Repenting in . . . Joy?

It’s easy for hard-corps Christians to get a little sanctimonious around the holidays. But for all of our preaching to “keep Christ in Christmas” (whatever that means) or all of our railings against the “commercialization” of the season, there is one biblical theme that a lot of the secular movies seem to “get” this time of year that Christians miss:

Joy follows repentance.

In our churches, we often confuse repentance with saying, “I’m sorry,” for long enough. The harder someone beats his brow, the longer someone wails against her sin, the more a teenager says things like, “I’m so broken!” – the more penitent and closer to God we think they are. But true repentance is deeper than the caricatures we make it. As Jesus warns in Matthew 6, it is not in looking gloomy or in disfiguring one’s face like a hypocrite that repentance is shown. Repentance is a turning – a turning away from self (even self-centered pity parties) and toward God.

And where there is God, there is joy.

Ebenezer Scrooge, after being haunted all night by ghosts, doesn’t emerge from his bedchamber on Christmas morning wailing about his sinfulness. He goes out, “light as a feather” and “merry as a school boy.” The Grinch doesn’t sulk on the side of Mt. Crumpit going on about how he deserves his frostbitten feet “ice-cold in the snow.” When his heart grows three sizes (an image of repentance not far off from Ezekiel 36:26!), the Grinch turns his sled around, blows his trumpet – and joins the feast. George Bailey, moments after realizing that is he is worth more alive than dead, doesn’t trudge back to his home in solemn regret. He runs and shouts, waking the sleepy town of Bedford Falls with cheer.

Notice that these examples do not subvert the seriousness of repentance. Ebenezer bears fruit in keeping with repentance by freely giving away his former idol – money. The Grinch returns every item he stole. George heads home to face stern consequences, including the possibilities of bankruptcy and prison. Like the Ninevites in the book of Jonah, there are times in the life of repentance when ashes are appropriate. What’s never appropriate is Jonah’s sulking anger as he watches God’s forgiveness in action.

Too often, we judge the repentance of others (and even ourselves) like the older brother of the prodigal son in Luke 15. We want other people – and even ourselves – to feel an “appropriate” level of guilt before they – before we – receive forgiveness. But this misses the fundamental teaching of Jesus to the Pharisees in the three parables of Luke 15: repentance is the joyful celebration of finding what was lost. Or as Ken Bailey puts it: “Repentance is the acceptance of being found.”

When we relegate repentance only to seasons like Lent (or only after the discovery of some grievous sin) we tend to forget the joy of repentance because we tend to make repentance about ourselves. And when we rush past Advent, we forget that our true joy at Christmas comes from a restored relationship with the Source of all joy. Yes, Advent is a season of repentance because it is our reminder that we turn toward God only because God has first turned toward us. Indeed, while we are still a long way off, he brings us in to a feast.

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