay down with a lamb is a piece of cake.
We will celebrate by joyously refusing to live in fear and isolation and desperate selfishness. We will celebrate not because we are under any illusion that by our own efforts we can make ourselves or the world any better, but because we are preparing to greet the One who can, did, does, and will.
Christ is born. Jesus is risen. The Spirit is poured out upon you. The kingdom of God is at hand, and the banquet of the kingdom is served. The new creation is here, among us. Amen.