Perhaps the title of this sermon seems inappropriate to you—inappropriate for two reasons. First, these two words—joy and repentance—don’t seem to go together, do they? I mean, when we think of joy, the word “repentance” simply doesn’t come to mind. Secondly, we usually don’t associate repentance with Advent. Today, Advent, in most Protestant churches, is a time of expectation, preparation, celebration and adoration. But repentance? We usually associate repentance with Lent, not Advent.
Historically, Advent was observed in much the same way as Lent. In fact, some regarded Advent as a “mini-Lent.” As our past Christian brothers and sisters prepared themselves for the coming of the Christ Child, they spent all but one day of Advent soberly re-examining their lives, repenting of their sins, and denying themselves the normal pleasures of life. The one exception to this serious and somber approach was the third Sunday when people were allowed to break their fasts and celebrate with joy. That’s why the candle on the Third Sunday of Advent is pink reflecting the color of a rose which was associated with joy.
Many years ago when I was interviewed by a pastoral search committee, I was asked if I would allow the church to sing Christmas carols during Advent. The previous minister would not allow the singing of these carols until the Christmas Eve service and during the Christmas season leading up to Epiphany. He was trying to restore the ancient practice of Advent with the intention of preparing hearts and souls for the coming of Christ. I sympathized with his intentions, but I had learned over the years that this approach to Advent was doomed to failure. So, I told the search committee that my practice was to let the First Sunday of Advent focus on repentance and the necessity of re-examining our lives. After that, we could have the Hanging of the Greens and sing Christmas carols. The committee gladly embraced the compromise. One of the secrets of ministry is to choose your battles carefully. I had learned that it was pointless to try to restore the ancient practice of Advent in a culture which begins a commercial focus on Christmas before Halloween.
However, even in that ancient practice of Advent, with the exception of the Third Sunday of Advent, there was no association of joy with the Advent season. I assure you this is not an old sermon preached during Lent and now recycled and forced to fit Advent like a square peg in a round hole. My hope is that we will discover in this sermon that it is appropriate to link joy with repentance and Advent. So, let’s take another look at joy and repentance in light of Advent.
Joy is usually associated with happiness, contentment, celebration, laughter, and spontaneity. Joy is an experience of the present. We rarely talk about joy in the past or in the future. The very concept of joy has an immediacy and spontaneity about it—a celebrative abandoning of the constraints of the past and the uncertainties of the future. And joy is a gift. It cannot be earned. It cannot be manufactured or manipulated. It cannot be bought or sold. It comes as a gift, or it does not come at all.
But what about repentance? In the minds of many people and unfortunately in the minds of too many Christians who ought to know better, the word “repentance” conjures up long faces, tears of remorse, deep feelings of guilt, and a grim determination to do better in the future. For too many, the experiences of repentance focus on past failures and are related to a fear of judgment. But fear cannot make room for joy—perhaps relief when the threat is past, but not joy. And for others, repentance entails a painful and enduring memory of the past which continuously seeks restitution for wrongs done.
These understandings of repentance, however, are in fact misunderstandings—misunderstandings that all of us harbor to a certain extent in the secret places of our hearts and souls. Oh, logically and rationally we may know something is wrong with these ideas of repentance, and we may protest that we are not afflicted with the consequences of such ideas. Yet what we feel often contradicts what we profess. I would suggest that the fact that we do not associate repentance with joy betrays the sinister presence of these misunderstandings in our faith.
In the Gospels, repentance, at least on the lips of Jesus and in his encounters with others, is repeatedly linked with joy and new beginnings. So how do we make that connection? How do we move beyond our negative perceptions of repentance?
Perhaps a rather amusing illustration can help. Years ago, an ad appeared in magazines for a bubble bath for children, and there were two frames in the ad. In the first frame, we see a mother telling her incredibly dirty little son, “Tommy, it’s time to take your bath.” And we also see the boy’s reaction—a look of utter disgust and disappointment as he realizes his good times are over for that day. But in the second frame, we see the boy just after entering the bathroom. He’s without his clothes but is so filthy, you really can’t tell what’s skin and what’s dirt. But in the place of a frown and sad face, there is a wide-eyed smile—an expression of irrepressible joy as he prepares to leap into the bath. For you see, the bathtub is full of bubbles—mounds and mounds of bubbles and suds peaking high over the rim of the tub. And under the frame were these words: “Makes getting clean more fun that getting dirty.”
Now it strikes me that this would be a good ad for a church: “Downey Avenue Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where getting clean is more fun than getting dirty!” The real thrust of repentance in the New Testament, and especially in the ministry of Jesus, is not on what we give up or feel sorry about or make restitution for—the real thrust is on what we gain.
If repentance at its core is simply a turning in another direction—if repentance is experiencing a new beginning—if repentance is gratefully accepting a new and different lease on life (and in the New Testament, this is the thrust of repentance), then why shouldn’t repentance be characterized by joy?
The story of Zacchaeus is a magnificent example of the joy of repentance. Zacchaeus, the hated chief tax collector, has climbed that sycamore tree because he’s too short to see above the crowd. Jesus stops and looks at the little twit who has cheated many people over the years. I’ve often wondered what went through Zacchaeus’ mind when Jesus’ eyes locked with his. I would imagine the tax collector would have expected condemnation. But instead, Jesus says, “Zacchaeus, hurry down from that tree, for today I must stay at your house.” And we are told that Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus “joyfully.” People grumbled that Jesus chose the home of a sinner as his dwelling place that day. In that culture, to eat with such a sinner contaminated you with that person’s sin and impurity. But Jesus rejected such a perspective. He believed that his love “contaminated” others with grace, forgiveness, peace, and joy. Jesus rejected the common notion among religious leaders that repentance involved restitution, sorrow, painful memories, a penalty to be paid, and a sentence to be served. For Jesus repentance focused on the present and opened the future. Repentance in Jesus’ mind always meant a new beginning, a gift to be received, and a future that could be joyfully imagined and embraced.
Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus’ gift of himself that day was astounding. He promised to give half of what he owned to the poor and to pay back four times the amount he had cheated anyone in his past. At this point in the story I always think of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning AFTER THE VISITS OF THE CHRISTMAS SPIRITS AND AFTER HE REALIZED ALL THE JOY AND LOVE HE HAS DENIED HIMSELF FOR SO MANY YEARS. That morning Scrooge, who for many decades had been the most stingy, hardened miser in London, exclaimed, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school boy, I am as giddy as a drunken man.” Dickens writes that in the future, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.”
With Zacchaeus and Scrooge, there is no hint of sorrow, tears, burden of a penalty to be paid, or a past that cannot be escaped. Instead, what we find is a new beginning, a different future, and a joyful reorientation. I challenge you to find a single hint of anything negative or sorrowful about the repentance of Zacchaeus. And yet there is not a story in the Gospels which serves as a better example of repentance and changing one’s life.
Advent reminds us that God has come to us and comes to us still. Christ passes by our way day after day, as we like Zacchaeus hang from our tree limbs stretching and looking for what can make a healing and joyful difference in our lives. And he says to us, “Come on down—it’s all yours if you will receive it joyfully—a new present, a different future, a joyful reorientation.”
And that experience of joyful repentance—of happy reorientation needs to be ours on a continual basis. It’s not just for one time, important as that first time may be. It’s to happen over and over again. And it can happen in so many ways and in so many aspects of our lives:
- In our family lives as we begin afresh in areas that we have known for a long time needed changing
- In our jobs and vocations as we reevaluate the priorities of our lives
- In our treatment of others as we begin to respond out of love, compassion, and respect instead of out of envy, greed, and suspicion
- In our own development as children of God as we move from fear to growth, from stagnation to vitality, from the humdrums of mere existing to the celebrating of abundant life
- In our Christian discipleship as we learn the freedom of trusting Jesus and his Peaceable Realm as we place our all on his altar and center our hearts on his way and presence in our lives.
So, in this Advent Season may we all know the joy of repentance and in that knowledge find a new present, a different future, and a joyful reorientation because that is what Advent—indeed, that is what the entire Christian faith is all about.