Repentance and Comfort – The Rev. Michelle Meech
December 06, 2020
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on Advent II, December 6, 2020. You can read the scripture here. Listen along by clicking the play button above.
“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
Of all the things we could be reading about as we prepare for such a festival of joy, reading about sin and repentance seems like a harsh way to get ready for Christmas. Especially this year.
The busyness of our own lives – all that we typically do to prepare for Christmas plus, making alternate plans to be with the people we love in some way – whether that’s a phone call, a zoom call, sending presents, or even visiting at a distance. Plus navigating our work lives and, for some of us, school or parenting school children. Or people we know are sick. Or we’re scared of getting sick because of a situation we’ve been in. Or we miss the people we love.
The world feels very chaotic right now. Even with our national election over, we’re re-experiencing the pandemic and the rates of those who are infected soars beyond anything we’ve experienced thus far. And our healthcare workers are exhausted and feeling utterly disrespected because some people still refuse to wear a mask. The pandemic has created joblessness and homelessness around us, even as we are safe in our homes. And our homes, safe though they are, can feel restrictive because, it seems, we’re not allowed to be anywhere else.
I saw a tree ornament on Facebook the other day, it was green dumpster with black lids. One of the lids was open, revealing the inside where a big orange dumpster fire raged, glowing flames jumping out of the top. On the front of the dumpster was the number 2020. Inferring, of course, that the year 2020 has been one big dumpster fire, a metaphor for an utterly calamitous and mismanaged situation. A disaster.
Given this past year, that we are called to repent is, I suspect, just about the last thing we want to hear. But the seemingly harsh call to repentance is not all we hear today in the scripture. We also hear the words of Isaiah, the words we sang in our opening hymn –
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says God. Speak tenderly. Let Jerusalem know that the difficulty is coming to an end. For every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places, a plain.”
The chaos will come to an end.
It may help to remember the true meaning of the word repentance. I know I’ve preached about this before but it bears repeating because the larger societal understanding of repentance is one that is negative and not comforting at all.
Repent means to simply “turn around.” It’s not a chest-beating, penance-saying, state of self-abasement. We aren’t meant to feel bad about ourselves. We’re meant to stop and to turn around. To see something different besides what we’re usually focused on.
But it’s a difficult command for us to hear. We want to keep going. In our fear and anxiety and anger, we want to keep filling our time and our lives with things to do to. Perhaps, to keep the emptiness at bay. Perhaps to keep from falling apart. This isn’t anything new. This is how most people are most of the time. It’s just more pronounced right now as we come to terms with what it means to celebrate Christmas in the middle of a pandemic.
So, this command, to “repent” or “turn around” is an invitation to realize something else is happening, someone else is speaking, something else is worth our attention. And that something else is God. That something else is Love.
It’s easy to miss what God is doing because we’re so focused on what we’re doing or not doing or what that person over there doing or not doing. When we stop and turn around and refocus, we may see what God is doing. We may hear how Love is responding. We may learn how God is reorienting the world toward justice and peace. And we may find ways to connect with that reorientation, to work for the reconciliation of the world.
And therein is the comfort for Jerusalem. That Love still exists. That Life still breathes. That Hope still reigns. That God still is.
And because of that, death is never the last word. Love, Life, Hope… these are the last words.
It’s a matter of tuning our dials to a different frequency – to listen, to watch for, to welcome, to expect Love.
I always think there is a slight confusion during the season of Advent because Advent is about preparing ourselves for the Love that comes down at Christmas. And the inference is that, if we don’t prepare, we won’t receive this Love. Almost like the list of naughty and nice that Santa keeps. Or that toy that a true masochist created, the Elf on the Shelf.
But I don’t believe that to be true. I believe as Archbishop Desmond Tutu believes, that we are made for goodness, we are made for love. Here’s a quote from a book he wrote with his daughter Mpho called Made for Goodness:
“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”
What’s important to understand is this: we are always being given Love. Christ is always present. The preparation we are going through at Advent is not so that God will love us, but so that we will become capable of receiving that Love. The preparation is one of removing all the obstacles in our lives to fully accept Christ, to become fully aware of the Truth that is Love.
The repentance John calls us to is so that we can see God’s Truth, so that we can make better decisions, not necessarily popular decisions, but better decisions, not only for ourselves, but for all our human siblings and all the creatures in God’s Peaceable Kingdom.
The prophetic voice is not the voice of judgment, you see. The prophetic voice is the voice of Love, the voice of comfort. To stop and to turn around and see something different besides what we’re usually focused on. It’s an invitation to realize something else is happening, someone else is speaking, something else is worth our attention.
And that something else is God. That something else is Love.
The promise is that, when we find the space of quiet amidst the fear of what might not go right and the anxiety over what isn’t going right and the anger over what hasn’t gone right… when we find the space of quiet, we will find comfort. We will know peace. We will experience love.
So it’s not “the valleys will be lifted up and the mountains will be made low…” But:
The valleys are being lifted up. The mountains are being made low.
The rough places are being made plain.
Truth is springing from the earth.
And peace is already a pathway for our feet.
The chaos is coming to an end.
The reign of God is, indeed, breaking in upon us.
For we are made for goodness. We are made for love.