Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh – December 9, 2018
Sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 9, 2018
Let’s simplify the Season of Advent. It is about 2 things: change and hope.
I’m tempted to stop right here and get credit for the shortest sermon at St.
Paul’s in a very long time. But giving short sermons is difficult for those of
us who preach, so just relax while I think with you a bit about these
two characteristics of Advent.
First, Change. We all know what it means to change the station on the TV,
or to change the oil in our SUV. No problem here. We know, too, what it
means to change our mind: I used to cheer for the Yankees, now I cheer
for the Red Sox or I didn’t used to believe in climate change, but now I do.
Change in the Bible is much different. The Greek word used for change in
the Bible is metanoia and it means a different kind of change. It means a
change of heart. At first I found you interesting, now I love you or years
ago I never much thought about the plight of the poor, but now I am
deeply involved in trying to alleviate poverty in Norwalk. The Greek word
metanoia gets translated in the English Bible by the word “repentance,”
but “repent” is not the best translation of John the Baptist’s words. The
call to repent is less about remorse or regret, about feeling guilty or being
afraid. It is more about movement, about getting a new direction in one’s
life and relying upon God for help.
Repentance is the main idea in John the Baptist’s prophecy and also a
favorite word used by Jesus. Repentance or a change of heart is usually
quite difficult because it involves a change of orientation, different from the
one we cling to currently. I remember many years ago hearing the story of
an emotionally conflicted person saying why he didn’t want to go into
therapy to make his life happier. “My life is a bed of nails,” he admitted,
“but I know every single nail and I don’t want to change for something I
don’t know.” Metanoia or the call to repentance is the call to that kind of
change. It means movement away from a way of life that is familiar, and
often painful, toward a different way of life, which we may understand
intellectually, but have never really experienced. It is the kind of change,
like falling in love, which involves intimacy and risk because it hopes for a
shared future which is as yet unknown.
In the Bible change of heart, or repentance takes on meanings in addition
to intimacy and risk. It means getting new bearings and turning to that
freedom which expresses itself in love and justice and in one’s
relationships with other human beings. Metanoia is clearly an act which
we can initiate ourselves, but it is an act made possible by God in His
relationship with us and confirmed as a possibility for us by God’s son,
First change, now hope. Hope, it is clear, looks forward to a future better
than our present experience. Think of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere
over the rainbow” where dreams come true. Or the World War II song,
“There will be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow when the
world is free.”
You and I struggle in our effort to hold together the past which has helped
define who we are with our hopes for what we can become in the future.
This struggle happens daily amid conflicting demands. For example, we
struggle to be responsible for ourselves and our relationships while often
feeling impotent. We can relate to St. Paul when he says I know what is
the right thing to do and I still don’t do it. We can easily feel burdened by
anxiety. Amid these tensions we desperately need hope to allow us to feel
that living is worthwhile. Hope, therefore, is a basic part of being human.
We could say that you and I live each day in the tension between anxiety
and hope, between the pressures of living today and the dreams of living
more joyfully tomorrow.
Hope for a Christian means more. It means looking forward not only to
tomorrow but to the day after tomorrow. We Christians believe that God is
continually at work in our world ever creating that which is new and ever
working to bring about the consummation of His divine work in the
redemption of the world and all who live in it. Christian hope is based
upon this belief. Christian hope includes our hopes for tomorrow and our
hope for a final redemption of all. Because of this orientation we
Christians have come to understand that this final fulfillment of God’s work
depends in part upon our cooperation with God. God counts, so to speak,
upon our involvement and work in making future hope a reality.
So the message of Advent, simply put, is about combining the call to
make changes with the hope for a world healed by God’s redeeming
power. John the Baptist, a central figure of Advent, challenges his
disciples to repent (metanoia), to change the way they are living, and to
embrace the hope that another person is coming who will bring about a
new future. John uses the ancient image of a road to build his argument
and we hear the familiar promises that God is at work smoothing,
straightening and flattening a road for us.
If we feel we are on some pathway in our lives which seems to be leading
nowhere, or worse still, to someplace dangerous, John calls us to
metanoia, to have a change of heart, and leave our barely passable road
and move on to the new highway God is building. On this new highway we
will see more clearly hope for personal fulfillment, for the establishment of
mutually supportive relationships and for a deep sense of peace and joy in
a world healed by God’s love.