St Michael’s, O’Fallon—Mark 1:1-8; II Peter 3:8-15, 18
I and those of my generation are children of the space age. Many of you are of that same generation. When a manned space mission was launched, all three television networks interrupted their regular programming and showed it live. We grew up familiar with the voice of mission control saying “T-minus 47 minutes and counting” or “T-minus sixteen minutes and holding.” We got worried when the countdown was “holding,” because it meant there was a problem, and sometimes the hold lasted several hours or even a day. It was as if time stood still, and we ached for the gratification of hearing the final countdown—Ten-nine-eight-seven…and down to “We have liftoff.”
But the idea of a “countdown” leading up to an eagerly-anticipated event is not something new with the space age. Many of you are probably familiar with the tradition of the Advent calendar. Every day during Advent a little door opens up, or a space is uncovered, revealing some church symbol or biblical prophecy that points to the coming of Christ. The Advent calendar unmistakably says, if not in so many words, “Christmas is coming.” It is a countdown to December 25. But it also keeps those who use it focused on the spiritual themes of Advent, which are waiting, hoping, and preparing.
In calendar time, then—whether it’s an Advent calendar or just an ordinary one—there are now three more weeks and one day until Christmas. The countdown is under way, and it’s always “counting,” never “holding”! I’m sure here at St Michael’s, preparations are already underway. Perhaps the choir is beginning to rehearse special music for Christmas Eve. I would bet that the Altar Guild has planned for poinsettias and greenery with which to decorate the church. Many of you have no doubt made travel arrangements for yourselves or loved ones. Some of us have already done a good bit of shopping and meal planning, and that sort of thing. Even in the midst of the world’s generic “holiday” frenzy, Christians are—subliminally, at least—Christians are aware of an ongoing countdown, a climax toward which all these preparations are aimed.
So that’s “calendar time.” In what we might call “cosmic time,” nobody except God knows exactly where we are in the countdown. All that the Christian faith reveals to us is that life is indeed one long countdown to the end of reality as we know it. The present scheme of things is temporary. It may end tonight; it may go on for thousands of years longer. But it’s temporary. As we have seen over the past several Sundays, from a faith-filled perspective, the end of history is something to look forward to with hope and joy, but it is intimidating nonetheless. As long ago as the lifetime of St Peter, there were those who were getting antsy about what seemed like an interminable delay in the second coming of our Lord. They were eager for it to happen—right now! Peter wrote and reminded them that any delay in the end of this present age and the inauguration of the world to come is purely for our benefit:
The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish…
And when the forbearance is over? Peter writes,
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up.
OK, with that in mind, I, for one, am very grateful for the forbearance!
So there’s calendar time, cosmic time, and also liturgical time—church time. It’s Advent, and John the Baptist— the forerunner, the way-paver, the advance man, the harbinger, the dominating symbol of “mid-Advent”—What’s he up to, anyway? St Mark’s gospel tells us that
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
John’s preaching and people’s lives are changing. They’re confessing their sins and getting baptized. They’re repenting. John says, in effect, “I’m just the warm-up act. The main event is coming right behind me and—take my word—it’s something you’re going to want to be ready for.” There was a countdown in John the Baptist’s ministry. There wasn’t a precise clock, but it was definitely “T-minus not-very-much and counting.” There was a sense of urgency. Ignition and liftoff were imminent. The more aware we are of the nearness of Christ—whether we’re speaking chronologically, cosmically, or liturgically—the more aware we are of the approaching arrival of Christ, the more irresistible becomes the urge to repent. The nearness of Christ naturally evokes a response of repentance.
What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind that leads to change in behavior. If you’re in the habit of voting Republican, but realize one day that you really do believe that government should be the key player in solving social problems, and start to vote Democratic, that’s repentance. If you’re a fan of—dare I say it? the Chicago Cubs, but come to believe that the St Louis Cardinals are more worthy of your attention and support, and you paint your house—which was previously blue with red trim—you paint your house red with white trim, that’s repentance. Just an example, mind you—it could work the other way as well! Now, repentance often also leads to a change of heart. But it’s the change of mind and change of behavior that are closer to the core of repentance. Actual change of heart often brings up the rear, arriving on the scene after change of mind and change of behavior have already settled in.
The sort of repentance that Advent evokes is not necessarily breast-beating sorrow. We misunderstand repentance if we identify it with a dramatic and emotional display of contrition. Still less is repentance a matter of hating oneself, or wallowing in shame. Rather, repentance springs from the same place that we get a desire to please someone whom we respect and admire and perhaps love. When a child cleans up her room or empties the dishwasher because she knows it will make her mother so happy, and there is joy for her in the prospect of her mother’s happiness, that behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a student puts extra effort into an assignment because he is just in awe of his teacher, and there is joy for him in the prospect of making that teacher proud, such behavior comes from the same place that gives birth to repentance. When a soldier—or, around here, I guess I should say Airman!—when a member of the armed forces gives extraordinary attention to duty out of an overflowing admiration for the leadership of his commanding officer, and the thought of pleasing that commanding officer is a source of joy and pride for him, such behavior springs from the same place that gives birth to repentance.
Christ is coming. The countdown is proceeding. And when he comes, we want him to be pleased with us. We want him to find us at our posts, doing our duty, fully prepared to greet him, and filled with joyful hope. So we repent. We repent by taking inventory of our lives, by naming and turning aside from all those things that might divert our attention from him, so that when the countdown reaches T-minus zero, we will not be afraid or ashamed, but will rejoice to behold his appearing. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.