Good morning everyone, I hope we’re all doing well this morning on this, the second Sunday of Advent. Advent, this time of anticipation and hope and watching and waiting. The advent wreath, a symbol of that waiting, with its lit and unlit candles, showing how far we are in the season and how long we’ve got left to go, before the coming of our Lord. It’s a great visual, come to us by way of some German lutherans in the 1920’-ish, standing for the four Sundays. In our day, the Four Sundays of Advent have come to stand for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love, in that order. So that would make today, the second Sunday of Advent, Peace, right? That should be the theme that we see throughout our lectionary readings and that should really be what my sermon is all about.
But these readings… Today’s readings are sort of anything but peaceful. Not saying that there’s no peace here, I think that there still might be, but really, Advent is anything but peaceful. Jesus’ birth took place in a time and a location that was anything but peaceful, we live in a world that is anything but peaceful, and I think trying to spin Advent, especially today’s readings in Advent, into something peaceful is doing a disservice to the text and a disservice to the world that we live in.
In the Medieval era, and for centuries after, the four Sundays of Advent didn’t stand for Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. They stood for the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. The Season of Advent, as is clear in our readings, is not just about the birth of Jesus, of course it is about the birth of Jesus, but it’s also about the second coming of Jesus, when he shall come again with trumpets sounding, to complete and inaugurate the Kingdom of God, where all things are made new. That’s what Advent is about. The Birth of Christ and his second coming, the beginning and the end.
The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell, seem more than a little appropriate for the readings and the focus of this season, especially when we look at our world today. But that’s always been the case. The world has always been on fire, literally or metaphorically, countries have always been at war, people are always hurting, suffering, grieving, looking for hope on the horizon, a light shining in the darkness, a light the darkness cannot overcome. Hope is clearly the central theme in our Advent season, but, as Rev. Fleming Rutledge puts it, “Hope is a very meager concept if it is not measured against the malevolence and godlessness of the forces that assail the creation and its creatures every day.”
So today, as you may have gathered from this lengthy introduction and historical explanation of Advent’s Sundays, I want to talk about the second of these Four Last Things: Judgment. I want to talk about what sits at the meeting point of Judgment and the Repentance that John the Baptist spoke of in the Judean wilderness, repentance in preparation for the coming of Christ. And I want to talk about how seeing ourselves rightly, seeing the world rightly, for what it is, for what we are, without any of the lenses and filters we use to dress it up, or make it seem better than it is, can actually give us an iron-clad hope to hold on to, a way to see the light flickering in the darkness, that even the deepest night cannot overcome.
So, Judgment. A terrifying word, yes. But why? I think because the notion of judgment, the prospect of judgment has come to be synonymous with condemnation or punishment. But is it? Is Judgment the same thing as condemnation? The same thing as punishment? No of course it isn’t! It’s not the same in the Greek that the New Testament uses, and it’s not in our language today, even if we’ve come to use them in the same way. Categorically, Judgment is not the same as condemnation. Condemnation and punishment can be the outcome of judgment, or a judgment, sure, but judgment itself is something entirely different. Judgement is simply calling something what it is, seeing something rightly, as it is.
Judgment more than anything is about dropping the pretenses and being honest about what a thing actually is, or how it is, where it stands. It’s about being honest, telling the truth. John 3:17, the one right after the big one, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Our God stands ready and willing to judge us, to see as we are, broken, hurting people, and not to condemn us, but to save us.
Judgment is a terrifying prospect because we can’t control the narrative, or the flow of information. But how liberating and freeing it is when we can drop all our masks, be the person we actually are, the person that lives somewhere behind our face, and stand before a God who already knew it, and guess what, still loves us, as we are.
So how does the repentance that John calls for in our gospel fit into all this? John the Baptist, whose camel-hair vestments and locust and honey diet simply does not fit behind the cardboard doors of our advent calendars; when we crack open today’s slot looking for a chalky piece of chocolate we find a wild vagabond shouting for our repentance. I am striking no new ground here when I say that repentance is not necessarily about penance or feeling bad about what we’ve done. Sometimes it is, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the word repentance, metanoia for all my Greek freaks out there, is a changing of our minds. A shifting of perspective, a reversal of decision, a choice to see things differently, do things differently. That’s repentance. Not self-flagellation or walking around under a storm cloud of our own guilt; changing our minds, doing and seeing things differently.
I read a book about a month and a half ago, and I read a lot of books, these glasses are not just for show, but rarely do I read a book that so… shifts the way I think about myself and changes how I see the world around me. “Low Anthropology” by David Zahl, an Episcopal lay person who lives in Charlottesville, VA, is all about how a “low anthropology” is actually, as the subtitle says, the “unlikely key to a gracious view of others (and yourself)”. Anthropology, the study of humans, is all about how we see ourselves and other people and he makes the argument that having a low anthropology, a lower, more realistic, view of humanity, is actually better than a high anthropology: this expectation for humans to be more than we are.
Zahl outlines three “pillars” of a low anthropology: Limitedness, Doubleness, and Self-Centeredness. I know this sounds like a tough sell, but stay with me. Limitedness, because people are bound by their limits, what they can and cannot do, the life that they’ve led, etc. Doubleness, because all people, regardless of who we are, where we grew up, what education we have or have not had, as Paul says in Romans, we do the things we don’t want to do, and do not do the things we want to do. And Self-centeredness, because at the end of the day, we are, as we always are, tied to ourselves.
I know that this sounds like an indictment or a condemnation, but I think if we sit with it, we can see how freeing it is. This is a judgment, not a condemnation, this is seeing ourselves, and humanity, rightly, judging correctly, telling the truth, being honest, about who, what, and how we are. And if we’re honest, it’s simply exhausting to pretend like we’re not. It takes too much energy and it’s just not worth it when we’re already loved as we are.
I don’t share that just as a book recommendation, but because it outlines something that is repentance. Seeing ourselves, truly, as people who are limited, who are double-minded, and who are self-centered, is a freeing thing, and it’s only here, when we’re honest with ourselves, that we can turn to see the hope that we might be something else, something new, a new creation.
This is repentance. Changing our minds, seeing ourselves correctly, seeing others correctly, seeing the world correctly. Not expecting people to be more than they are, not expecting ourselves to be more than we are, THIS is repentance. Changing our minds, shifting our paradigms to something that’s true, not because we don’t want to be more, but because we realize we can’t be outside of the hope that we have in Jesus Christ.
This is judgment; being honest and seeing ourselves and the world honestly, as people who are broken, hurting, suffering, incapable of doing and making change on our own. This is repentance; believing that truth, trying to, acting like it’s true, because it is, and then living like it.
So where is the hope? This is Advent and while I think we ought to focus on the last Four Things, because those last four things are actually always with us, Hope is still the central and abiding theme of this season, and hopefully, of our lives, and I’ve just outlined a vision of judgment and repentance that basically says, we’re not as good as we think we are, so we ought to stop acting like it. So where is the hope?
Here. I think it’s here. In our Acts bible study class, we just went over a portion of Acts chapter 3, where the Apostle Peter is giving a speech to a crowd after a healing miracle, about how we are waiting for the ultimate restoration of all things, but while we wait, we can experience, what he calls, “moments of refreshment.” I can stand up here and say that we’re all broken people, who have been hurt and who hurt people, who are limited, double-minded, and self-centered, and I can know that’s true, but I can also know that because of the influence and impact of Jesus Christ on my life, those things aren’t the last truth. I can see how my relationships with people who have hurt me and who I have hurt, have gotten better, have been restored, because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. I can say that, know it’s true, feel it, deep in my bones, and still know that I’m still going to hurt people. These are moments of refreshment, but they’re not the end.
The end is the ultimate restoration, when I won’t hurt people anymore and they won’t hurt me. When the wars will cease and we won’t have to weep over bombed-out hospitals, or over children separated from their parents, and shootings and violence and everything else that tears our hearts apart and makes us feel like there’s no good left in the world. But we see it: that candle flickering in the darkness, the one that teaches me how to restore my relationships, the one that illuminates families reunited after being lost to one another, and people taking care of complete strangers in the absence of anyone else. That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness, no matter how deep it is, cannot overcome it.
That’s the hope. These moments of refreshment in an otherwise broken world point to a time when the brokenness will be restored, when every tear will be wiped away, and all things are made right, brought back to life, to their wholeness, but we’re not there. Judgment, not condemnation, but judgment, seeing things rightly, honestly, seeing things as they are, is the first step to being able to hope. Denying the existence of pain and suffering, downplaying it, ignoring it, looking at something else and avoiding it, is a cheap imitation of hope. It’s not hope at all. It’s willfully naive and ineffectual optimism. Hope, real hope, judges rightly, and struggles forward, knowing the hurt and pain and fear and anxiety is real, but struggles anyway. That struggle is repentance. Believing, HOPING that there really is something coming, something more, something on its way, that Jesus really is coming, is repentance.
For now, it’s Advent, and like Karl Barth says “the Church has no season but Advent,” and we have no season but Advent because here, we sit in the darkness, of a broken and breaking world, looking at a flickering candle, judging and repenting; looking forward to that day when our God will come and make all things new.