“Judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (from the epistle).
A. The focus of Advent 3
1. The third week in Advent focuses on John the Baptist and his ministry of preparation. The collect connects the ways John prepared Israel for Christ’s first coming with the vocation of the church to prepare people for Christ’s return in glory. The lessons are expectant: Paul looking for the Christ to come and judge the hearts, and John in prison waiting for Christ to come and judge his enemies.
2. We prepare for Christ’s coming by repentance. To repent is to change. We repent when we stop committing acts of sin and begin to pray and practice the disciplines that are necessary to detach us from our idols. We repent when we become aware of our selfishness and begin to orient our lives around the worship of God and service to others for his sake.
B. Outward and inward sin
1. There are stages of repentance. The first stage of repentance is when we turn away from obvious sinful actions: things like dishonesty in business, sexual immorality, excessive consumption, habitual acts of malice and sins of speech—gossip, slander and the like.
2. But this is only the beginning. Once we’ve made a serious effort through prayer to turn away from outward sin, we encounter the first real frustration and discouragement in the life of faith; for we discover that, having made all of these outward changes, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of repentance.
3. We discover this in two principal ways. First, we discover that getting rid of the outward behavior does not get rid of the inward desire. In fact, as we stop acting sinfully, our sinful thoughts and impulses are magnified. The lack of outlet highlights the strength of the impulse. This is why Jesus focuses on inward intention in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said to the men of old, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5:21-22).
You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (Mathew 5:27-28).
4. We also discover new sins. When we first think about sin, we default to sins of the flesh like lust and gluttony. But as we grow in repentance we discover what Dorothy Sayers calls, “The other deadly sins:” Pride, envy, covetousness, malice and sloth. As we discover new sinful tendencies, there an extended season of time when it feels like we are actually getting worse. But we are not getting worse, we are merely seeing ourselves more clearly.
When we enter a dimly lit room, it may appear that one or two things are out of place and it will be relatively easy to clean. However, when we turn on all the lights, we discover that the whole room is a complete mess: spider webs in the corners, dust everywhere along the edges and all manner things that need to be thrown away. In the early stages of repentance, we examine ourselves in the dim light of the external commandments. We see a few things out of order. However, as we progress we begin to examine ourselves in the full light of the law of love (Romans 13:10). This fuller light reveals that we are in complete disorder.
5. This complete conviction of sin is a necessary foundation for growth. As long as we think that our lives only need one or two minor adjustments, we are light years away from understanding what John and Jesus mean when they say, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). To experience new birth in Christ, the old man must first die. Conviction of sin leading to good confessions is the instrument of death.
C. How we make progress
1. Three things are necessary for progress in repentance. First, we must be willing to change unfaithful patterns of behavior. If certain situations, relationships and places always lead to us into temptation and sin, we need to eliminate those situations, relationships and places from our lives. As Jesus says ever so bluntly,
If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell (Matthew 5:30).
2. Second, we need begin to develop the various virtues. Sin is merely a perversion and misuse of the good that God has given us. It is not enough to not sin. We must cultivate right patterns of thinking and acting. When these take root, sin will naturally disappear. Thus, we overcome pride through the practice of humility. We conquer covetousness as we begin to practice generosity. We defeat envy as we learn contentment and gratitude. We overcome anger as we grow in patience and charity. We cultivate virtue by asking God to give us the virtue we lack, and then by actively practicing that virtue in our daily lives.
3. The third and most important thing that is necessary for progress is perseverance. We must persevere in our confessions and in receiving the grace of forgiveness that frees us from guilt; and we must persevere in practicing new behaviors. We do not fail in the life of prayer because we struggle and sometimes fall. We fail because we give up the fight.
4. Spiritual growth occurs organically. We plant a seed and it grows slowly into a plant as it receives water and sunlight. We give birth to a child and the child grows slowly into an adult as the child is fed and trained. We plant the seed of the Spirit and a person becomes a newborn child of God. That life grows as it nurtured by the grace of the Sacraments, the disciplines of the life of prayer and the support of the Body of Christ. This life will grow as long as we persevere in the disciplines and community of faith—and it will not if we don’t.
5. Thus, Advent exhorts us not only to repent but also to continue in our repentance, “until the Lord comes who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of the hearts.” Then we will each receive our praise from God.