Repent and Rejoice, Advent 3 (C) – 2003
December 14, 2003
Remember when you were expecting your first child? Most of you know what that’s like. It was really something — keep it in mind. That feeling is probably clearest today, the third Sunday of Advent. This day is traditionally called “Gaudette Sunday.” It means “rejoicing Sunday,” from the Latin word, gaudere, to rejoice. The rose candle on the Advent wreath is lighted today and the sometimes heavy weight of Advent is lifted for a time.
Now, there is something tricky about great gifts — especially when the gift is a child. Right? The lessons we just heard do a marvelous job of pointing to this insight. The first two are all about rejoicing. The prophet Zephaniah sings to the people, “the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more.” God is going to do great things for his people. All is well; God is at hand. “Rejoice” is also the first word we hear from Philippians. Again, we are assured that the Lord is at hand, and this is a wonderful thought.
That is part of what it means to prepare for a gift. That is almost always the very first thing you say when you discover someone is expecting a child; you say, “congratulations,” — rejoice, this is wonderful news. We have all heard that a lot.
Rejoicing is also a big part of what it means to prepare for Christmas. The good news of Advent is that God is coming to God’s people — to you and to me. God’s promises are being fulfilled. And we are to await that, to believe that, to realize that-and open ourselves fully to it. That is cause for celebration and for rejoicing.
Then we hear the Gospel and the image shifts. God is no longer pictured as a victorious warrior exulting over his people, but as a wrathful judge, an executioner who loves his work. We are standing at the River Jordan, face to face with John the Baptist at his most intense.
John doesn’t say to rejoice; John says to repent. Paul told the Philippians not to be anxious about anything; John tells his hearers to flee from the wrath to come.
Everyone in the Gospel is asking, “What shall we do? What has to change if we are to survive the great and terrible events that lie ahead?” For the axe is already laid to the root of the trees, and fire
Is prepared for burning the chaff. This is a very different message from “rejoice!”
And if you think about it, that makes sense, too. That fear, that anxiety, too, is part of our preparation and of our waiting. And it should be heard, and felt, at exactly the same moment we hear, and feel, the call to rejoice. For the Lord we await in Advent is a Lord who makes a difference, who changes things.
He is a Lord who offers both new life and new responsibilities, and who offers them together — simultaneously. Part of what new life means is that the old life just doesn’t work anymore — because everything is different. If we receive the gift of the Christ child, everything will change, and the direction and the focus of our lives will shift. It just works that way.
Remember the second thing everybody (or at least everybody who has been a parent longer than 20 minutes) says when they learn that you are expecting a child? The first thing said is always, “congratulations, we’re happy for you; it’s wonderful news.” The second thing is always one form or another of, “boy are you in for it!”
We are told often, and in a variety of ways, that things are going to change, that everything will be different. Nobody uses the word, but everybody tells us we have to repent, indeed that we are going to repent, to change our way of looking and living.
“Rejoice/repent!” Those are the words that go with all great gifts. Something wonderful is going to happen; and if, after you receive that gift, you try to live the way you are living now, your life just won’t work anymore. Life after such a gift is a sort of judgment on life before.
“Rejoice/repent!” This dual demand in the face of the coming of God is addressed to all of us — it is part of Advent. It is a perfect reflection of the ambiguity that permeates our vision and our experience. We await and try to prepare for the coming of a child — a child who changes everything. So Zephaniah is right, we are to rejoice, and give thanks to God, and sing. And John the Baptist is right, and this wonderful gift will also come as judgment, and with a power and a violence all its own. If we are going to take seriously the good news of Christmas, then things are going to be very different.
Think about how much your first child changed your lives. Think of what it would look like to live comfortably with the child from Bethlehem — as a baby, and as an adult. For both the joy he offers and the demands he makes cannot be truly ours if we remain exactly the people we are today. And think about what repentance, the redirection of our attention, looks like — it is not something weird or mysterious. Repentance generally looks pretty much like our lives now, but with a difference.
When the crowd at the Jordan River felt this crunch of anticipation and judgment, their cry of “what then shall we do?” was met with responses designed to force them into practical decisions. “Look at who you are,” John the Baptist said; “begin there.” When it comes to sharing, share from what you have. Don’t wait until you have more, or until your offering can be of a higher quality-start now, start with what is already there.
Practice justice where you work, build fairness and mercy into your present dealings, your current life. Don’t wait until you have a job where justice is easier — or more noticeable.
Don’t wait to be somewhere else, or to be doing something else, or to be someone else — begin with the road in front of you, walk that road, and so allow God to transform the real life you live right now. John did not tell even the despised tax collectors or the hated and feared soldiers that they had to go somewhere else to begin. Just as being a son of Abraham was no exemption from the call to repent, so being a tax collector or a soldier was no barrier to repentance, to change. The business of repenting because of the gift of a child is much the same as rejoicing. It has to do with transforming the life we are already living.
Repent and rejoice — in all things, with the real life we live in the real world. It really is a familiar situation. As it is with much else, this is also our response to the ambiguity that surrounds us, and to the reality of the coming of the Lord.
Rejoice, for what is happening is wonderful.
Repent, because from now on, everything will be different.
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