A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
December 4, 2005
Advent 2 2 Peter 3:8-15a Mark 1:1-8
The four Sundays of Advent, in case you haven't noticed yet, have this overarching theme of preparation. Advent's poster child is a Boy Scout with his motto “Be Prepared”. But I have to say remembering to “be prepared” doesn't do a thing to get me in the Christmas spirit. I think it's because of the guilt. I'm never fully prepared for Christmas. Procrastination is my forte -- not preparing.
With so many to choose from it is hard to choose just one example, but one I'm struggling with now is that I need to paint our new place. But I keep putting it off. I like choosing the colours. I like stroking the paint on in quiet meditation. What I hate is preparing to paint. It takes longer than the painting itself, and it isn't very satisfying. So I tend to take short-cuts. I delude myself into believing that I have a steady enough hand that I won't need to tape around the window frames. No need to spread drop cloths if I am careful. As a result, my efforts at painting tend to have less than satisfying outcomes.
So when Advent arrives I treat it like painting, I seek quick, easy ways to prepare for Christmas. I haven't stepped into a mall to do Christmas shopping in years. I shop online. I especially like those internet sites that wrap the gift, include a card and ship it directly to the gift's recipient.
Spiritually, the easier the preparation the more I like it. In Advent I like to prepare by listening to Christmas music. But going through the CD collection is a drag, so my collection is now downloaded to my iPod. I brought it this morning with its 195 Christmas songs, so you could share in my Advent preparation. Well, in truth it only has 194 songs. I deleted Bing Crosby's I'm Dreaming of White Christmas. Now that I live in New Zealand, what's the point?
You may not know, but an iPod can also be used as an alarm clock waking you to music. In Advent mine wakes me each morning with Isaiah's words of comfort to his people in captivity. “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”, the beginning of Handel's Messiah is a beautiful way to wake up, but it is what they promise I long for, what I can't wait for — his Halleluiah Chorus.
But just like Handel isn't satisfied with ending the Messiah with Christmas and insists in telling the whole story, crucifixion and all, Mark reminds us that the birth isn't the end. It isn't even the beginning. He begins his Gospel with John baptizing an adult Jesus. My God Mark what happened to the nativity pageant? Where are the shepherds watching, angels heralding and wise men worshipping? No cute little baby in nappies surrounded by farm animals for Mark. No, none of that. Mark gets right down to business. Through John he harks us back to Isaiah and puts us to the work of preparing. And it is just as bad as I feared. John the Baptist calls for us to start doing road work for the Lord, filling in valleys and levelling hills and straightening motorways. He tells us it is all about preparing and I feel like singing Ol ' Man River with America's black slaves instead of the opening words of John the Baptist in the Musical Godspell, “Prepare ye the Way of the Lord”.
I am even less comforted when I learn through John that Mark says the way we do this road work is by repenting. Repent. Now that's a word guaranteed to ruin a progressive theologian's Christmas. It conjures images of revival preachers scaring heaven into people with hellfire and damnation. It reeks of judgment. Too many Advents I have heard about my unworthiness to receive the gift of Jesus. If I want a Merry Christmas I better get my act together and be quick about it. Santa's coming. “You better watch out / you better not cry, / you better not pout / I'm tellin ' you why, / Santa Claus is coming to town, / he's making a list / checkin ' it twice, / he's gonna find out who's naughty or nice, / Santa Claus is coming to town”.
But I shouldn't be getting up Mark's nose about the word repent. It is all the years the church and people in my line of work used it to control people. Like Mums and Dad's everywhere trying to negotiate some good behaviour from their wee ones for at least one month of the year. The bottom line is my human nature resists and resents repentance almost as much as it protests preparing by procrastination.
Frankly, if it weren't for my vows to preach the Good News I'd just tell you to stuff Advent. Just keep yourself busy shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, partying, and wondering if you will get that special gift you have been hinting for. Limit your preparation to listening to Christmas muzak in the malls and pretty soon it will be the night before Christmas and you and I can sing Silent Night with 800 fellow Aucklanders here at St. Matthew's. Once again we will have survived the Christmas rush. But then what? After the Christmas BBQ is over and the Boxing Day sales have maxed out what's left on our credit cards is anything different? Are our lives and those of the ones we love any better? Is the world a better place? In my experience, it's not likely.
We all know the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. So if we'd like Christmas to last longer than the needles on our Christmas tree for a change, is there anything we can do?
It seems to come back to preparing by repenting. Damn!
Being a properly trained theologian I now resort to my Greek grammar and check out the word “Repent”. It turns out it is the word metanoia. Now that probably clears it up for you. But in case it doesn't, it literally means to turn around, to face a new direction. It turns out those revivalist preachers are the ones who made it useless to me. For them it was Lordship salvation. Accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour was all you needed to do. That was enough of a turn for them, and oh, yes, forsake sin. That language turns me off instantly. It is the language of the inquisition and the religious right. Believe as I do or else.
My other objection is that it is the kind of turn that goes full circle. Fail to quit sinning and we are back where we started. We are no better off. Next Christmas will be just like the last one. I need the kind of repentance that recognizes my imperfect humanity. That recognizes my weaknesses honestly and lovingly says try again. I need the kind of repentance that makes me feel better about myself. That is about becoming the kind of person I was created to be and want to be. I don't want the kind of repentance that pleases revivalist preachers and takes me off Santa's naughty list. And here's the really heretical part, trained theologian or not, I am not even interested in the kind of repentance that pleases God -- at least not the paternalistic, anthropomorphic God of my childhood that looked a lot like Santa without the red suit.
A call to repent can get my attention, if it leads to my liking what I see in the mirror shaving each morning. Repentance that leads to self acceptance and appreciating others sounds pretty good to me. Repentance where judgment rarely rears its ugly head sounds like something even I could muster up the energy to prepare for. Repentance that leads to rejoicing in life's little pleasures, exchanging a smile with a stranger, reading to a child, comforting a friend over a cuppa, snuggling with a loved one, listening to Michael Bell's Voluntary after the dismissal and the ensemble's anthem during communion… and so much more. But how to rejoice is then the question. I don't have a nice neat answer for you, but I think it has something to do with preparing.
At some point preparing becomes the goal and not what it leads up to. It becomes a way of living, like it does for our boy scout. The good news is that it is the kind of preparing Mark and John and Isaiah are talking about. It is the kind of preparing for Christmas that discovers on Boxing Day that the best present you unwrapped was you. It is the kind of preparing that discovers that you are a gift that keeps on giving. It is a pretty moving gift. It is why I interrupted writing this sermon to keep a very important part of my Christmas preparation ritual by watching Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. It reminds us that we are the gift that we and the world are awaiting. It is each of us for whom we need to fill the valleys and level the mountains and make straight the motorway. For we are the ones who will make all the difference. It is our birth the world awaits and it is to us Jimmy Stewart and our family and friends will all sing Auld Lang Syne in the New Year.