3 Advent B
Lessons – Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 126; I Thess 5:12-28; St. John 3:23-30
Today is Gaudete Sunday, that word Gaudete, is taken from the Latin for “rejoice”. It gets the name from the introit for this day which begins “rejoice” and from our New Testament lesson which commands us to “rejoice.” The color for today is different and lets be clear it is rose and NOT pink. It is to call our attention to the fact that that the end of this penitential season is near and that our King draweth neigh.
We also discover today that we are still with John the Baptist as we were last week. Apparently he still has something to say to us. I believe that he does indeed have something left to say to us in this season and that it comes from his overall theme which was Jesus’ theme also at the beginning of his ministry. That theme is “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. In this season of waiting and patience we are not to be passive. We are to be busy in our preparation and part of that preparation includes repentance.
I will be the first to admit that repentance is not an easy word to hear, especially if you come from a tradition or background that abused or misused it. One of parishioners was telling me that he came from a tradition where you stood up in front of the whole church and confessed your sins to everyone! How well do you think it would work for us if during the general confession we asked you say your specific sins out loud? You’d probably be more careful who you sat next to and I imagine that it would be pretty easy to find a parking space, don’t you?
Thank the Lord, that is not the kind of repentance that we are talking about. Others come from traditions that so downplayed the idea of the fall that they thought that the point of a sermon was to raise self-esteem. Repentance was rarely if ever mentioned at all.
Let’s try to understand this word a little better so that we don’t make the mistake of misusing it or ignoring it. Let’s first understand to whom it was that John was talking to about repenting.
These were not felons and ax murderers. They were not even a group of godless pagans. The people that were coming out to hear him were common folk, even religious folk. So the first thing to keep in mind when we you are hearing a sermon on repentance is not “I sure wish so and so were hear to hear this.” Rather we each should be saying the words of the old spiritual “It’s me, its me, its me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.” The call to repentance is a call to us all.
Next we need to understand that repentance has several components to it that are each very important. If you leave one or more out it would be like ruining a recipe by leaving out key ingredients. The first element is contrition or what is called called “godly sorrow”. When you read the Psalms you can hear and how broken hearted the Psalmist is for having grieved the Holy Spirit. If you are a parent you have likely developed an ear for godly sorrow. When you correct your children and tell them to say that they are sorry, what are you listening for? You are listening for genuine sorrow and not just for them to mouth the words. That is why if they say “Sorry” with an attitude, then according to the universal handbook on parenting you are supposed to say what? “That’s not good enough, say it like you mean it.”
Our heavenly Father is looking for the same thing. We need to have sorrow about what we have done and not just mouth the words or go through the motions. It is one reason that we are having a longer silence after we call for the general confession, so that we can say it from our hearts and not just from the book.
What makes contrition godly sorrow and not just another form of self-pity is because it takes into consideration what our sin has done to God, rather than just mourning the fact that we got caught. There is a beautiful prayer of contrition in the Roman Catholic Church that captures this idea well. “O my God I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell but most of all because they offend thee, my God who are all good and deserving of all my love.” Some may want to debate the idea of a Christian facing the loss of heaven but don’t miss the point of the prayer that the penitent is sorry mostly because of having offended God who is all good and deserving of all our love. That is godly sorrow.
The next aspect of repentance is confession. Until you name something it has power over you. If a child is afraid of the dark because there might be a monster under his bed, then tell him to name the monster Irving because its pretty difficult to be afraid of a monster called Irving. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus would ask the demons name before He cast it out? It will have power over you until you name it so in confession we call it what it is.
The other thing that naming it does is that it pulls the sin out of darkness into the light. I had a family member of mine who had a secret addiction until he confessed it to his wife, his mother, his pastor and I think just about anyone who would listen. Actually I think he confessed to too many people but I will get to that in a moment. The point here is that his addiction was broken when he brought it into the light and he has been free from its power.
To whom do you confess? In general we would say that we make our confession to Almighty God. That is what the general confession during the Mass is all about, as well as the confession in Morning and Evening Prayer Compline. But it does not always end there. If you have sinned against someone directly, then after making your confession to God, you will most likely be directed by the Holy Spirit to go to them and make a confession and ask their forgiveness. It is not an easy thing to do but there is so much power in it.
Not long after I graduated from college I was painting an apartment that I was about to move into. Whiled doing this I was so angry with a guy who had wronged me that I found myself consumed with rage towards him. The more I painted the angrier I got and the angrier I got the stronger the conviction of the Holy Spirit that I was to go to him and repent of my anger. I first thought. “Heck with that, he was the one who wronged me” but as you can imagine I lost that debate. Finally when I could not take the Spirit’s conviction any longer I dropped my paintbrush and went to him and confessed that I had anger, even hate towards him. Then I asked his forgiveness. He threw his arms around me and forgave me and the offense that I was carrying fell off me like a backpack loaded with rocks. I didn’t realize until later that he never asked my forgiveness but by that time it did not matter. It was all in the past.
We do need to be guided by wisdom and love when we go to others to make a confession. What we don’t want to do is to take the burden off of ourselves and place it upon others.
I have also seen in traditions that do not have a sacramental confession that there is a tendency for confessions to go on and on to anyone and everyone, like the family member that I just spoke about. That does not seem healthy to me. So our tradition also offers what is called auricular confession, meaning “to the ear.” You sit down in private with a priest, make your confession and then using the power Christ has given to the Church he releases you from your sins. You don’t have to stand up in front of the Church or share them with anyone and everyone. You don’t have to keep making the same confession. You get it done and move on.
The third component of repentance is penance. That word makes many Protestants nervous but it is a good word when properly understood. Penance is, as John the Baptist said in another place, “producing fruit in keeping with repentance.” Penance is taking a step after you say that you are sorry and making things right. Penance is taking a step beyond being forgiven because involves amendment of life. I so much prefer the 1928 call to confession because it includes this idea as well. “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, are in love and charity with your neighbor and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways…”
It may be returning something that you have stolen, it may involve mending some fences that you have broken, it may be as simple as remembering to offer thanks for the forgiveness that God has given you, but penance it is a very important part of the recipe of repentance. People who want to be forgiven but don’t want to amend their lives are looking for cheap grace and God’s grace is free but it’s not cheap. There is a great line in Ben Hur, “Repentance must be something more than mere remorse for sins; it comprehends a change of nature befitting heaven.”
The last component of repentance is absolution. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, His first order was for them to take off Lazarus’ grave clothes. What a great image that is. If we do the first three parts of repentance but then do not walk in the freedom and new life that absolution gives us, then we are like Lazarus walking around in our grave clothes. The world has seen far too many of those type of Christians walking around in it.
Rather being constantly reminded of our wretchedness and living in condemnation we need to be more like the lame man that Jesus healed that took off running and leaping and praising God. In the lesson from Isaiah, God speaks of a time when he will create everything new for us so that the former things will not be remembered and we can rejoice and be glad forever. That is God’s way. He forgives so completely that He makes all things new.
Listen to these words from another section of Isaiah “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more. (Is 43:25). Or how about this from the Psalms, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Ps 103:11,12). So in terms of absolution, God’s response to our contrition, confession and penance is to clean the slate and make us new. What a gift we rob ourselves of if our remorse keeps us from accepting such grace.
Lasty I want to mention the purpose of repentance. In last week’s sermon Fr. Chris said that it literally means to change direction. Repentance turns us from going our own way, turns us around and then points us, like John the Baptist, to Jesus. Repentance when done properly gives us a whole new future and that is what this season of Advent is preparing us to embrace. None of us need only a form of godliness, we need the power to be godly and repentance opens the door to that power. So just as the people welcomed the ministry of John the Baptist to set them right, we should welcome this season of Advent and look for the new beginnings that it offers us. As this rose candle remind us, it is time to rejoice. Amen.