December 7, 2014
Second Sunday in Advent
Grace and Peace to you this morning. Grace and Peace.
The simplest and most difficult aspect of a faith in God that is shaped by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is summed up in one word: Forgiveness.
I know lots of people who make amazing claims about their faith, about their trust in God, about how good God has been to them, and I am not saying anything against any of them. But I have yet to find anyone who says that forgiveness is easy.
We could debate which is more difficult, forgiving someone else or forgiving ourselves. I do what is easy: feeling unforgiving, unforgiven, and unforgivable and having that feeling mess up whatever is happening next.
Up until this point, when God speaks, it is to pronounce judgment against the nations around Israel, and finally against Israel itself. So when Isaiah speaks a word to a people in exile, a people for whom hope is a limited resource, that God is telling the prophet to speak words of comfort and not of condemnation, we might hear these words for ourselves, but I wonder if we would hear them with any more openness than those in exile.
The phrase that always strikes me in this passage is:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
This statement makes me wonder, “Umm, Lord, if we have paid double, couldn’t you, maybe, I don’t know, have stopped the exile, say, halfway through, so we could pay just as much as we owed?” I do not think that accounting and bookkeeping is the point.
It got me to thinking about the power of shame and guilt. We have spoken before about the difficulty of carrying around anger, especially for those things where the person we are angry with has forgotten all about whatever made us angry. We hold on to this stuff that eats away at us and the person we blame just calmly goes about their life.
The same is true of guilt and shame. Long after a situation has been made right, how many of us carry guilt and shame around so that we serve our sentence over again and again?
Worse yet, what if one of us is being eaten away by anger and the other is eaten away by guilt, but we never deal with the situation. If it only messed up the relationship between the two people involved, that is already enough of a loss. But it messes up their other relationships as well. It starts to affect all their relationships and all the people around them.
Forgiveness is not the nice, kind, Sunday School answer that gets us a gold star. Forgiveness is the difficult work of healing our relationships with one another and with God so that we stop carrying around toxic and poisonous stuff into all the other areas of our lives.
Now, I am well aware of how stubborn I am. I think you know how stubborn I am. What I am also aware of is that I am not the only one here with a stubborn streak.
“Pastor, I cannot forgive them until they…”
“O God, if they would only…. Then I could forgive them.”
But we have to find some way of getting this stuff out of our hearts and out of our souls regardless of their behavior. If the state of our soul is dependent on the behavior of others around us, we are going to have a very difficult time of it, indeed.
What if it is so difficult to forgive that it would take an act of God? A friend of mine from seminary had an interesting background. He was headed towards the NFL when he blew out his knees in college. He went to law school instead, and was a professor at the law school University of Wisconsin in Madison when he started seminary.
He then went into working on reconciliation between violent offenders and victims. I cannot imagine the difficulty of this work. I imagine that having the build of a football player, the brain of a lawyer and the heart as big as Bruce’s would be necessary. And there are times when forgiveness just is not going to happen, not without a miracle.
But here is our hope and our good news. Around Easter we often look at the ending of the Gospel of Mark and wonder why it ends with the disciples running away and not telling anyone. Hardly seems like an ending at all, does it?
Maybe it is not meant to be an ending at all. How does the Gospel of Mark start?
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
What if Mark’s Gospel begins the good news, but it is not yet done? What if God’s work of reconciliation, shown most fully in Jesus, is not done yet and we are ourselves a part of Jesus’ work? What if we could take all that junk we carry around inside of us and say, “Okay, Lord, I am ready to admit I have carried this for twice as long as I ever should have,” and we hand it over, and we let it go?
Perhaps it would be like a new beginning, a fresh start, new life.
Perhaps it would help heal our soul, our family, our community.
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Even here. Even now. Even you and me.
Thanks be to God.