Second Sunday of Advent December 7, 2014
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 2Peter 3:8-14 Mark 1:1-8
Do you have the time?
In the steeple out front of St Xavier Church are four clock faces. The one facing west is always two minutes slow. When the bell rings for noon, for example, the west face reads 11:58.
I am always looking for the correct time. The right time. So, is it better for me to get up on the face and simply pull the hands so it looks correct on the outside? Or should I go inside the tower and repair the inner workings of the clock that governs the movement of the hands? Do I want something that just looks good, or do I want real repair? I want to be able to say: this is the right time, both inside and out.
That is why, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, we hear John the Baptist proclaiming repentance. This is the right time for fixing, inside and out. If you want real spiritual repair, inside and out: Repent. This is the right time.
What is repentance?
“Repent” does not mean just being sorry for the past. It is a call to do much more than that: to change our ways, to prepare new ways. To repent as a Christian involves a radical transformation in our way of living. It means a conversion, a real turning around, a redirecting of one’s whole life. That sounds like a massive undertaking, but just like falling in to sin starts with one step, repentance starts with just one step.
And be sure, repentance is an entirely interior act, and should not be confused with the changes of life that proceed from it. Repentance is inward and silent. It only takes but a second.
On the other hand, the fruits of repentance take some doing: going to the sacrament of reconciliation, making amends, repaying stolen money, a change of habit, reparation of wrongs, losing weight, tempering your compulsions, all these signal that one actually went through with repentance.
Have you ever seen someone make an altar call and proceed from their stadium seat down to the preacher? Well, that outward expression was based on a prior decision to repent. Someone who speaks out at a 12-step meeting is following through with a prior inward decision to repent. Sincere repentance, which is private, leads by God’s grace to outward goods, which are public.
Isaiah. He is the prophet who speaks in our first reading. In the 40th chapter of Isaiah we hear, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” He sounds pretty sure about God’s power: “Cry out at the top of your voice, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to everyone around you, Here is your God! Here comes with power, the Lord GOD” This is one of the most famous passages for the season of Advent.
Now what happened inside Isaiah for him to speak so powerfully? Probably repentance. That passage was from Chapter 40. Listen to what we find earlier in chapter 6: Isaiah says: “Woe is me, I am doomed, for I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips.” That’s Isaiah’s prior inward reflection – his personal conversion. He repents, and look what happens next: God asks, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah replies, “Here I am Lord. Send me.” What happened in chapter 6 is manifest in chapter 40.
Inward repentance leads to outward transformation. You too can make that inward reflection and really go through with it, to outward action.
What about our second reading? Who is the author? St Peter. Do you know of a time when Peter repented? Yes, right after the Resurrection, eating breakfast by the lake, “Lord you know I love you.” The Lord then invited him “Feed my sheep. Peter was forgiven 3 times and his life was changed.” And so Peter is able to write in this letter today: “The Lord is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” Peter knows what he’s talking about because he went through with it.
So does John the Baptist. In the Gospel, we see John appearing in the desert. But what happened before he shows up? Scripture doesn’t tell us, but you can bet it was some sort of repentance. Some kind of letting go. He trimmed down his clothing and diet, and he emerges changed – strong enough to proclaim this simple message he knows from experience. Repent. He is so strong in his transformation that it eventually gets him beheaded. The Baptist really went through with it. So, if there is one message I would like to emphasize even further today, I would say, not only to repent, but to go through with it. It is time to finally, go through with it.
Finally, let me quote one of my favorite authors. C.S. Lewis in his popular work Mere Christianity, claims that repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie, or telling God you are sorry. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. Lewis says “real repentance means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.”
But Lewis also reminds us that God will help us with the going through with it. He writes, “Very well, then, we must go through with it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another.
Here today, at this altar, God puts Himself into us for just that very help. Advent is the right time for Repentance. It takes an inner silencing of the heart during this hectic time, and takes the quiet time to acknowledge sins and failings before God. Everyone here could do that tonight. It takes no more than five minutes. That’s how long it takes to come up with the greatest burdens of your soul and humbly beg God for mercy. Once you repent, then go through with it: as Isaiah did, as Peter did, as the Baptist did. Let it show in virtuous action, good deeds, changes for the better, positive resolutions, and real repair.
Do you have the time? This is the right time for repentance. This is the right time to ask God’s help with going through it: inside and out.