Luke 1:68-79 Luke 3:1-6
2ndSunday in Advent
Our Gospel reading this morning begins with a list of the top seven people in “Who’s Who in the world of the rich and powerful.” While names like Tiberius and Lysanias are not on the tips of our tongues, their mention would evoke a strong response from those under their rule. These leaders were people of power and privilege who shaped the political, economic and religious landscape.
These were very important people! Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas were busy reinforcing systems that kept them exactly where they were, which meant that those on the bottom stayed there, too. The word of the Lord did not come to them in their lofty places. The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, one of those people on the bottom of society. It came to him while he was in the wilderness.
You know the wilderness because you have been there. Maybe you are there now. It’s a place without sufficient resources, and the direction you should go is not clear. It is a place of fear, and scarcity. The wilderness may be that you are unhappy in your relationship with your partner or a colleague. The wilderness is where we struggle with addiction to porn or alcohol or drugs or shopping. In the wilderness, it is hard to know who your true friends are, and you wrestle with loneliness. Grief and depression can overwhelm us there. The wilderness is that place where we cannot survive on our own.
It is into this context that the word of God came to John, and he went, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. “Repent,” John said. In Hebrew scripture, “repent” means to turn or to return. This word is tied to ancient Israel’s exile in Babylon, and to their return and their back to their homeland, to the place where they knew God was. To repent is to return to God, who is already there, waiting for us. God has already forgiven us, even when we have not forgiven ourselves.
Sometimes it is hard to forgive ourselves. Like that time you went into your mom’s jewelry box and took her new gold charm. Then you dug a hole near the lamp post and buried it like treasure so you could go back and find it later. Only when you went back to dig it up, you couldn’t find it. Hypothetically speaking, of course. Sometimes it is hard to forgive ourselves.
The New Testament Greek word for “repent” adds to the Hebrew meaning. It translates best as “To go beyond the mind that we have,” as Marcus Borg explains. “[We see] in a new way—a way shaped by God as known decisively in Jesus….[The] emphasis is not so much on contrition and sorrow and guilt…To repent means to turn, return to God and to go beyond the mind that we have and see things in a new way…It’s about change, not a pre-requisite for forgiveness.”
You may remember hearing these words said at the baptismal font, inviting us into this new life: In baptism our gracious heavenly Father frees us from sin and death by joining us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We said yes! We are set free from our wounds, and the shackles of our sin have been cut with big bolt cutters. Liberated from those things that wrestle us to the ground and hold us captive, we are free to turn to God and see ourselves with God’s eyes. We are not in competition to be loved by God, so we can shed our defensive ego, and our need for self-justification. In doing so, we are able to turn from ourselves to serve others, to lift them up, and to show them that they are loved, too.
Even this new life is hard for us because, as Luther observed, we are both saint and sinner at the same time. “The sin of which we are guilty is precisely the refusal of new life through our own attempts to remain in the saddle at all costs,” asserts one theologian. Who we let be in charge of our lives is a daily challenge. “…As Luther insists, “baptism remains with us in daily contrition and repentance and in daily rising to new life.” After confessing our sins to God, and to each other, the pastor speaks of forgiveness from God. In the name of Jesus Christ your sins are forgiven, and all things are made new. Sometimes we fail to hear the second part, “all things are made new.”
We profess that we believe in God’s forgiveness of sins, but I wonder. It seems to me that intellectually, we know that God forgives us. It’s our hearts that have a hard time with it. “If only I had not said that” haunts us as we replay that scene over and over again, adding, “I should have done this instead of that.” Our part in failed relationships seems to increase in our minds. If you are a parent, there is no end to reflecting on the times you fell short. If you happen to forget, your children will remind you. Let me count the ways.
In this Advent season, as we focus on waiting for Christ to come, and to come again, what does repentance look like? What is it that is interfering with opening up our whole heart to God, and to all of God’s creation? Where in our lives are the crooked ways that need to be made straight and the valley that needs to be lifted? Where are we focused, and how many degrees do we need to turn to see Christ? This is exactly where God meets we who are vulnerable. God comes to us, in our wilderness, bringing to us grace and mercy. Grace and mercy and forgiveness were there all along, but we fail to see them unless we turn around.
John the Baptizer comes, inviting us to prepare the way for the Messiah to come. John, who never made the top 7 of “Who’s Who,” was the one in whom God trusted to prepare the way for the Lord. In this season of waiting, you might hear God’s invitation through guests at the homeless shelter, the barista at Starbucks, or in the unabashed delight of a child. People who might seem insignificant are the ones God chooses, and if you listen closely, you will hear God say, “I love you.” Turn around. You will see the breaking in of God’s promise of new life.
~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin
Borg, Marcus. Speaking Christian. New York: Harper Collins, 1989. 158-159.
Forde, Gerhard O. Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life. Mifflintown, PA: Sigler Press, 1990. 85.
Stjerna, Kirsi. “The Sacrament of Holy Baptism and Confession.” By Heart: Conversations with Martin Luther’s Small Catechism. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017.
This is part of the third article of the Apostle’s Creed.