Advent as a call to joy through repentance.

There are some things that are very real, and yet very invisible.

We often see the result of these things, but the thing itself remains unseen.

Wind may be a good example. Wind is very real—nobody would argue with that. But it is also very invisible. There are no wind particles that make up “wind.” We can see trees or dust or debris being moved by the wind, but we cannot see wind itself. 

Gravity is another good example. As a force, it is not something we can see. But we do see, and experience, its effects. 

This is a created universe.

And as such, this universe operates according to the will of its creator. 

Much of the work of Science—especially in the fields of Chemistry and Physics—is to simply discover the invisible rules that govern the physical universe. And when humans grow in their understanding of the invisible physical rules that govern the universe, it leads to more flourishing. 

We can design airplanes that don’t subvert the force of gravity, but rather harness it, along with other invisible forces, to allow us to travel great distances with relative ease.

This is a created universe.

And as such, this universe operates according to the will of its creator. And this will of its creator most often plays out through invisible realities—invisible rules that hold the physical world together and ensure it continues to exist.

This is as true in the moral realm as it is in the physical realm.

The universe operates—physically and morally—according to the will of the creator. 

We are capable of ignoring the invisible realities of the physical realm. And we are capable of ignoring invisible realities of the moral realm.

Sin is the word the Scriptures give us to describe the reality that as creatures, we are capable of choosing to work against the moral grain of the universe.

Human suffering, evil, discontentment. These are the result of humans willfully operating against the grain of the universe. 

Our creation was not a morally neutral event.

We were created to live in accordance with the designs and desires of the one in whose image we were made.

When we ignore the laws of gravity, there are consequences. For us, and for those around us. 

And when we ignore the moral laws of the universe, there are consequences. For us, and for those around us.

You do not always do what you ought to do, because you are not always who you ought to be.

This is the message of the prophets of the Old Testament. It is the message of John the Baptist—the last of the Old Testament prophets that just happens to come to us at the beginning of the New. 

It is even the first sermon preached by Jesus.

Before you can say the all-important “yes” to the ways of God, you have to come to a point that you are tired of the ways of the world. Before you attempt to align with the moral grain of the universe, you have to recognize the specific ways you are fighting against it. 

A “yes” to God is first a “no” to the world.

And the word we have for this experience is repentance.

Repent. For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

John the Baptist, by William Wolff

The Second Week of Advent: Repent

On the second week of Advent, we ask God for a gift. A gift that we cannot give ourselves. One that requires God to act on our behalf.

We ask God this week for grace to heed the warnings of the Prophets, and to forsake our sins.

Repentance is at least three things.

  • It is a recognition that there is an invisible moral grain to the universe. It is an apocalyptic moment, and epiphany. A seeing of things that can’t be unseen. Of course there is a moral law. Of course it works just like our physical laws. It is not a list of rules; it is a force that holds the world together. It leads to flourishing and thriving, to whole human relationships. With our selves, with one another, and with God. Repentance is a recognition that God has created the world to work a certain way.

  • But repentance is also an acknowledgement that we fail to live out the moral law in our own lives. It isn’t a pointing of fingers at those around us or above us or below us. It is owning up to the reality that we fall short. We intentionally and unintentionally work against the grain of the moral law. And we want that to change. Repentance is a forsaking of our sin, a desire to align our lives with the ways of God.

  • Finally, and perhaps most crucially, repentance is knowing that we have no power within ourselves to help ourselves. The first time you see the moral law for what it is, and have a desire to change your ways, you might think that you alone are capable of making things right. Of just trying harder. Of pulling yourself together. 

    But for most of us this isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve been down the path of trying to fix ourselves on our own. It doesn’t simply not work: it most often makes things worse.

    Repentance is a gift from God—one that he never tires of giving. But it is first and foremost just that: a gift. Unearned favor from our creator. 

We can choose to continue down the path of doing things our way, of working against the grain. Or we can heed the warning of the prophets and repent. We can turn to God for salvation, and for the grace to increasingly align ourselves with His ways.

What is at stake in all of this is nothing less than our capacity for ultimate Joy.

We will stand before our creator one day. 

Those who seek the grace of repentance here and now will be prepared to greet that day with Joy.

So this is the message of the second Sunday of Advent:

Repent, and learn to live a life the runs with the moral grain of the universe now, so that when you meet it face to face on That Day, you will be able to greet Him with Joy.

Gospel Reading: Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.