A year ago on the first Sunday of Advent, I didn’t know it at the time, but I had began a discernment process that took nine months to incubate; nine months to grow; nine months to come to fruition. It took nine months for me to finally say “no” to my marriage; “no” to unhealthiness; “no” to unhappiness.
And y’all, let me tell you, it was a painful process. I think partially for me, it was because so much of my life had felt like responding to God with a full and resounding, “yes!” Yes! I will be a disciple of Jesus. Yes! I will be a priest in your church! Yes! I will pastor this amazing and beautiful congregation on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Yes, yes, and yes! All of my life transitions thus far had felt like opportunities to say, “yes” to what God had placed before me.
So this past August, to have to finally say, “no,” was heart breaking beyond measure. It felt so counter intuitive to my faith journey thus far. And so feeling all of these feelings of shame and judgment and grief, I took myself on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to the bedrock of our faith.
While in this sacred space, the most moving moment of my pilgrimage took place at the grotto of the annunciation, in the town of Nazareth. At that place where our tradition says the Angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced that she would bear a son, the holy child of God. As I sat in the sanctuary of that church and read the words of Luke 1—words that are on our hearts and minds as we lead up to our celebration of Christmas—, I realized that Mary herself was saying, “yes.” She said, “yes,” to this new child that she hadn’t planned on. She said, “yes,” to a future she couldn’t have imagined. She said, “yes,” to possible judgment and stigma from society.
It was in this moment, reading this Scripture with tears streaming down my face, that I realized my, “no,” was actually a, “yes.” Because sometimes for God to do a new thing in us, to plant a new seed in us, to bring about new life in us, we do have to learn to say, “no,” to other options, to other futures we had imagined for ourselves. Sometimes we have to say, “no,” to those things that are destruction for ourselves, those things that are harmful to our relationship with God and one another, those things that are far from abundant life.
Throughout our earthly pilgrimage, we will have to learn to say, “no”—no to toxic relationships, no to substance abuse, no to searching for satisfaction in material things, no to opportunities that create unholiness in our lives. Perhaps this is why Advent has become a whole season of repentance in our church tradition. As John the Baptist in our Gospel reading reminds us, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” We need time set aside in our lives to repent, to discern where we have been growing away from our God, to consider what in our lives is causing us to stray from our Savior. It could be our relationships. It could be our own unhealthy habits. It could be the culture at our work. It could be making destructive choices. It could be any number of things, but it is so easy to get caught up in controlling our future trajectories that we forget to redirect our gaze upon God and we begin to grow in the opposite direction of the Divine ever so slowly and subtly.
That is why we (or at least, I) need this Advent season. This doesn’t mean repentance is going to be an easy process. Unfortunately it can be quite painful and prolonged. It can be quite tedious and terrifying. It is like pruning a plant—like that stump of Jesse we hear about in Isaiah 11. A lot had to be cut off from that tree to get back to the root of what God had created it to be. Yet by saying, “no” to the ways it had grown in the wrong direction, a new shoot was able spring up, a new branch was able to break forth. God was able to do a new thing, not only for the people of ancient Israel, but for us in this time and this place.
Then in our Gospel from Matthew we hear that the one who is coming after John the Baptist, Jesus the Christ, “Will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Ouch… Yikes… Our tradition has often interpreted this as a passage of judgment, but y’all, aren’t we our harshest critics? Don’t we place enough blame and shame on ourselves? Don’t we tend to be our own and others judge and jury? And forget that God’s love is an agape love, an unconditional love, given freely and unreservedly with no strings attached? So if we look at this allegory of the wheat and the chaff, maybe it is not about one person being holier or more righteous than another, but instead, maybe it is a symbol of our own personal repentance, a symbol of saying, “no,” to the weeds in our lives that try to choke the abundant life right out of us. And instead mustering the gumption to say, “yes,” to the good fruit that we are called to bear in this world as disciples of Christ.
Knowing that that pruning, that weeding, that harvesting will not be an easy process. It will cause us to say “no” to ways in which we had grown comfortable. But it will also be the greatest opportunity to say, “yes,” to all of the amazing things that God is doing in our lives; to say “yes” to futures more wonderful than we could ever ask or imagine. This is the life of repentance. This is our discipline this Advent season. This is our preparation for the Holy Child of Jesus.
As disciples of Christ, who have been submerged in that chilly and cold baptismal water—some just sprinkled on our forehead, while others dunked in the depths of Tahoe—, we are reminded that saying, “yes,” to God’s call means saying, “no,” to a future we ourselves were trying to craft and control. We are reminded that through God’s grace we must prune back the ways we had grown away from God, in order to redirect our attention on the Divine. We are reminded that sometimes we have to do away with the old, in order for God to do a new thing within us.
No matter how many times we have come to this Advent season; no matter how many times we have sought a new beginning; no matter how many times we have been in need of God’s grace, here, today, we have an opportunity to start again, to begin that painful but necessary process of repentance, to say, “yes,” and grow in the direction of the Divine.