If you were to spend a moment daydreaming about your idea for a perfect Christmas, what images would you conjure? Pews filled to bursting with the faithful? Gorgeous music and candlelight? A deserved and blessed rest with family and friends after the Christmas Eve services? A family gathering unattended by quarrels and permeated instead by a sense of Christmas good cheer? Healing for a love one who is ill? Time with someone you miss? What?
I ask this question because it struck me as I was reading this week’s Gospel text how difficult it is to hear John’s proclamation of repentance during Advent. Truth be told, repentance is rarely an easy sell as it is so regularly associated with feelings of guilt, of not doing enough or not measuring up. So John’s blunt message—with nary a mention of forgiveness or grace—is even on the best of occasions difficult to hear.
And all of this is compounded during Advent. While Advent was devised as a season during which to prepare for the arrival of the Christ child in earnest repentance and humility, those days are mostly over. Today, Advent is a time of preparing a Christmas celebration that is about Christ’s birth, of course, but also is dominated by feasts, presents, family gatherings and all the rest.
Which is, of course, part of the challenge. Say anything about repentance, and it feels like you’re scolding people for their observance (or lack thereof) of a proper Advent and Christmas. But what if we took a different approach? What if, instead of asking people to have less of their traditional preparations and celebration, we invited them to have more—more peace, more joy, more grace, more … Christmas? What if, that is, we invited them to dream bigger dreams and hope grander hopes? This will take equal measures of skill, creativity and daring, Working Preacher, but I’m confident you’re up to it!
What I am thinking about will take three steps. First, ask folks to make a quick “to do” list for Advent. Place plenty of paper and pencils at their disposal … and promise no judgment. This is really just a chance to jot down the various tasks they need and want to get done. Maybe it’s shopping for gifts or attending the kids’ school Christmas concert or getting ready for the holiday feast or noting the times of the Christmas Eve services or making end-of-the-year charitable contributions. Take a few moments and invite folks to be fairly exhaustive about what they want to get done before the holiday.
Second, invite folks to daydream about what they hope Christmas will be like. What kind of day do they want to have? More than that, what kind of relationships do they want to be a part of? Even more, what kind of world do they want to live in this Christmas and beyond? Our hopes, after all, surely aren’t limited to our immediate wants and needs, but reach out to include our larger families, communities and world. (The shootings in Newtown reminded us of that forcibly, when every single one of us craved to live in a world where all of our children were safe.) Perhaps they want to write a brief sentence on another piece of paper that captures their hope for their lives and the world this Christmas, or perhaps it’s enough just to think about it.
(With regard to the kind of world in which we want to live, Isaiah may be helpful. Last Sunday we heard Isaiah’s word about a world where swords have been beaten into plowshares; this week we receive a picture of life where the wolf and the lamb rest together and all are equal and live at peace with each other. It might be helpful, as they ponder or write or think, to read selections of those two readings that capture God’s hopes and promises.)
Third, once our folks have the picture of their “Christmas hope” in mind, invite them to “work backward” by reviewing the “to-do” list they made and circling those tasks that contribute directly to their own deep hopes and longings about their lives and world. There may be many things on the list that are important in the short run but don’t contribute to their larger vision and hope. And perhaps Advent can be a time to put things in perspective, to channel our energy and resources to those things that matter most … to us, to our families and communities, and to God.
Repentance, after all, isn’t about feeling bad or saying “I’m sorry.” Rather, it’s about a re-orientation, a change of perspective and direction, a commitment to turn and live differently. And so, John challenges his audience not to define themselves or limit their hopes based on their ancestry or piety but rather to dream a larger hope and grander vision and to work toward a better world by “bearing fruits worthy of repentance.”
This isn’t about less but about more, Working Preacher—about inviting people into the kinds of hopes, dreams and even adventures that the God of the Bible promises all those who are willing to leave their familiar and well-trod paths and venture down another way. Each time we do so—each time we hold up our acquired habits and practices and compare them with our deepest hopes and dreams—we experience the joy of Advent repentance, a time still marked by our preparation to receive and share the grace and glory of God represented in the babe of Bethlehem, the Word made flesh, our Emmanuel.
As I said, inviting people to re-imagine repentance as a joyful, if also challenging, activity and to receive Advent as a gift rather than an obligation is not easy work. But it is good work, and I give thanks that you are the latest in a long line of witnesses dating back to John and Isaiah who are willing to give voice to God’s hopes and dreams that we might be caught up in and redeemed by them as we approach Christmas.