December 8, 2013
Second Sunday in Advent
This morning, both Isaiah 40 and the Gospel of Matthew proclaim the voice of one crying out in the wilderness (sung): “Prepare ye, the way of the Lord! Prepare ye, the way of the Lord!” Got it? Great. Well, there you have it – a sermon in a nutshell, ala Godspell. Yes, the shortest sermon, ever delivered! Top that, Phil. Just Kidding. We can’t end it there.
You know, in preparing for today, I struggled with connecting the Advent message of peace with John’s impassioned call to repentance. His passionate cry sounds almost like an indictment. And that’s not what we hear in Isaiah. We find words of comfort in Isaiah 40. And in Isaiah 11, it sounds almost like an impossible vision of world peace. We could focus on each passage and message and make sense of it. But together? Together, they just don’t seem to make sense. Well, this will be my feeble attempt to connect the dots and make some collective sense of it all.
I’ll start by focusing on John the Baptist. John calls us to repent. And he puts it in a way that “you better watch out”, otherwise we might “burn with unquenchable fire”. “Repent!” – It’s such an archaic word. “Repent!” – to change one’s mind for the better; to turn around. Let’s see, I believe my parents put it another way – “Straighten up!” “Straighten up and fly right!” Okay. Even this little Pollack can understand that message: Stop doing whatever it is that you’re doing that’s wrong. But we’re not just talking about “wrong”, as in illegal activity. We’re also talking about those things that are hurtful of others or ourselves. Yes, we have to include self-destructive behaviors – negative self-talk, substance or alcohol abuse, poor self-care in the forms of poor nutrition, sleep deprivation … we could create a very long list here. We need to recognize whatever “wrong” it is we are committing and stop it, taking a new path in life – one that helps prepare the way for God’s kingdom. Now, we could dwell on this aspect of John’s message. But I’m no prophet. So, I don’t like focusing on the negative, even if it means helping others straighten up. And I am certainly not one free of sin to be casting any stones here. So, while worthy of attention, focusing on this part of the message does nothing in my mind to move us closer to our Advent message of peace. So, let’s look at another facet of repentance.
Let’s look at repentance as “seeking forgiveness”. This seems like a logical step, beyond recognition of our wrongs. “Repent!”, John says. And our response is: ‘God have mercy.’ Sure, God knows us inside and out; knows our wrongs; knows our hearts. Still, if we are going to be in relationship with God, we need to express to God in prayer: ‘I’m sorry. Please forgive me.’ But it doesn’t end there. God created us as relational creatures – to be in relationship with God and with each other. So, we need to seek forgiveness not only from God, but also from those whom we have wronged. In the Jewish tradition, Yom Kippur, is the holiest of Holy days. It is the Day of Atonement. It is a day to reflect on one’s life, acknowledging one’s flaws and sins and to seek forgiveness from God AND those people who have been wronged. It’s simply not enough to seek forgiveness solely from God, but also from those we have hurt, in body, mind or spirit. And like John the Baptist tells us, we cannot rely on heritage. The Jews cannot claim Abraham as their father and expect amnesty, just as we cannot expect amnesty through Jesus. The Grace of God through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection does not provide us with a get out of jail free card. It doesn’t give us free license to abuse ourselves or one another. We need to set our hearts right with God and with one another. To say: “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” – goes a long way toward reconciliation with God and humanity.
It’s one thing to seek forgiveness. It’s quite another to offer forgiveness. And that is a gift not just to the recipient, but to ourselves as well. In fact, it is the latter for whom it is probably most important. When we fully and honestly forgive someone, we let go of any resentment or anger that we may have felt. We set our hearts free. Forgiveness, in its seeking and in its giving, is the key that moves us toward peace.
Nelson Mandela understood the power of forgiveness. As a free man, freed from 27 years of imprisonment, he was only fully free when he forgave his jailers. He concluded while still in prison that his jailers could take his freedom, take his comfort, take his physical well-being, and even take his life; they could take virtually everything from him, but they could not take his mind and his heart. Those he would have to give away and he was unwilling to do that. He maintained his integrity, with a loving and forgiving heart. Yes, in spite of 27 years of physical, mental and emotional abuse from his jailers, he forgave them. And to demonstrate a heart full of mercy, he invited his jailers to his presidential inauguration – not to rub their noses in it, but to extend his hand in fellowship. In his forgiveness Nelson Mandela freed himself from the bondage of anger, bitterness and hate, even while still in prison. It is that innate freedom in forgiveness that he taught South Africans, thereby offering them a path to reconciliation and peace.
There is a lesson in that for all of us. It is the lesson taught over 2000 years ago, by Jesus Christ. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Should we not do the same for those we love and care about? How is it that many of us go through life carrying grudges, against friends or family? Honestly, what’s the point? The person with whom we are so embittered, probably doesn’t even know moment to moment, day to day, or even year after year the resentment that we feel toward them. That person may not even know or has forgotten how they wronged us. Yet, we stew, raising our blood pressure, while they merrily go through life. Perhaps it is not another with whom we are angry. Perhaps we are angry with ourselves – for past mistakes or failures, for not living up to unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves. Regardless of the target of our anger, the anger is ours. We own it. And we carry it with us like an elephant on our backs, weighing us down and taking its toll mentally, emotionally and physically. It locks our hearts and throws away the key. Imprisoned by our own anger we are harming no one but ourselves.
John’s cry in the wilderness to repent is a cry to forgive, as much as it is a cry to seek forgiveness. Through forgiveness we open the door to our hearts and set ourselves free – free to live, free to laugh, free to love. What does it say in Corinthians?: “Faith, hope and love abide these three, but the greatest of these is love.” In love, Jesus – Emmanuel, God with us – dwelt among us, died for us, and rose from death for the forgiveness of all humanity. Let us forgive, as we are forgiven by the grace of Jesus Christ. It is his birth we anticipate this Advent season. Let us emulate the life of Christ, with hearts slow to anger, quick to forgive and full of love. Let us repent and prepare our hearts for the birth of the Christ-child. That is how we can create a world of peace – the peace that Isaiah envisioned so long ago. As I always told my students: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” I cannot control anyone but myself. It is up to me to say “I’m sorry.” It is up to me to say “I forgive you.” It is up to me to be an ambassador for peace.
(sung with congregation)
Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.
Let there be peace on earth a peace that was meant to be.
With God as our Father, brothers all are we,
let me walk with my brother in perfect harmony.
Let peace begin with me, let this be my moment now.
With every step I take let this be my solemn vow
to take each moment and live each moment
in peace eternally. Let there be peace on earth,
and let it begin with me.
Peace. Let it begin with me … with us … at home, in the work place, in the community. Let there be peace. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox…..They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain…”
By the grace of God, there will be peace. With the help of God, and repentant, forgiving hearts we can make it so.
Thanks be to God.