It wasn’t until yesterday afternoon we dug to the back of the attic to the tubs labeled, "Christmas." There’s the nicely sewn skirt that goes under the tree that Carrie made some years ago, the stockings, the Christmas-themed stuffed animals that people have given our children over the years. There’s the lights, for the tree, for the inside, a few for the outside, and some of them worked! There’s the Christmas dish towels and the serving bowls that have wreaths on the them. There’s the tub of crèche sets. When you’re a preacher people give you crèche sets, and we have them from different countries, carved wood ones, smooth stones, ones with all sorts of pieces and we’ve lost a shepherds crook or a sheep or two a long time ago. There’s the plastic ones, stuffed ones for the kids with the stuffing coming out, AND this is before we even consider a tree. It seems like the stuff of the season owns us.
But Luke has a different unpacking process in mind. The lectionary gospel readings in Advent tell the story backwards. We began last week with Jesus’ predictions of the end of the age, we get two weeks here in the middle with an adult John the Baptist, and only in the fourth week do we meet pregnant Mary and get any sense of the impending birth of the savior.1 We begin today with one sense of time, of who is in charge: Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas.2 But we know all the while Luke is telling someone else’s story.
The word of God, Luke says, breaks in, with John in the wilderness. He doesn’t begin at the heart of things, striding into the temple or trying to set up an appointment with the governor. He begins down by the river, proclaiming repentance. This word, at the heart of John’s message, isn’t one we tend to mess with. Repentance is a tired old church word, one that brings to mind preachers haranguing from street corners, fire and brimstone and religion motivated by fear. The closest we come is when we pray a prayer of confession each Sunday morning. I remember early on in my ministry a member of the church I served in Greensboro came up after worship: "You know I’m tired of all this confessing. Sometimes I’m pretty sure the specific words of the prayer don’t apply to me, so I just mouth along for a moment. I do it when I need to," he said.
A couple of points here, first as I said to this confident gentleman: "Yes, they do apply to you." Maybe not this second, but they all get to us at some point. Despite the specifics of any particular prayer we write for the bulletin, we are a people who are broken, who sin, continually falling short of the glory of God. Reinhold Neibuhr once said that the doctrine of sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith. Look around. Though we are made in the beautiful image of God we mess up. Sometimes it’s the ways we mistreat others, accidentally or on purpose. Sometimes it’s when our priorities get skewed, maybe without us noticing. Sometimes it’s when cling to our money, our desires, our prejudices. Sometimes it’s the opportunities we have to help others, to take time to listen to someon, and we, for whatever reason, don’t take those opportunities to serve. Find me someone who says they are not in need of confession and I’ll show you someone woefully out of touch with their lives and our world.
But the next part is where the good news begins. We bring our sin every week, we make a practice of it, every week, so that we remember, first and foremost, that we are not God. That we are always in need of God’s grace, come in Jesus Christ. Here’s where we slide from confession to John’s message of repentance. As we confess, we also, with God’s help, are given the opportunity to repent. Repentance here in the greek is metanoia, literally turning around, turning away. When Betty or Taylor or I stand behind this table each week to remind you that you are forgiven, it comes as gift. God breaks in where cannot, redeeming us, redeeming everything that separates us from God, turning us anew into the world. Again, and again. It’s good news!
It is this act of repentance, of turning away from that which distracts and divides, and turning towards God, that is at the heart of our faith, and of the Advent journey. But it’s tough. Having the courage to repent means admitting we aren’t living the way we ought, aren’t acknowledging who is in Lord of our lives. Repentance is hard in a culture that seeks to cast blame, which never seems to take responsibility. The family conflict is never because of something we said, it’s her fault. If he had done his job correctly we wouldn’t be in this mess. If people are poor it’s their own fault, they should have worked harder. And while the truth, whatever that means, is always immensely complicated, a key part of repentance is not starting there. It is starting by doing that tough, tough internal work, dealing with our own stuff before we dare point at someone else. Where does God’s light shine forth in you? Where does it not? How, O GOD, might I turn towards you every day? We must engage our brokenness in the painful cleansing of repentance, before we ever hope to welcome this baby to be born into our hearts and our world again.
This week, again, too much like each of the previous weeks, we add San Bernadino to the list, with Colorado Springs last week, Paris not much more than a week before that. While the media coverage is exhausting I don’t think humanity is any more brutal than it ever has been. We aren’t any more cruel than the Romans were to the Jews, or anyone else they were occupying – I take great comfort knowing that Jesus was born into a world just as violent as ours.3 But each generation has their own season of soul searching – repentance, even – work we MUST do, to think deeply about how we live together. This in some ways is about weaponry, guns, and mental health services, about public policy and law enforcement strategy and military strategy. But it must, underneath it, even, be about who we are as people seeking to follow the Prince of Peace. Do we bear this peace with our EVERY action, every conversation, every interaction or email or tweet or internet post? Technology has certainly changed how we respond, making it even easier to crush someone online without having to look them in the eye. How do you bear His peace? Sometimes it is in advocating for constructive public policy solutions. Sometimes it is knowing all of our neighbors as well as we can, certainly reaching out to communities we don’t know well – most definitely our Muslim brothers and sisters in this season. This happens by doing what scripture tells us to do over and over – welcoming the stranger among us. It happens by not letting fear dictate to us how decisions are made, thinking about issues of safely and security – all of us want to be safe, want the people we love to be save, and there is this pervasive evil among us, we feel it. But when the angel spoke to Mary to tell her she was going to have a baby, the angel said, do not be afraid. Those same angels spoke it to the shepherds on the hillside, Jesus spoke it as he healed, even as he met the disciples after his resurrection. Do not be afraid.
We know that it’s not into a world with perfectly decorated trees and cheery music that Jesus came, but a world of crooked paths that needed to be made straight, as Isaiah says, of valleys of injustice that needed to be filled, mountains of privilege and status that needed to be shaved down a bit to welcome all, rough places of violence and corruption and deep sadness made smooth, so that all flesh, as the prophet says, all flesh, shall see the salvation of God.
As Reinhold Neibuhr again wrote, in 1952:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore, we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint; therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.4
So as you’re digging around in the back of closets this week, trying desperately to untangle those darn lights, spend at least as much time digging around in your own heart. Maybe even as we come to this table, leaving behind all of the things of which we might rightly need to repent, and turning towards a God who broke into the world as a little child, bringing hope. Prepare the way of the Lord!, the prophet cries. He comes. He comes.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. David Lose, "What Time Is It? Preaching Advent in the Year of Luke," in the Advent 2015 Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, page 8.
2. Lose again, 11.
3. I am grateful for this wisdom from a conversation with the Rev. Joe Harvard this week.
4. From Reinhold Niebuhr, "The Irony of American History," 1952, with thanks to the Rev. Becca Messman.