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.

Our Advent-ing God

Rev. Adam S. Borneman is a dear friend to Homewood CPC and currently lives in Atlanta, GA with his wife Jessica and daughters Maggie and Hanna. He will be contributing to the HCPC blog regularly beginning with this post.


If there’s one time of year that reminds us that God is the primary agent, subject, actor, or any other term that highlights God’s initiative over ours, its Advent. We didn’t “figure out” God from our lived experience. Our lived experiences only reveal to us our limited capacity for knowing God and the necessity for God to move toward us if we are to know him at all. “Ex nobis, pro nobis, in Christo,” (Outside of us, for us, in Christ) Martin Luther once put it.

And so, the eternal triune God, who is above, beyond, and outside of us, graciously creates us and perennially moves toward us in love. With this in mind, we begin to see more clearly that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t the only “advent.” It is a – or perhaps the – climactic moment in the life of Triune God who is always advent-ing toward each of us and toward the whole world in ways that are mysterious, beautiful, and often difficult to grasp. The season of Advent is simply an opportunity for us to focus on how God reveals to us that he is, in a sense, always coming to us.

God has always been showing up on his own initiative in “fleshy” ways: at creation taming the waters, walking in the garden of Eden, as three men at Abraham’s door, as Jacob’s wrestling partner, an angel on several occasions, and as a “Word” that “comes” to various patriarchs, kings, and prophets. And may we not overlook Israel’s designation as “the Son of God,” called to embody and give witness to God’s grace, justice, and steadfast love before the nations. These are all very “fleshy” movements of God toward the world in love. Whether these instances mark appearances of the second person of the Trinity in some form is a conversation for another day, but we would do well to keep them in mind was we reflect on God coming to us.

It’s easy during Advent for us to slide into the temptation of thinking “I need to get closer to God this Advent.” My advice would be to stop trying so hard. Sure, pick up that advent devotional, light a wreath, sing hymns. Yes and Amen. I’m doing the same. But these are only ways of acknowledging that God has always been moving toward us and that, in Jesus of Nazareth, God has come become supremely, shockingly, and intimately close. Mary initially thought it impossible, and I think we still do. God’s movements toward us often happen in ways we don’t anticipate or expect, but always in ways that are ultimately for our good and the good of the whole world. What’s more it’s all God’s initiative, not ours. And that will always be the case. So take a deep breath, know that the Son of God is drawing close, and rest in the grace of God’s advent.