Making Our Paths Straight
December 02, 2007
Lord, you showed favor to your land;
You restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
And pardoned all their sins.
You set aside all your wrath
And turned from your hot anger. . . .
I will listen to what God the Lord says;
For he will speak peace to his people, his faithful servants--
But let them not turn back to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
That his glory may dwell in our land.
Love and faithfulness will meet together;
Righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
And righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
And our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him
And will make a path for his steps.
(Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13)
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; a voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "After me comes the one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
In recent years there has been a movement afoot amongst Protestant clergy to hold fast to the spirit and significance of Advent. I hear them talking about it at clergy gatherings:
"Are folks doing the Advent wreath in your church?"
"Got your purple stole?"
"Are you using special bulletin covers?"
"Oh yes, we've got some really pretty ones this year."
"You're not letting them sing Christmas carols before the 24th, are you?"
I think we clergy have all but given up on Christmas. We have all yielded to the tremendous pressure of market forces that have taken one of the church's most sacred holy days and materialized it up the wazoo.
But precisely because the secular world has a got such a chokehold on Christmas, we're doing what we can to hold on to the true spirit of Advent; and given what Advent is all about, I don't think we have to worry all that much about our little market share getting swallowed up by Amazon.com any time soon. If you pay attention to our scripture for today, I'm sure you'll see why.
You'll notice that, unlike every store from Barnes & Noble to the Big Y, we don't bust out with the Christmas carols right after Thanksgiving around here, because Advent is not a nifty marketing strategy on the part of the church to make Christmas last longer. Unlike the rest of the world, we are not aiming for quantity this holiday season, but quality.
Oh sure, you'll get your "O Come, O Come Emanuel" because it is thematically appropriate, but you're not going to get "Silent Night" or "Joy to the World" until Christmas Eve. (Except next week of course, when the kids take over and have their Christmas Pageant. But that's totally out of my control--and I'm not complaining because I like it that way).
No, here in the church at least, we don't sing Christmas carols yet, because Advent is not Christmas. Christmas is about light, joy, salvation, and peace. Advent is something much darker, outside and inside. It is meant to be a time of introspection, fasting, prayer, and penitence. It is the time of preparation we observe in the church--a time when we slow down, draw into ourselves, and, not to put to fine a point on it, look around at the mess we've made with an eye toward straightening it out.
I sometimes think of Advent as the liturgical equivalent of being sent to your room to clean it up, with the understanding that company is coming and you're not going to be let out until you are finished. Remember what that was like? There's hope in the midst of the darkness and the chaos we encounter inside the little rooms that house our soul, but it's a hope that will be fulfilled only after some hard work on our part.
Advent literally means "coming." Here in the church it is about preparing for Christ's coming: preparing for our celebration of his first coming, which is Christmas, and preparing ourselves for his second coming, which is scary . . . you know . . . when you think about it.
So who better to get us all ready for the coming of the Lord this Advent season than the shaggiest, the scariest, the man voted least likely to sing a Christmas carol before December 25th, the fieriest, brimstoniest preacher of them all: John the Baptist.
Yes, John the Baptist, the man who, according to the gospel of Mark, "appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." You can't have Advent without John the Baptist.
Now by today's standards, I'll admit that John's was not a presence or a message calculated to please. And unless things change radically, I don't think in my lifetime you will ever go to a mall at this time of year and see a line for the kids to get their picture taken with Santa queuing up on the left, right across from one for the whole family where you can visit John in his Wilderness Wonderland, sit on the knee of a man wearing a loincloth made of camel hair, tell him everything you did wrong this year, get baptized in the mall fountain, and leave with your sins forgiven.
It's not because we don't have sins that need forgiving, mind you, but because especially at this time of year, when we are all trying so hard to avoid being naughty while doing our very best to be nice, sin is the last thing we want to talk about. That, and the fact that the whole image of John in the mall is really kind of creepy . . . but I digress.
What was I talking about? Oh yes, sin, and why we don't want to talk about it. We don't want to talk about it because it's so negative, dark, and depressing. It's one of those old-fashioned church ideas that makes people feel guilty and bad about themselves, so we tend to steer clear. And honestly, who has time for repentance when there is so much else that needs to be done? Nobody wants to hear about sin and repentance at this time of year because it is so out of sync with the rest of the program. We want to keep things positive á la Currier & Ives.
But the truth is, no one really wants to talk about sin and repentance at any other time of the year either, because it is so out of line with our culture, our modern-day psychology, our efforts to build up our self-esteem, and make something of ourselves.
And yet, if you scratch the surface of all the shiny happy people out there, you'll find that there is an emptiness that accompanies this noble effort to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
There is a problem with this philosophy or tendency, whatever you want to call it, that we can't seem to shake, and it is this: the negative is still there. Until we confront it and cast it out, the sin still remains. People still do bad things. Injustice wears on plain as day for all to see.
In our churches we avoid talking about repentance because we don't want people to feel bad and go away. We want to keep things positive and upbeat so people will come back for more. But not talking about sin doesn't make the bad stuff go away--and that's what really needs to happen if we are going to prepare ourselves and our world for the coming of the Lord.
Kathleen Norris, in her wonderful book Amazing Grace, takes on the task of rehabilitating the sacred vocabulary of the church that had turned her off to organized religion for so many years. When she comes to the word sinner she writes:
To see myself as a sinner is simple enough . . . the Oxford English Dictionary defines a sinner as "a transgressor against the divine law." If I care to pay attention, which I usually do not, I can find all too many ways in which I transgress regularly against the great commandment: to love God with all my heart and soul, and my neighbor as myself.
On a daily basis I fail to keep the balance that this commandment requires of me: that I love and care for myself, but not so well that I become incapable of loving and serving others; and that I remember to praise God as the author of life itself, but not so blindly that I lose sight of the down-to-earth dimensions of my everyday relationships and commitments.
[The truth is,] I am a sinner, and the Presbyterian church I attend offers me a weekly chance to come clean, and to pray, along with others, what is termed a prayer of confession. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word "sin" that in church we end up confessing nothing except our highly developed capacity for denial. One week, for example, the confession began, "Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives You want us to have," which seems less a prayer (to me) than a memo from one professional to another. At such times I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, "Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?" It would be refreshing to answer, simply, "I have sinned."
"I have sinned." "I have sinned." It's true, I have. And I'd be willing to bet . . . a lot . . . that you have too. It's not a comfortable subject to talk about, but the truth is, acknowledging our sin is the first step in repentance; and although repentance is hard, it is also good--good for the soul, and ultimately good for the world.
The trick is, it's got to be real. Repentance is not just a matter of saying, "Oh I'm sorry, did I just say that?" or, "think that?" or "did I just do that . . . again?" No, repentance is about sitting down, maybe even kneeling down, and taking a good, long, hard look at who we are and how we are living our lives.
True repentance involves very deliberately and consciously examining those things we have done or failed to do, recognizing these things as sins against God and one another, resolving to turn away from those sins, making restitution where we can, and finally, with the help of the Lord, learning to live and walk in a whole new way.
It can hurt at times because in order to be real it needs to be really specific. We have got to examine ourselves in some detail. Repentance isn't a vague sense of guilt . . . a sort of, "Gosh I can't believe I just did that again," or "O Lord, please forgive me for all the bad things I have done; you know them so I don't have to repeat them, or for that matter, even bother to remember them." No. Repentance is a whole new understanding within us wherein we determine that our specific action was wrong and, with the help of God, will not be repeated again. That is repentance
As reluctant as we may be to talk about sin in church these days, I'm sure you've all heard some version of what I just said, maybe from a pastor, a teacher, or a parent, so I'm hoping you can follow me here; because my hope for you, for us, for the whole world, is that we'll learn to repent ourselves, and then take this whole process to the next level.
You see, when I start to think about what it's going to take to prepare this world for the coming of Christ, to really get ready, I think we are going to have to expand our understanding of repentance. As a people--as people of God, that is--we're going to have to come together and take a good, long, hard look at how we live, not just as individuals, but as a church, as a community, as a country, as citizens of this world.
I think it is time for us to get specific about how our economic policies, our foreign policies, our military policies, those things we do and fail to do on a communal level . . . how those things affect our brothers and sisters around the world.
As Christians, as Americans, as citizens of this one fragile planet we call Earth, we need to prayerfully recognize the harm we do and the help we fail to give to one another, recognize these failings as sins against God, resolve to turn away from these sins, make restitution where we can, and finally, learn to live and walk together in a whole new way.
If we really embrace the true spirit of Advent, think what a difference that would make, not just in our own lives and our own experience of Christmas, but in the world.
Repentance may seem a far cry from Christmas, but think what it would be like to celebrate Christ's first coming in a world where no baby is born to a woman so poor that she has no bed in which to lay her child, a world where no tax falls as a burden upon good, honest men like Joseph, a world where no dictator like Herod is capable of harming an innocent like Jesus; a world where "steadfast love and faithfulness will meet"; a world where "righteousness and peace will kiss each other"; a world where "faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky."
The Psalmist says, "righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps." Friends, that righteousness is ours to co-create with God. We confess our sins and he forgives us. We resolve to live in a new way and he enables us by his grace to do so. We commit ourselves to change, and not only will we be reborn, the world will be reborn right along with us.
John the Baptist says to repent and make a way for the coming of the Lord. That way is within our grasp; it is ours for the making, if we are willing.
We can be so afraid to talk openly about sin and repentance in the church, but may I tell you what is so refreshingly odd about this gospel story? For all John's talk of sin, the people came--maybe because he had the courage to call things as he saw them, and be honest. I don't know. All I know is that the people came. They didn't turn away. They came in droves, from the highways and the byways; they emptied out of the city of Jerusalem and they came to hear John; they came to confess their sins; they came to give themselves over to his washing in the waters of the Jordan--that they might better give themselves over to the one who would wash them, not with water, but with the spirit.
For the gospel writer, for John the Baptist, and for all the people of Judea, repentance meant cleansing, it meant new beginnings, it meant an open and clean heart ready to greet the coming messiah. When you think of it like that, it's actually quite beautiful.
So my prayer for you today is that you will repent. Yes, it requires hard work, sacrifice, and some very uncomfortable struggling within our own souls. But when we truly experience it, we find ourselves on the other side standing free: free from guilt, free from sin, free from punishment, free from all those nasty connotations we naturally want to shy away from. But most importantly, we find ourselves free to receive the Lord's presence into our lives and into our world without fear or reservation. The opportunity to repent . . . this, my friends, is the calling and the gift of Advent.
Lord Jesus, thank you for reminding us that until we bring you into our darkness, we cannot know your light; until we recognize our sins, we cannot be free of them; until we confess, we cannot know your forgiveness.
O Lord, forgive us. Forgive us for acquiring more and sharing less, for avenging rather than seeking to pardon, for putting other gods before you, and learning to live comfortably with what is meaningless and false. Lord forgive us for profiting at the expense of the poor, for glossing over the immoralities of the marketplace, for claiming special rights and privileges that we then deny to others. Forgive us, Lord, for putting ourselves first, for loving ourselves more than we love you or others.
Lord grant that we might have that strange combination of will and wisdom, hunger and humility, that repentance requires. Help us Lord. Create in us clean hearts that we might stand without reservation in your light, and pour your love out upon this world without reservation. All this we pray in your name Lord Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Sarah Buteux