Advent 3, Year C: "Repent!": Changing the Direction You Look for Happiness
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Advent 3, Year C
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
During the season of Advent, the world goes dark so that we might focus on the light—the light of Jesus Christ who is the unique disclosure in a human life of God’s unconditional love for each and every one of God’s children. The Christian faith is all about the divine light of God—revealing this light to God’s sons and daughters, teaching them what it might look like to live from that light, and encouraging them to become that light for others. One way to understand what God has been up to since the creation of the universe is as the patient, persistent, unflagging determination to transmit this light to God’s children no matter the cost. Everything God does from making Adam and Eve in the image and likeness, to calling Abram and Sarai out of comfortable retirement, to the revelation of the divine light in the great I AM to Moses at the burning bush, to the final sending of God’s only son, Jesus Christ—is in service of transmitting the light—the light of God’s love for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit, the light that no darkness, no power or principality, can overcome.
If we are meant to be instances of the light, bearers and transmitters of the light, it makes sense that the season of Advent is not only a time when we remind ourselves of the reality of the light—the light where true happiness, lasting peace, and security beyond the ups and downs of the world lies—but also a time when we become intimately acquainted with everything that is counter to the light in ourselves. We pray, during this season of Advent, for the grace to recognize and surrender everything that is not love in us, everything that blocks, hinders, or impedes the flow of the divine light through our ordinary, everyday lives. Advent reminds us of the longing we have for light, but also draws our attention to the bugs on windscreen that God wants to wash away if we consent to God’s presence and action within us.
Just think of the rose window and the south end of the nave. For thirty-plus years it was blocked up by the presence of the old organ, hidden behind the pipes. The light couldn’t come through. But with the new organ came the recognition, the remembering, the reacquaintance with the window as a medium for the transmission of the light. What was blocked up suddenly shone with almost indescribable beauty—reds, blues, yellows. That’s an Advent story—the gentle, loving removal of all that blocked the light to reveal the beauty that was there all along. We don’t manufacture the light ourselves. It’s given. It’s sheer, unmerited gift gifted to us by a loving God whose deepest desire is for us to know ourselves as children of the light, that the light of God’s love is our truest identity, that we are made by Love, in Love, and for Love. The spiritual journey is simply the gentle recognition of that which hinders the light and gentle surrender of it, that our true beauty as sons of daughters of the Beautiful One might be remembered, recognized, and revealed.
When we hear the word “repent!” we are likely to have images of slightly-crazed street-corner apocalyptic soap-box preachers with hand lettered poster board signs rather than sugar plums dancing in our heads. We tend to think of repentance as something equivalent to self-hatred and penitential seasons as about whipping ourselves up into a frenzy of self-castigation. But metanoia—the Greek we translate as “repent”—means to change our mind, and it might better be thought of as “changing the direction we look for happiness.” More and more, I think that everyone is simply trying to find happiness in best way they know how. It’s not that there are necessarily “good” and “bad” people, but only people who know where to look for the kind of happiness for which they were made and for which their hearts long, and those who don’t. The call to repent is simply a call to look for happiness in the only real place it can be found—in the depths of our hearts where the love of God has been poured by the Holy Spirit.
Think of the three kinds of people who ask John the Baptist “What should we do?”—where have they habitually, in their ignorance, been looking for happiness? To the crowd around the Baptist he tells them, “"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." John preaches a stewardship sermon! He exhorts them to journey into generosity where it is in giving away and letting go, not storing up and holding on, that the happiness for which they yearn will burble up and bear fruit. To the tax collectors he says something similar—you think that it is cheating people out of their hard-earned wages that you will find happiness. But it won’t last. That pursuit of happiness will prove hollow, empty, and ultimately destructive in the end. Be careful that in exploiting others you don’t lose yourself in the process! And to the soldiers he says, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."
Sometimes you’ll hear these admonitions of John talked about as calls to ethical behavior. No doubt they are. Extortion and greed are certainly not behaviors that lead to a flourishing life or a flourishing community. But there is more. John is not just trying to amend their outward behavior, he is trying to point out the futility of searching for true, lasting, happiness in the manipulation and control of others, in seeking our own comfort, safety and security at the expense of others. John is trying to get the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers that the direction in which they are looking for happiness will never provide the peace they think it will. “Wake up,” John says. “Turn around from that dead-end pursuit! I know you only want to be happy, but you are looking in the wrong place and looking in the wrong place is turning you into something that looks more like a slithering reptile than the beautifully made human being you are called to be!”
When John says that the ax is lying at the root of the tree, he is pointing to the deeply ingrained habit of seeking happiness in the all the wrong places. The tree is a symbol of the self that thinks it will can find peace “out there.” The tree is the self that thinks, mistakenly, that it is separate from God, the self that seeks hither and yon in that “far country” for the peace that passes all understanding (Philippians 4: 4-7) that is very near indeed: “closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than choosing—closer than consciousness itself,” as Fr. Thomas Keating is fond of reminding us. When we think that we are separate from God, we look outside of ourselves for God who can never be an object for us. We drive all over town in search of our nose, when all along its been in the center of our face. “The great one,” the First Song of Isaiah tells us, “is in our midst.”
A contemporary parable puts it nicely. A master thief waited his whole life to acquire the most beautiful diamond in the world. When he heard it had been purchased, he spent three days trying to steal the rare jewel. He failed. Finally, the thief walked right up to the owner and asked, “How did you hide this precious jewel from me?” To which the owner replied, “I placed it where I knew you would never look—in your own pocket!” It’s the illusion of our separateness from God that is the central think of which are to repent. The illusion of our separateness from God is the squashed bug-smear on the window that most prevents the light from shining through and that prevents us from being that light for others. The pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field, the divine light, have been gifted to us all along. All that is required that turn around. All that is required is that we change the direction in which we are searching for happiness. All that is required is that we let the divine lumberjack gently, lovingly, and in God’s own time, chop down the tree of the self that looks “out there” for the diamond that been in our pocket all along.
“One who is more powerful than I is coming,” the Baptist tells us. Jesus is our holiness, our righteousness, our peace that passes all understanding. It is to the degree that we allow Him to live in us that this peace becomes a lived reality. Jesus’ relationship with the Father is to become our relationship so that we might become truly human human beings. Let the tree that seeks for him where he is not come down, and then the security, the safety, the happiness that is your birthright as children of the light, will be gifted to you—not because you deserve it, not because you’ve worked hard for it, but because Love wants you to know love. Love wants you to stop looking for what you already have, to know that it is gently and persistently returning to what has been given and resting there that we bear the fruit of love.
Listen to this prayer from the opening of St Augustine’s Confessions which speaks so poetically about seeking outside for what has been in our pockets all along. “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”