Advent is a Season of Repentance
For decades I've been saying, "Advent is a season of repentance." Saying it's so doesn't make it so, does it? Historically it was so. The Church prepared for the coming of Christmas in the same spirit John the Baptist and Jesus Himself prepared others for the coming of the kingdom of God: Repent! This was true in Lutheran churches as well. Up until 1978 Advent was a season of repentance but with the publishing of new appointed readings hope became a theme and the altar paraments changed from purple to blue. Our 1982 hymnal said you could use either purple or blue but purple was given preference. Our 2006 hymnal reversed that order giving blue the preference. Then in 2009 purple wasn't even an option.
It must be obvious to you why hope is preferred over repentance, why blue accepted and purple rejected. Look around you! This is par-tee time in the world. This is the season to engage in the very things our Lord warns us not to be weighed down with as we prepare for His coming: dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life. This is the season of office parties, bonuses, and weekday festivities. This is the season where people stress to be ready for Christmas, get ready for the holidays, and make ends meet.
In the world this is the season to make like the Piano Man and forget about life for awhile. A tone of repentance doesn't go with it; a tone of hope does. In truth, I've found it impossible to keep the spirit of the world's Christmas season out of my life and my churches too. Sure I don't sing Christmas hymns before Advent services in a vain attempt to lure people into attending those midweek services as one church was doing when I got there. But I do decorate the church for Christmas in Advent, and I listen to holly, jolly Christmas music not just in stores but in my car.
Well if we can't keep their Christmas out of our Advent, why not let their understanding of Christmas all the way into our keeping of Advent? Repentance is part and parcel of their Christmas stories. Scrooge repents of humbugging Christmas. The Grinch repents of stealing Christmas. George Bailey repents of despising his wonderful life, and even Santa repents of shunning Rudolph.
So the world's Christmas informs us that repentance is not foreign to the season but in some sense essential. These stories also show us that no one leads themselves to repentance. The crushing Law does it as in the case of Scrooge, but so does goodness. It's the goodness of his neighbors in a time of crisis that finally gets to George. It's the Whovillians still celebrating Christmas after the Grinch has stolen all the trappings that grows the Grinch's heart. You may think goodness leading to repentance is mixing Law and Gospel, but you would be forgetting Romans 2:4 which says, "The goodness of God leads you to repentance."
Law, judgment, crisis, goodness are in our Advent. If you think you can really celebrate Christmas clinging to your sins, defending your sins, ignoring your sins, living in them, keeping them as pets, you won't find a Baby in the manger come Christmas but a judge, a hangman, a torturer. If you ignore all the ways the Lord mercifully brings you into crisis, so that you might repent of thinking you stand in your own strength, live by your own opinions, and are not guilty because you say so, your weakness, error, and guilt are going to come upon you like an armed man if not on Christmas Day then someday. If you remain untouched by the goodness God brings into the lives of sinners like us, you will be touched by His wrath.
Repent! Is shouted at you from that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil which you know is a tree of death and all you really deserve to eat from. Repent! is shouted from the hymns, the readings, the preaching that put before you God's grace, forgiveness, and goodness like so many presents wrapped in the "paper" of Water, Words, Bread and Wine. And like a siren song "O Come, O Come Emanuel" sings the Advent spirit of repentance into your proud soul.
Advent may not be a season of repentance in the church anymore but strangely enough it is in the world around us that celebrates Christmas from Thanksgiving till the 25th. So we "need a little Christmas right this very minute." A little of their Christmas that is because they still have repentance and because Christmas is the answer to whatever is ailing them. The arrival of Christmas or some aspect of it like snow, gifts, family, or peace is the denouement the final outcome of the main dramatic event; Christmas or some aspect of it is the deus ex machina that event which suddenly makes everything all right.
Here, they are not far from the truth. In modern times a deus ex machina is a sudden solution to an unsolvable problem that comes out of nowhere and appears unlikely at best and contrived at worst. However, it means literally "god out of the machine." In ancient Greek and Roman plays a god would be lowered into the set by means of a crane, and he would answer the unanswerable, solve the unsolvable.
For the world the arrival of Christmas or some aspect of it, solves everything. For us it's not the arrival of a holiday or some aspect of it but the arrival of a Person. Our Christmas literally introduces God into the drama, but not by means of a crane but by the womb of a Virgin named Mary. But it is as improbable and unbelievable as lowering a Roman god by a crane into a play, yet it does completely solve the problems, answer all the questions. But not for everyone.
God the Son coming onto the world's stage divides everything and everyone. It divides time into B.C. and A.D. and people into the saved and the lost. He is like a mountain. Every person who confronts Him is like every drop of water landing on a mountain. It goes on one side or the other of that mountain. And people coming into contact with Jesus either go towards heaven or towards hell. You saw in our text how the Second Coming of Jesus puts people in anguish and perplexity because His getting ever nearer to the fallen world causes the heavenly bodies to shake and the sea to roar and toss. What you don't see is that His first coming at Christmas and His continual coming in Word and Sacraments has the same effect.
What do we see on Epiphany? King Herod and all Jerusalem afraid and perplexed at the birth of Jesus. What do Peter, Paul, John, and James do when they see who Jesus really is? They cower in fear; they don't know what to say. When Luther celebrated his first mass as a priest he trembled in fear of spilling the Blood of Jesus. Remember the first time you ate His Body and drank His Blood? How did you feel coming into the presence of the King of Kings?
All of the Comings of Jesus - Christmas, today, at the Last Day - are for judgment and salvation. Judged! Are all those comfy in their beds this morning as Jesus comes here today in Word and Sacrament. Judged! Are you who aren't paying attention or think I'm sharing personal opinions. Judged! Is anyone Jesus comes to commune with who accepts, defends, or absolves themselves of their sins. Judged! Is anyone who thinks Jesus can't be coming in the Waters of Baptism, the Words of Absolution, the Bread and Wine of Communion. They may not feel this judgment now but no one does apart from God's grace waking them up and standing them up.
The God we're preparing to meet by repenting of thinking we're able to prepare ourselves shows us in this text that repentance isn't enough. Judas repented but that only lead to him hanging himself. Peter repented but he also believed that Jesus could forgive the unforgiveable, redeem the irredeemable, save the unsaveable. By means of this text, Jesus would give you that faith.
Jesus says that His coming yesterday, today, and tomorrow brings judgment on all those not who "live," as our insert translates, but who "sit" upon the earth. This is the same group Revelation describes as worshipping the beast, making an idol of the beast, having the mark of the beast, and suffering the torments of believing a false gospel, a fake religion that brings you all the guilt but only enough grace to make you miserable.
This sitting on the earth tied to earthly thoughts, ways, opinions, values, and promises is contrasted to being able to stand before the Son of Man and to standing up and lifting up your head at His every coming. What causes others anguish and perplexity, what leads other hearts to being weighed down to earth with dissipation, drunkenness, and worry need not do that to us. Why? Because the coming of Christ is our redemption drawing near not our damnation, our solution not a problem, our answer not a question.
We believe that the coming Jesus has redeemed us. He bought us back from Sin, from eternal Death, and from being at the mercy of the Devil. He redeemed us by living a holy life in our place and dying the unholy death we deserve. He redeemed not only us but all the sinners of the world. You can't point to one sin that Jesus did pay for or one sinner that Jesus did not redeem. All, without exception, can be standing with us lifting up their heads in expectation of Jesus coming to save them.
Repentance, Christmas being the solution, and expectation are all in the world's month long Christmas celebration. Have you seen that Hallmark commercial with the Christmas ornament that counts down the days till Christmas? The child turns the dial and the North Pole tells him how many days till Christmas and plays "Here Comes Santa Claus." They also have an ornament that counts down the days to Jesus' birthday and plays "Happy Birthday." Don't get either one. We're expecting something much bigger than Santa and we'll celebrate something much better than a birthday. We're expecting redemption and we'll celebrate God entering our flesh and blood. If such goodness of God does not lead us to repentance in the season of Advent and every other one what will, what can? Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
First Sunday in Advent (20121202); Luke 21: 25-36