Humour me for a moment. Close your eyes. I’d like you to dream with me a moment and imagine your ideal Christmas. I wonder what you see… A family gathered, no squabbling, instead a gathering permeated with Christmas good cheer, simple but good food. Perhaps it’s bigger - healing and health for someone you love? Spending time with someone you miss?
As December slides us downhill towards Christmas, it’s very hard to hear John the Baptist’s call to repentance above the Christmas music, the whirr of the food processor and the rustle of wrapping paper. It made me wonder what is Advent for?
At it’s most basic level, Advent is a season of expectation and preparation for the coming of Christ - yes Christmas, His Incarnation. Advent is not Christmas lite though, despite Christmas cards, decorations, carols, foodstuffs all having been available for a number of weeks now. The shops have got right that we are in a period of preparation, but the focus is on feast not on faith or the future. Today we are reminded that there is more to this season than we have come to assume.
Advent, takes its name from the latin word Adventus, which was the visitation of the Roman Emperor to a community, city or military outpost. A bit like if the Queen was to make a visit to Mill End, there would no doubt be a certain amount of frenetic activity to ensure that the church, grounds, all of you - were scrubbed up well and everything was in it’s proper place. The difference is that the Roman Emperor was absolute power incarnate and if things weren’t just so, or the welcome wasn’t lavish enough - heads would roll… and often did. Adventus in that sense conjures up images of power, pomp, judgment and fear.
Our Old Testament reading reminds us that the One who’s Adventus we are preparing for, upend our expectations. He will not judge where He comes by what he sees or by what he hears. His coming amongst us isn’t about lavish welcomes, or things being polished and scrubbed, or the quality of our carol singing or the size or juiciness of our turkey. His standards are about righteousness - rightness with each other, rightness with God. It’s about dreaming the bigger dreams that are God’s.
I invited you to imagine at the beginning of this sermon - to dream what your ideal Christmas would look like. Again humour me. Close your eyes. Think the things that lies ahead in the next few weeks that need to get done, if you were to have that ideal Christmas that you thought about before but go further that that - what kind of relationships do you want to be part of? What kind of world do you want tot live in this Christmas and beyond? We are invited to enlarge those dreams this morning, not just for Christmas morning, but for our world.
The Adventus we are edging into is not just about readying ourselves for Christ’s coming amongst us now, but also about His return. Advent is both and.
When the One who is to come arrives, the order of things as we know them to be in our world will be upended. Predators and prey will live in harmony with each other and with the children of the earth, because the One who is to come does so with a divine authority that will establish a new knowledge, a new experience of, an awareness of the presence of God the Lord.
Again humour me. So you’ve thought about your ideal Christmas and your hopes and dreams for you, your relationships, your community and the world, this morning we need to recognise that some of those dreams of ours we can begin to deal with, others will be more long term, but that there’s probably a gap between what we want and what we hope for. As we ready ourselves for the One who is to come, this morning John the Baptist reminds us that’s God’s dreams for us are far larger than we first knew.
John stands in Advent calling us to repentance. This is nothing short of upending our lives, our drives and motives. Repentance is not just saying ‘sorry.’ Repentance is metanoia, from the Greek metanoein ‘to change one's mind.’ Repentance is about recognising the place one is in because of our actions or words and reorienting ourselves in a new Godward direction - realigning our hopes and dreams with His.
To outwardly show that reorientation of life, John offered to baptise people in the river. Baptism, that was normally reserved for prosalytes - Gentiles showing their conversion to Judasim, became to ultimate sign of someone wanting to live out God’s enlarged dreams in the world and reorienting their lives in accordance with those dreams.
John still calls us to repentance. To outwardly demonstrate our affiliation to Christ, but also to continue to put our house in order, to notice the gap between our longings and the longings of God and to reorientate our lives and our drives and motives according to His enlarged dreams.
In that context, repentance is the daily, positive and active choice of the disciple of Jesus, but choosing to live out the hopes and dreams of God is hard. We can say the general confession in sorrow in church, but not be repentant in our hearts, and leave the presence of the one who is to come, whose Adventus we await, unchanged and unwilling to live a a new way aligned to the dreams of God. If we do not see the new green growth of the repentance in our lives, then we are ultimately as dead as a fruitless apple tree.
What is Advent for then? It us surely the gift of time - time to get ourselves in order for the One who is to come who will bring about a new reality of God in our lives and in our world. It is about taking time to prepare our hearts and lives to receive that Royal Guest at His first coming and when He comes again.
But Advent also invites us into the kinds of hopes, dreams that the God of the Bible promises all those who are willing to leave their familiar and well-trod paths - and to actively choose to venture down another way. Each time we do so -- each time we hold up our acquired habits and practices and comparing them with our deepest hopes and dreams - we notice a gap - and in that gap we experience the joy of the Advent repentance that John calls us to, a time still marked by our preparation to receive and share the grace and glory of God in the babe of Bethlehem, but also the chance to daily reorientate our lives, to repent and to actively choose the hopes and dreams for each of us and our world as lived out but the One who is to come, the Word made flesh, God with us, our Emanuel. Amen.