Winter is probably my least favorite season. I am not made to survive temperatures below around 40 or so. I definitely am not made to withstand “blizzard” conditions, ice, and generally being cold. But, one of the things about winter that really gets to me is the amount (or lack thereof) of sunlight. Those of us who suffer from depression know that there is something called “seasonal affective disorder” (appropriately named SAD). This is usually triggered by a change in seasons, a lowering of the serotonin and melatonin in one’s body, and a predisposition to depression. While I don’t have SAD, it certainly would be easy for me to fit into many of the categories of the symptoms. So, this week as I was struggling with the change in weather, and continuing to struggle with the change in daylight hours, I also struggled with the news of the two missing hunters from our area: Keegan and Tyler. I didn’t know Keegan, and I only knew Tyler’s face because he worked for the vault company and was often at the cemetery when we would go for burials. But, I know many people that loved them, miss them, and spent time looking for them, only to come up empty handed. And then the news of the death of a young 17 year old girl, Hannah. This death was by choice, by her own hand, and obviously quite sudden. She also was a cousin to one of the missing hunters. Hannah was also known by many of our young people in this congregation.
With all of that, maybe you can understand that as I read and prayed about scripture then this week that the last thing I wanted to do was preach on a text with the line “You brood of vipers.” Because the last thing you need when you’re down is someone reading and preaching on scripture like that. As much as I love Advent, as much as I invite all of you to dwell in the waiting and anticipation of Advent, it’s times like this that I want all of the celebration, grandeur, and festivities that go along with Christmas. I want the lights, I want the merriment, I want the baby Jesus, I want the baking and present wrapping, I want it all! (Except eggnog. That stuff is disgusting.)
But sometimes, God has us wrestle with scripture for a reason. So, I continued to wrestle with this reading from Matthew today. And I kept coming back over and over again to the line that says “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” I know I’ve talked about repentance before. But, I want to expand on this idea a little bit more today. Often when we think about repentance, we think about confession, saying “I’m sorry” or even “man, I really screwed up and I am REALLY really sorry.” During Lent, we talk about repentance in the idea of turning around. So, we turn away from sin and turn towards God.
When it comes to change, any kind of change, we humans can be pretty stubborn. We don’t like change. And part of repentance is change. We need to, we must, change what we are doing. Often, repentance happens when we finally realize that whatever we are doing with our lives, whatever is going on in our lives, whatever our actions may be, are in direct opposition to God’s will for our lives. Repentance is that time when you realize that your words, actions, efforts, even your choices aren’t in line with what God wants.
If you are familiar with AA and their 12 step program, each individual step is about repentance. Admitting you are powerless, believe in something greater than yourself, turning yourself over to God, make lists of people you’ve wronged and attempt to make ammends, and on and on. Trust me when I tell you friends, sometimes people find more God at an AA meeting than they do at church on a Sunday morning. But the basis of the program is built on repentance. What does it mean, then to bear fruits worthy of repentance?
Normally when we talk about bearing fruit, it’s a good thing. But bearing fruits of repentance can sound kind of confusing. Repentance is more than just a heart and mind activity. It’s easy to say to your spouse or loved one “I feel really bad that I hurt that person’s feelings” but it’s completely different (and maybe even a little uncomfortable) to make confession to the person themselves. If we are serious about our repentance, then an entire change in our lives are needed. We need to reclaim our baptismal identity, confess to God and to one another, and make sure our actions show that we do indeed repent.
Repentance is more than shallow words. It certainly is more than shallow actions. Repentance means that you are committed to doing better, knowing better, and participating in better. And repentance is something that cannot happen on your own. You can pray to God for forgiveness, yes, but that confession without action may not lead fully to repentance. Repentance means that we have not been obeying the greatest commandment of love your neighbor as you love yourself. And this week, this week as I have observed so much hurt and pain in this community, I wonder if the people we need to repent against the most is ourselves. See, how do you love your neighbor as yourself if you cannot even love yourself?
In the quest for perfection, we set standards and goals no one can meet, let alone ourselves. This seems to be especially true during the holidays. No one will care if your napkins don’t match the tablecloth. We may chastise ourselves for our looks, our hair (or lack thereof), the number on the scale, the number in our bank accounts, the number of awards on our walls, even the success of our children. We all fight some kind of demons, and sometimes they are just louder than others. We get stuck in our own heads and into a no-win situation. And then we go “shoulding” ourselves. “I should have done more to help find Tyler and Keegan.” Or “I should have probed more when Hannah said nothing was wrong but I felt like there was.” I am sure many of you say more than one “should” statement to yourselves on a daily basis. And it is time to repent, brothers and sisters. It it time to repent against not loving yourself because this is not the kind of life God wants you to be living.
If we’re going to fully repent, fully forgive ourselves (because we have to do that before we can forgive others) then we have to act like, talk like, and think like we actually are remorseful and repentant for the way we treat ourselves. This means we look at ourselves as the amazing and beautiful creatures God created us to be. This means we let ourselves off the hook every once in awhile and choose being present over being perfect. This means that we take a compliment and not over analyze it. Active repentance to ourselves means loving ourselves, completely. This means loving yourself no matter the number on the scale, image in the mirror, number in the bank account, or if you even have one single award to your name. Loving yourself means not abusing yourself with drugs, alcohol, sex, or self-harm. Loving yourself means fully admitting and confessing to yourself that you are loved and then living like you believe that is true because it is true.
As we draw closer to Christmas by journeying through this time of waiting, watching, anticipating, and even wonder, we also participate in bearing fruits of repentance. Stop beating yourself up. There was only one Savior and you are not him. Start loving yourself, no matter what, because that is the life God desires for you. God wants you to think of you the way He does. Don’t be afraid to declare to yourself and to whomever will listen “yes! I am awesome because my God is awesome.” And then, start acting like it. I love you. You should too.