After all of that “fire and brimstone” in today’s gospel, you might enjoy the following lightheartedness.
- In a Perfect World a person would feel as good at 50 as she did at 17, and he would actually be as smart at 50 as he thought he was at 17.
- In a Perfect World you could give away a baby bed without soon after getting pregnant again.
- In a Perfect World pro baseball players would complain about school teachers receiving contracts worth millions of dollars.
- In a Perfect World potato chips might have calories, but if you ate them with dip, the calories would be neutralized.
- In a Perfect World every once in a while at least, a kid who always closed the door softly would be told, “Honey, go back and slam the door if you feel like it.”
Most of us would love a perfect world, or a world that is at least better than this one. The good news of our faith, and specifically in today’s readings, is that there is a better world coming—a perfect peaceful world. The Prophet Isaiah announced the coming of that world as part of his Messianic vision: “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse,” he writes, “from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
Isaiah goes on to describe how this child of David, this child of God, will judge or rule the world. Then he adds: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them…”
Isaiah is describing a perfect world of peace, justice, and harmony. But scriptures are clear that the time of universal peace, when God’s ways and purposes for humanity are manifest over all the Earth has not yet come, for the final gift that God will bestow comes when we are ready to receive it.
So how do we get ready for this world? How do we prepare to receive God’s gift?
The biblical answer is clear: we work and live our lives in such a way that we begin to sense it, partake of it, participate in it and spread it to others. And finally, it will fully come to pass when we accept another gift of God, the gift of repentance. Repentance: stopping where we are, turning around, acknowledging our need for God’s help, confessing our sinfulness, and then being able to start afresh, and feel great!
In The Essential Calvin and Hobbes, Calvin says to Hobbes, “I feel bad that I called Susie names and hurt her feelings. I’m sorry I did it”.
“Maybe you should apologize to her,” Hobbes suggests. Calvin ponders this for a moment and then replies, “I keep hoping there’s a less obvious solution.”
You laugh, but more often than not, we are much like Calvin. God has given us an obvious solution to one of our greatest problems—our warring hearts and minds. However, we’re often tempted to avoid the solution and seek something a little more obscure, complex, certainly at least something that makes less of a demand on us.
And then, along comes John the Baptist, and he gives us no wiggle room. He’s a figure out of an earlier age. You probably wouldn’t want him at one of your Christmas parties. He’s a disaster socially, with his camel hair and leather clothes and his matted hair. But maybe, if other people you invited knew he would be present, they might come to your party simply to witness the spectacle, given the current day reality show mentality.
Matthew tells us that all Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear John. I wonder why? Would you and I have gone? Attending might not have been “pc,” so instead we might have made sure that everyone knew we wouldn’t be caught dead going near the man, especially if a certain “New York Times” writer gave him a bad review.
However, if we had, I think we might have discovered that John had a profound gift—the same sort of gift that Jesus brought and was…a gift of cutting through the advertising jargon, the media hype, the superficial solutions to life, and simply telling people the truth. John’s message can be reduced to one word, “Repent.” Jesus’ message, in large measure, can be reduced to three words, “Repent and believe”. When Jesus or John said, “Repent” their listeners got the picture.
How people suffer emotionally, and make themselves physically ill when they stubbornly refuse to confess their real sins, ask God’s forgiveness, and repent. Repentance: the act of stopping what we are doing and turning around doing what is right. Whatever we have done or said, whatever is in our past, the spirit of evil will have a field day making sport of us and watching us squirm, if we don’t own up to it and ask God’s forgiveness.
I’m going to tell a story that I shared in the past. It’s actually from a children’s sermon. The idea is that whatever you have done or said, God was watching and saw the whole thing.
A little boy and his sister were visiting their grandparents on their farm. The boy was given a slingshot to play with in the woods. He practiced, but he could never hit the target. Getting a little discouraged, he headed back home for dinner, when he spotted Grandmother’s pet duck. Out of impulse, he let the slingshot fly, never thinking he could hit the duck but he hit the duck square in the head and killed it. He was shocked and grieved! In a panic, he hid the dead duck in the wood pile, but noticed that his sister was watching. She saw the whole thing but said nothing.
After lunch Grandmother said, “Sally, let’s wash the dishes.” But Sally said, “Grandmother, Jimmy told me he wanted to help in the kitchen.” Then she whispered to him, “Remember the duck?” Jimmy did the dishes.
Later that day, Grandfather asked if the children wanted to go fishing, and Grandmother said, “I’m sorry but I need Sally to help me make supper.”
Sally smiled and said, “Well, that’s all right because Jimmy told me he wanted to help.” She whispered again, “Remember the duck?” So Sally went fishing with Grandfather, and Jimmy stayed to help.
After several days of Jimmy’s doing both his chores and Sally’s, he finally couldn’t stand it any longer. He came to Grandmother, and sobbing, confessed that he had killed the duck. Grandmother gave him a hug and said, “Sweetheart, I know. You see, I was standing at the window and I saw what happened, but because I love you, I forgave you. I was just wondering how long you would let Sally make a slave of you.”
God wants you to know that he loves you and that you are forgiven. God has been grieving, watching you let the spirit of guilt make a slave of you. By the way, guilt is one of the most painful states in which we can live.
Listen again, as if for the first time, to one crying in the wilderness this Advent season to make straight the paths of your life, no matter how winding or circuitous they seem, no matter how complicated your relationships have become.
“What is sin,” as John refers to it? When you reduce sin to its lowest common denominator, sin is the straining or the breaking of relationship. So, when I confess that my relationship with God, or my relationship with my neighbor, is bad, or broken, or not all it can or should be, I am really talking about sin. These relationships are the key to understanding who we are. When we are less than we are called to be, the scriptures call that sin
We don’t talk about sin much anymore, except perhaps in Advent and Lent. But, the Doctrine of Sin, properly approached, is not simply old-fashioned prudery that seeks to deny us any fun…you can’t dance, play cards, have a drink…you know those old fundamentalist rules.
Rather, it’s a very profound insight into our human condition, the knowledge of which, when properly dealt with, is meant to set us free. Ultimately, this statement is hopeful, because God is not prepared to leave us in our messy human condition. God wants us to live into and enjoy God’s peace and to spread it to others. That is why God sent the prophets to Israel And, that is why God sent John to prepare the way for Jesus, and that is why God pours out the Holy Spirit upon us. God wants us to have and to live new lives as citizens of his Kingdom of peace.
So then, what is “repentance?” Repentance is a gift of God. It is the announcement is that we don’t have to go on forever repeating the same tired mistakes, crying the same bitter tears, creating the same chaos and dramas, falling into the same worn traps. Repentance means a break with past thinking and behavior, and a change in direction. It’s active, not passive. In other words, if we’re driving North on Route 87, and we want to arrive in Manhattan, we have to repent of our direction, or we won’t reach our destination.
Thinking about repenting, discussing it, creating a committee to study it, making excuses for it, and feeling sorry for ourselves, or caving in to victim mentality won’t change anything. Being sorry or regretful is, however, a preliminary first step. It’s the step of looking in the right direction, of knowing which way to turn.
But, something more is needed: another step that leads us to the second aspect of repentance.
Repentance is something we live out each day. Not by being sour, dour and mournful, but by seeking to do what God tells us to do, or being how God wants us to be. Repentant people are real people, not plaster saints or holier-than-thou caricatures of humanity. But we have to make the choice to accept God’s gift of repentance.
The coming Christmas season is a time of giving gifts. Imagine that a friend comes to your home and knocks on the door. You open the door and he or she is standing in the doorway with a beautifully gift-wrapped package. What’s the first thing you say? “For me?” The friend says, “No, it’s not for you, I always wander around your neighborhood with gift-wrapped packages. Of course it’s for you!”
So you take it and put it on a table, walk away and serve your guest tea and try to carry on the conversation. Finally you ask, “Should I open it?” “Of course not dumdum, I give you presents just so you can admire the wrapping paper!”
Herein lies the key: until we open a gift, it remains nothing but potential. Until we open it and fully receive it, it remains an unknown promise infinitely, but only a promise. John came to prepare the way for Jesus, the Prince of Peace. He came and offered a gift of God, a gift that enables us to enjoy communion with God and all humanity more fully—the gift of repentance.
Admitting our need for help, and believing that help is available and is ours for the taking can be a difficult move. But, doing so is the key to unlocking a future of inner and outer peace—the peace promised long ago by the prophet Isaiah, the peace for which John came to prepare people, the peace that Jesus brings even now to those who accept God’s gift, and the peace that he will bring fully to the whole world when each one of us in the world has made ready for his return. Amen.
*Portions adapted from sermon by The Rev. Richard Fairchild, Sermon & Sermon, Advent 2, Year A, 2004.