Advent is here again, seeking to knock us off our dead center certainties, and our attempts to button life down securely. Advent is here again calling us to traverse the wilderness of uncertainty and disorientation. And in our Gospel lesson we meet the patron saint of disorientation, John the Baptist. He is not what any had expected when it comes to the Herald of the Messiah. He is wild, unconventional, and yet with a compelling presence the draws us out, with all of Jerusalem to take a closer look.
And there he is, outside the bounds of what most consider normal and he calls us to repent. Sadly the word repent has so often been misused as a weapon against people who are out on the margin-not unlike John, but unlike the majority in someway. John uses the word repent not as a weapon, but it’s an invitation. He is not pointing it at someone else. He is entering into repentance himself and inviting others to do so as well, because he is convinced of the transformative power of repentance especially in the face of the glory which is about to break in.
The Greek word for repent is Metanoia which literally means to turn around. Metanoia-to change course radically, to walk off the well-worn path and to take a look at reality from a different vantage point. Part of me loves that invitation, and part of me shies from it. What will happen if I take John up on his call to Metanoia-I fear I will become disoriented and at the same time I long to become disoriented. I am worried but if I do vere off course to follow John into the wilderness, I won’t know what’s going on-I worry my well-constructed templates for understanding life will not work out there. And yet part of my heart yearns to run after him, so that I can dive into an understanding that is deeper than anything I have known before.
Advent gives permission to that longing. Advent urges me to believe that bolting off course in wild pursuit of that transformation of my heart is more elemental to preparing for Christmas than all the shopping and baking and decorating I’ve laid out on my calendar. And yet each year as Advent rolls around I struggle to understand this metanoia, transformation John is pointing to. Is it just one more self-improvement technique? John does not answer. He just pointed to the water he is standing waist deep in and invites me to join him. Before I step in, I want to ask for a guarantee or at least see some stats and transformative outcomes.
But Advent and offers none of those because the deep waters that John is calling us into defies the descriptions of this manifested world. There is no adjective, description or measure that can capture what is going on here. And yet we feel it. We get water splashed on us, and we are prayed over at our baptism, and then we are on this rode together, being invited deeper in with every spiraling holy year.
A question we might ask ourselves this second Sunday of Advent:
Is there any part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative waters -some aspect of my life or the way I am in the world that I have been safely sheltering on shore? The awareness that comes in thinking and praying on your answer to that question may open a new understanding of yourself. Now if you’re like me, your knee-jerk reaction maybe to rationalize what you perceive-explaining it away somehow-or, if the evidence is compelling, to quickly figure out what to do about it-how to fix it. But Advent calls us to something else. Advent’s work is to ask a question – Is there a part of me that I’ve been holding back from these transformative water-some aspect of my life that I have been safely sheltering on shore? And then to just sit with it. To let it be. To see what new awareness arises and then to let the acceptance of all that open up around that awareness. To be in the presence with the newness of what is discovered rather than to take action on it. Perhaps to share the awareness with a trusted friend with spiritual guide or director. In all this to trust God to work transformation in surprising and grace filled ways on a time schedule that is not necessarily ours. As the writer of the second letter to Peter wrote:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day it’s like 1000 years, and 1000 years or like a day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.
Saint Augustine once wrote to God, “Our hearts are restless, until we find our rest in Thee.” That is the truth this off-road course Advent offers us time and again. Each year we come back around to this invitation to an open ended, unstructured space where we can risk disorientation for the sake of discovering again how much we are in need of being with God. Not that we are ever really apart from God, but we often block ourselves from the closeness with God by becoming so identified with our life situation that we forget we are not the one writing the plotline. We forget the mysterious workings of God’s grace and the connection that we have always had with the source of all that is.
Metanoia is an unblocking-a turning around to find God closer to us than our own breath. Metanoia is not an event, but a process that carries us overtime-not just as individuals but it’s a body-with all people and with all creation. For life is a web, not a bunch of disconnected beings for events. What we have come to trust in Christ Jesus is that the web is shot through with God’s grace. And we trust when we veer off our individual, me centered path long enough to receive a deeper experience of our life in the web, we become infused with that grace and that grace empowers us to live in ways that will yield great good for generations yet unborn.
It all starts with the willingness to set aside fear, to veer off-road into the wilderness, to put on the Advent garb of trust in the power of God in Christ to transform us day by day.
God bless you and any off-roading you do this Advent. In Christ name and sake. Amen+