What do you still need to do to be prepared for Christmas?
Do you still have gifts to buy? Decorating to do? Cards to mail? Baking and cooking? Wrapping?
There is so much to do between now and December 25. I imagine that most of us spend hours and hours getting ready for one of the biggest holidays of the year. It takes a lot of time and effort to be prepared.
Preparation is the theme of our scripture readings this week.
From the prophet Isaiah we hear these words: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!”
Centuries later Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, echoes the ancient prophet’s words: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
John and Isaiah’s admonition to prepare the way of the Lord is not the kind of preparation we generally think of for Christmas. They really could not care less about whether your house is decorated or if there are presents under your tree.
Isaiah and John are the two primary voices of Advent. And their message is clear. Preparing the way of the Lord, getting ready for the coming of the Messiah, means to repent.
Repentance is not a popular notion these days. Admitting a mistake, or an intentional wrong doing is often seen as a sign of weakness. And if one is forced to admit those things then a quick “I’m sorry” is supposed to suffice.
But repentance goes much deeper than that. The Greek word for repent is “metanoia,” which means to turn around. More specifically it means to stop and to turn toward God.
Repentance means acknowledging we have gone in the wrong direction, away from what God would have us do, and then pivoting our lives back in the right direction.
It also means taking responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, and making every effort to make reparations or atonement.
One of the best descriptions of repentance and atonement I have read is from Anne Tyler’s wonderful novel, Saint Maybe. The main character, Ian, feels a weight of responsibility for his brother’s death. One evening he stumbles into a store front church, the Church of the Second Chance, which may be the best church name I’ve ever heard.
Much to his surprise he finds himself praying out loud for forgiveness.
After the service, the minister approaches Ian.
* * *
“Your prayer,” Reverend Emmett said. “Was there any response?”
“Response?” Ian said.
“Did you get a reply?”
“Well, not exactly.”
“I see,” Reverend Emmett said. “What was it that you needed forgiven?”
Ian couldn’t believe his ears. Was this even legal, inquiring into a person’s private prayers? He ought to spin on his heel and walk out. But instead his heart began hammering as if he were about to do something brave. In a voice not quite his own, he said, “I caused my brother to, um, kill himself.”
Reverend Emmett gazed at him thoughtfully.
“I told him his wife was cheating on him,” Ian said in a rush, “and now I’m not even sure she was. I mean I’m pretty sure she did in the past, I know I wasn’t totally wrong, but… So he drove into a wall. And then his wife died of sleeping pills, and I guess you could say I caused that, too, more or less….”
He paused, because Reverend Emmett might want to disagree here. But he only rocked from heel to toe.
“So it looks like my parents are going to have to raise the children,” Ian said. “Everything’s been dumped on my mom and I don’t think she’s up to it – her or my dad, either one. I don’t think they’ll ever be the same after this. And my sister’s busy with her own kids and I’m away at college most of the time…
“So anyway, that’s why I asked for that prayer. And I honestly believe it might have worked. Oh, it’s not like I got an answer in plain English, of course, but…don’t you think? Don’t you think I’m forgiven?”
“Goodness no,” Reverend Emmett said briskly.
Ian’s mouth fell open. He wondered if he’d misunderstood. He said, “I’m not forgiven?”
“But…I thought that was kind of the point. I thought God forgives everything.”
“God does,” Reverend Emmett said. “But you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, God.’ Why, anyone could do that much! You have to offer reparation – concrete, practical reparation.”
“But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?”
“Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course.”
Ian averted his eyes.
“Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be,” Reverend Emmett told him. “He helps you with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve tried to undo it.”
“Tried? Tried how? Ian asked. “What would it take?”
“Well, first you’ll have to see to those children,” he said.
“Okay. But… see to them in what way, exactly.”
“Why, raise them, I suppose.”
“Huh?” Ian said, “But I’m only a freshman! I’m away in Pennsylvania most of the time!”
“Then maybe you should drop out.”
“Drop out of college?”
Ian stared at him.
“This is some kind of test, isn’t it?” he said finally.
Reverend Emmett nodded, smiling. Ian sagged with relief.
“It’s God’s test,” Reverend Emmett told him.
“God wants to know how far you’ll go to undo the harm you’ve done.”
“But he wouldn’t really make me follow through with it.” Ian said.
“How else would he know, then?”
“Wait,” Ian said. “You’re saying God would want me to give up my college. Change all my parents’ plans for me and give up my education.”
“Yes, if that’s what’s required,” Reverend Emmett said.
“But that’s crazy! I’d have to be crazy! I can’t take on a bunch of kids! Who do you think I am? I’m nineteen years old! What kind of a cockeyed religion is this?”
“It’s the religion of atonement and complete forgiveness,” Reverend Emmett said. “It’s the religion of the Second Chance.”
* * *
As Ian discovers, real repentance is hard work. Sometimes it is work that lasts a lifetime.
And sometimes it is the work not just of an individual, but of a community or even a nation.
Isaiah’s exhortation to repent was directed at the nation of Israel, which had strayed far from the ways of God. The poor and immigrants lived in misery while the rich got richer. Leaders cared more about lining their own pockets and accruing power rather than caring for their people. They gave lip service to God in worship, but ignored the way God would have them live.
For a nation to repent is even more difficult than an individual, but I can think of one example from our neighbors to the north.
It was such a startling example that I remember it clearly although it happened several years ago. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau apologized on behalf of the Canadian government to Indigenous children, who at the turn of the 20th century were taken from their parents to residential schools, where they were mistreated, stripped of their identities, forbidden to speak their languages.
“We are here today to acknowledge a historic wrong,” Trudeau said. “These are the hard truths that are part of Canada’s history. These are the hard truths we must confront as a society.
“The treatment of Indigenous children in residential schools is a painful chapter in Canada’s history that we must confront. For too long, it’s a chapter we chose to skip.
“It’s time for Canada to acknowledge its history for what it is: flawed, imperfect, and unfinished.”
Although most of those who lived in the schools have died, Trudeau acknowledged that the wrongs done to them have affected the generations that followed them.
“It’s about time we make things right,” he said. “It’s about time we accept responsibility and acknowledge our failings.”
Acknowledging the truth and apologizing is only the first step toward reconciliation.
“We know it won’t happen overnight,” he said. “But it my hope that in apologizing today – in acknowledging the past and asking for forgiveness – that as a country, we will continue to advance on the path of reconciliation together.”
That is the beginning of the hard work of repentance to which Isaiah and John the Baptist call us this Advent.
But Advent is a time not just for repentance, but for hope.
We hear it in the words of Isaiah, words spoken by a prophet to a people who had been in exile from the Promised Land for 70 years, a people whose sins were many, a people who had lost hope.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” God says to them. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.”
When we undertake the hard work of repentance, when we – as individuals or as a nation – acknowledge our wrongs and make efforts to atone for them, then there is hope.
Of course, we know that this is not a one-time task. It is a lifetime process and one in which we need the hope and grace of the One who is to come, the Christ of atonement and complete forgiveness, the Christ who comes to give us a Second Chance.