Henry van Dyke tells a story of a Christmas angel. It begins with a gathering of angels who have just returned from various errands on earth. In the course of their travels they have witnessed the tangles and troubles, and wars and miseries of humanity on earth. Three of the leading angels are extolling their own particular vision of how to bring a triumphant end to those sorrows.
Michael is the first to speak, and he laments the oppression and injustice that prevails when the arm of the cruel is heavier than the arm of the kind. “Poverty is mocked by arrogant wealth, and purity is deflowered by brute violence.... There is no cure for this evil but by the giving of greater force to the good hand.” Michael is ready to lead the armies of God into battle against the forces of evil, and the angels, stirred by Michael’s rousing oratory, stand ready to follow, but the battle cry does not sound.
Instead, in the stillness of their waiting, Uriel, the second angel, responds. He fully endorses Michael’s purpose, but he proposes another way, for he has too often seen the power given to the good turned aside and used for evil. “Pride has followed triumph and oppression has been the first-born child of victory. Deliverers of people have become tyrants, and fighters for liberty have been changed into solders of fortune, because power corrupts itself and might cannot save.... The Earth is full of ignorant strife, and for this evil there is no cure but the giving of greater knowledge.” People give themselves to evil because they do not understand the end of evil. Injustice is the error of the blind. People destroy each other because they do not know each other. If there were more light of knowledge in the world there would be no sorrow. If only the great King would enlighten the world with wisdom the shadows of ignorance would be dispelled. The folly would fade away as a morning vapor, the sun of wisdom would shine on all men, and the peace of God would come with the counsel of angels.
Raphael is not convinced. He recalls Balaam, whose donkey was wiser than Balaam himself. He reminds us of Solomon, widely acclaimed as the wisest man who ever lived, concluding in despair “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Raphael knows too well that power corrupts itself and knowledge cannot save. “There is no cure for the evil that is in the world but by the giving of more love to people.”
As the gathered listeners ponder this question a frail voice is heard from a distance. It is a little angel, as substantial as thistle-down, flitting along in the breeze, who says “I know! I know! I know! Man shall be made like God because the Son of God shall become a Man!”
The little angel’s next task, the mission that brought him by the gathered throng, is to go and tell the chosen people the good news of the greatest story ever told. As the throng follows the little angel they are led past Rome, the home of the Emperor of the World, past Athens, the birthplace of philosophical inquiry, and past Jerusalem, the religious center of the Messiah’s people. They go to a quiet hillside outside of a little town called Bethlehem, despised for its provincial crudeness, to men engaged in the lowest of occupations, watching flocks by night, and these are the recipients of the greatest news flash ever to blaze upon this planet. The kingdom is upside down.
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the Advent season, we reflected on how our desire and search for God is impacted by our understanding of the God who becomes flesh to live with us. Last Sunday Zach showed us how looking into our histories can be a spiritual exercise of finding the God who walks with us, and taking new notice of the God acts in our world. This Sunday we reflect on how the shape of our lives can be impacted by our understanding of the God who is born as a baby. At root, then, this Sunday we reflect on repentance.
Van Dyke’s story illustrates the fundamental notion of repentance. Far too often, I think, we think of repentance as an exercise in ferreting out another sin in our lives for which we conjure up feelings of remorse and guilt, engage in what we hope is an adequate form of self-remonstration and penance, and then we go on with fingers and toes crossed, hoping against hope that we do not too soon fall back into our old ways. I think that is a rather anemic misunderstanding of repentance. To repent is to implement a new understanding of things: of our world, of ourselves, and particularly of God. To repent is to see new opportunities for our lives because God cares enough, not just to judge us, but to show us love, and how to live. Christmas reminds us that God cares enough to make His dwelling with us, and not only with us, but in us.
Every one of the angels in van Dyke’s story proposed a solution that at a glance seems a reasonable and worthwhile correction to the troubles of humanity. Michael proposed a strong solution of overwhelming power, Uriel saw the answer in convincing wisdom, and Raphael saw a solution in teaching people to be generous with love for each other. Unfortunately, none of these solutions offer us anything radically different from the root of the problem, just more of it. If the evil use force to gain the upper hand over the good, then the solution is to use more force for good. If wickedness is rooted in a lack of knowledge, the solution is to infuse more knowledge. Raphael gets closest to the answer with his proposal of more love, but the intractable question that stymies him as well is how do you get selfish people to love more? You can’t just give them love and expect them to share it, because that is the root of their problem. Our problem lies not only in our environment of too much violence, or too much ignorance, or too much selfishness. The problem is that the environment is at least in part the result of what and who we are, and is largely the outworking of fundamental values that we never think to question. The solution requires change from the inside out, and only a God can do that for us.
And that, as van Dyke’s story reminds us, is the Christmas story. We have domesticated the story of Christmas and we celebrate it as a religious, and often a crassly commercialized event, and in our celebrating it we have tamed it. We too easily see Christmas as a highlight of the year, a celebration to break the monotony of our long winter, the time of year when days finally start getting longer and we hope again for Spring. Frequently we intersperse our celebrations with moments of reflection and lip service to the Christ Child whose birth we commemorate on Christmas Day, but too easily and too often we forget that everything was turned upside down when the Creator was born in human flesh. True repentance, I think, sees the world through the lens of Christmas and the Christ Child.
Matthew tells us that John the Baptiser came preaching in the desert to prepare the way for the Son of God, saying “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This call is commonly understood as a call to turn around, and that is indeed an integral component of seeing the world differently. To recognize a radically different structure as operative in our world should quite naturally be followed by a commensurately different way of living. If we think repentance is just about identifying a few more sins in our own lives we sadly miss the point. The kingdom of heaven is not about how well we purge sin from our lives. God knows we are not up to the task, which is precisely the reason Jesus came to save us. He knew we could never save ourselves.
To repent is to see our world and our God through different eyes. Christmas reminds us that God is not just a Creator who makes a world and sits back, waiting to pass judgement on our frailty. The sort of repentance that acts in fearful anticipation of such wrath is a very cheap imitation of the repentance that sees the world and its people as something that God cherishes sufficiently that He chooses to participate in our frailty so as to not only tell us to love, but to show us what love looks like, and what His love means for us.
A little later Matthew tells us that Jesus took up preaching where John left off “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near.” In both cases Eugene Peterson translates this phrase as “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here!” A few paragraphs later Matthew summarizes Jesus’ message again, using different words: He moved through the country preaching the good news of the kingdom. The revelation of God’s kingdom is good news. To be called to look for God’s kingdom elsewhere is good news when our search has been disappointing. The call to repentance is calling out to a people who are looking for the kingdom in all the wrong places. It is a calling out to people who are looking for love, and peace, and satisfaction where it cannot be found. The call to repentance is good news because it tells us our disappointments are not terminal. It is calling out “Turn around! What you are looking for is over this way.”
God became flesh, not primarily to change our world, though He did that. God became flesh not primarily to change us, though that too will happen when we catch a glimpse of Immanuel – the God who is with us. God became flesh because He loves us, because He desires to be in relationship with us, and He wants us to know that. God became flesh because He wants us to participate in His kingdom. God became flesh because He loves us too much to leave us in our own little world, whether we think ourselves comfortable or miserable.
Elie Wiesel survived the concentration camps of the holocaust as a young boy. In his memoirs entitled “Night” he recounts graphic stories of misery, cruelty, and the most diabolical horror. Along with the deprivation and forced labor, prisoners were frequently compelled to watch public executions. He recounts a time when a young lad was hung for a minor offense. The executioner did not correctly calculate the length of rope that would provide a clean execution (as though there could be any such thing) and the boy struggled frantically for several minutes, minutes that seemed an interminable eternity, while he was slowly asphyxiated. The prisoners were horrified and incensed by the spectacle, while the soldiers were amused. One of the prisoners cried out “Where is God when this lad is left to suffer so abominably at the hands of those who are far more guilty than he is?” The reply came softly from a man standing close to Elie “He is struggling at the end of that rope.”
Our world is not just an economy in turmoil, though the economy is currently an ominous threat for many. The world is not primarily a struggle between terrorism and democracy or capitalism or merely an alternate form of overwhelming power. The world is not only a place threatened by global warming or depleted energy reserves. Our world is the intersection of people and creation with opportunities to see God at work, loving His creation. God loving creation is the main play, the other distractions are the side acts. They are not to be facilely dismissed as insignificant, but they too are spaces for the love of God that turns the world upside down to be seen, to be experienced, and to change us all from the inside out. To recognize that, to see the world as such, that is the sort of repentance that brings life. That is the repentance that changes us from the inside out as we recognize Immanuel, the Christ Child of Christmas who is God with us.