Brace yourself, here we go again. We sense our approach to Christmas is fraught with peril and opportunity. So much depends on our angle of approach, more of an ellipse than a straight line. It is good to identify two horns upon which folks hope not to become caught and tossed in any season, but especially not in the run-up to Christmas. We do not want judgment in the form of rejection and condemnation. Neither do we desire to sink lost in a bottomless pit of nostalgia.
Let’s take them one at a time. Every church I’ve served, including ours, lives in dread fear of our saving faith in Jesus, personal and precious, getting drowned in personal rebuff. Divorced and remarried persons fear getting cast as irredeemable sinners (Mark 10.11-12). Gays and lesbians fear being defined by what some construe as their sheer unacceptability (I Cor. 6:9). Seeking and inquiring Christians fear a lock-step reading of God’s word sealing their doom (2 Tim. 3.16). Naturally, the faithful seek a spiritual community where they can fully belong and feel at home.
Then John the Baptist says in Sunday’s reading, addressing Judaism’s mainstream, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume…” Is John a toxic judge, scorning and condemning all unlike himself as lost? I don’t think so. For he says of himself in relation to Jesus, “I am not worthy to untie his sandal.”
John’s core message is very much like that of Jesus: “Repent, for God’s reign is near.” Repent is the single most misunderstood word in the Gospel, often warped by preachers who don’t get it. Repentance is not about self-hate for our sins; not about lifting ourselves by moral bootstraps; not about wallowing in guilt and unworthiness; not about God condemning or damning us. In Greek, the word “repent” means turn your life 180 degrees and point it toward God’s promises.
Repentance conveys our lives into God’s determination to realign us with his life in Jesus Christ. Repentance is not about guilty reproach, but being remade in Christ’s sublime image. The dark word “repent” is actually the light of positive invitation to metamorphosis and transformation. Changing us is finally of God’s doing, not our own. But we can shore things up, sift through our values, starting by refusing to presume sufficiency unto ourselves. John puts us on our toes that God truly cares about what we do and how we act, if we want any real part in God’s new reign.
Turning from fearing judgment to dreading nostalgia, we often imagine that we want nostalgia. But nostalgia is a kind of spiritual junk food. We consume more and more of it until we reach a moment when we realize it will never satisfy. Sifting back through Christmases past for an ideal and enchanted Christmas is particularly painful for people like me, having just lost my brother. It’s one reason why in times of struggle, people dread Christmas. For it can all feel so dishonest.
No, we can’t freeze life in fond or favored moments of our remembrance to always be like that. Advent is about looking ahead, actually. Advent shows us how, in the odd economy of God’s grace, we can only look forward, by looking back at the path John paved for the Messiah. Just like Dickens’ Scrooge had to look backward before he saw his unfitness for the future. Nostalgia is memory filtered through select and sentimentalized feeling. Faith is memory filtered through gratitude to the Lord for taking the initiative to do for us what we clearly can’t do for ourselves.