A Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent + December 10, 2017

St. Catherine’s Episcopal Church
Chelsea, Alabama
Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Second Sunday of Advent + Year B
First Lesson: Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
Second Lesson: II Peter 3:8-15a
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Now, O Lord, take my lips and speak with them. Take our minds and think through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire for your Gospel. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

25317069_1571097999648117_299564482_oOne of the things that I love most about the season of Advent is that we get to sing so many beautiful hymns each week. I was reminded of this last Sunday evening during our service of Advent Lessons and Carols here at St. Catherine’s. The hymns of Advent have a lot to teach us about the importance of this season and why we spend four weeks preparing for the birth of our Savior and anticipating his return.

The popular Advent hymn, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” for example, speaks to the expectancy of the one who will come to dwell with us, the one who is Emmanuel- God with us. Or, “Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,” the eighteenth-century hymn by Charles Wesley which looks beyond our present time to the second coming of Jesus at the end of the age.

There are so many others, hymns like “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” drawing from our Old Testament lesson for today from the prophet Isaiah, and “There’s a voice in the wilderness crying.” Indeed, we can learn a lot about the season of Advent and its purpose for us simply by turning to the hymnal, by listening to the marvelous hymns that our tradition has to offer.

Another one of my favorite Advent hymns is “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry,” which we’ll sing together at the end of today’s service. The first verse begins, “On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry announces that the Lord is nigh; awake and hearken, for he brings glad tidings of the King of kings.” Did you know that this is one of the only hymns in our hymnal related to the life and ministry of John the Baptist? Why is that? Did the editors of the hymnal not think it was important to include more hymns about the cousin of Jesus, the herald of the Messiah? Or, does the message of John the Baptist make us a little uncomfortable?

In today’s lesson from the Gospel according to Mark, we encounter John the baptizer, who appears in the wilderness and offers the people of Judea a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins. His message to the people who have gathered is not a message of comfort or one that we would normally describe as “good news.” He isn’t there to console them or to make them feel better about themselves. His purpose is to prepare the way for Jesus, and he does this by proclaiming to the people that preparation requires repentance and confession.

Words like “repentance” and “confession” aren’t words that we normally hear around this time of year, are they? No, during the days and weeks leading up to Christmas, our lives are typically consumed with making plans for the holidays. We have Christmas parties to attend, gifts to purchase for family and friends, and Christmas decorations to put up around the house- things that most of us consider to be fun and exciting, things that most of us look forward to all year long!

We usually save words like “repentance” and “confession” for the season of Lent, the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter. So, what place do they have during this season, and what does John the baptizer have to teach us on this Second Sunday of Advent?

We know that John’s message of repentance must be an important part of the season of Advent because it shows up every year in our three-year lectionary. Whether we’re in Matthew, Mark, or Luke, it shows up every year on the Second Sunday of Advent. John the Baptist shows up with his message of repentance, and in each version of the story, he says basically the same thing. “I am not the Messiah. I baptize you with water, but one who is coming who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

To me, this speaks volumes about the importance of repentance and what it means for us in our journeys with Christ. This says to me that, if the season of Advent is meant to prepare us for the coming of Jesus, then perhaps we have to think about what repentance actually means before we can get to the baptism that Jesus offers us- a baptism of salvation that we continue to experience and live in to, day after day.

We often look at repentance in a negative way. We consider it a form of punishment or something that one should try to avoid having to do. In other words, we think that, if you’re at a point in your life when you need to repent, you must have done something really bad.

But, I want to suggest to you that repentance doesn’t have to be seen as something negative, and it doesn’t have to be seen as a form of punishment for doing something wrong. When we think of repentance as punishment, it’s easy for us to be overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and shame, but that isn’t what God desires for us. God’s desire is for us to love others and to know that we are loved also. I don’t believe that God would call us to repent if it was meant to harm us or cause us to doubt our own worth.

When we read about John’s message of repentance and we hear the call of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, we’re given the opportunity to remember who we are as children of God and an opportunity to return to the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.

Last year, just a few weeks before Chelsea and I moved our family from Texas to Alabama, I had the opportunity to attend my final diocesan convention in the Diocese of Northwest Texas. The Bishop of the diocese, Scott Mayer, delivered a thoughtful and inspiring address to those of us who were there. During his address, he reminded me of something about repentance that I had once heard. He said that we typically have two understandings of the word, “repent.” In our culture, we tend to think of repentance as “feeling bad for doing bad things,” and in the Church, we tend to think that repentance means to “turn around.” He told us that, while both of these understandings can be helpful, the actual meaning of the word, “repent,” in the original Greek means “to go beyond the mind” or “to go into the larger mind.”

The Bishop reminded us at the convention that Jesus tells parables and stories that invite us to go beyond the way that we typically think, “to go into the larger mind.”

But, how exactly do we do that? How do we “go beyond the mind?”

In his address, Bishop Mayer suggested that we might begin by thinking about how we’re all connected. He told us that, when we think about the General Confession that we say each Sunday and in particular, the line, “we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves,” or when Jesus tells us to “love our neighbor as our self,” he’s not actually telling us to love our neighbors as much as ourselves but to love our neighbors as a continuation of ourselves. That’s what it means to “go beyond the mind,” or to “go into the larger mind.”

When we think about repentance in this way, as a means of remembering that we’re all connected and called to love one another as a continuation of ourselves, I think that we can start to develop a much more helpful understanding of what repentance actually is. Suddenly, repentance becomes not something that we should feel guilty about or something that we should try to avoid doing but something that can actually draw us into a deeper relationship with each other and with God.

So, as we continue to move through this Advent season, as we continue to journey toward Bethlehem, let us remember the true meaning of the word “repentance,” and let us hold firmly to the message of John the baptizer and the prophets of the Old Testament, who call us not to dwell on what we’ve done or left undone but to remember who we are and who were created to be. Amen.

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