Sermon 12 6 15 Advent II
To have a prophetic voice… Does that mean someone who can tell the future? More often, in the Bible, it wasn’t about fortune-telling. It was about telling the truth.
Prophecy was a unique calling – a lonely business. Biblical prophets occasionally warned about or foretold the future, but mainly they told the truth – even when the truth was hard to hear. And it usually was. Many kings and queens wanted to hear only good news. They might keep hundreds of so-called “prophets” on retainer – to tell them what they wanted to hear. The true prophets didn’t fare quite so well. Elijah had to run and hide. The true prophets are the ones we remember. The sycophants, the yes-men – not so much. People rarely appreciate a truth teller. Most people don’t want to hear the unvarnished truth. Real prophets were not popular.
John the Baptist was a truth-teller. Zechariah, his father, was a priest in the Temple. He was married to Elizabeth, a relative of Mary’s. They were childless. For the people of Israel, being childless meant you were out of favor with God. It’s interesting how often God chose childless older women to bear auspicious children. Thus the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that Elizabeth was going to bear a son. “And you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. …even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. Remember how Elizabeth felt John leap for joy within her when Mary came to visit? Wow, that must have been an interesting pregnancy!
Because he doubted the angel’s promise, Zechariah was struck dumb until John was born. Ironic, isn’t it? That the father of “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness” lost his own voice for nine months. John was born to much celebration. When the time came to circumcise him, family friends asked Elizabeth what he was to be named. She told them that he was to be called John. They were very surprised because no one in Zechariah’s family was named John and you usually gave your child your own name or a family name. So they went to Zechariah to make sure what he wanted to name the boy, and he signed the name the Angel Gabriel gave him – John. Then, suddenly, Zechariah was able to speak! (I think one of the lessons taught here is to take angels seriously!) Zechariah’s song of praise and prophecy is the Canticle we read together today. “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”
One of the things that made prophets so unpopular was that they were always calling upon people to repent – to turn themselves around. But John linked repentance to salvation. To repent means more than to be sorry for what you’ve done. To repent means to correct the error, to change the effect of what you’ve done. John called people to a baptism of repentance – both a real and spiritual cleansing. Many modern-day Christians are turned off by the idea of repentance. Somehow we think that identifying our sins and repenting of them is a personal matter — and it is. But then we don’t understand the overall value to us and to all those around us.
In AA, the eighth step of the 12 step program is to “Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.” Part of the process is to become willing to make amends to everyone they have harmed. That could be a long list! Making such a list is a profound opportunity for reflection. It’s a big step in and of itself. And then to become willing to make amends to all of them – to become willing – the use of the word “become” makes it clear that this is a process – nothing instantaneous going on here. This process involves commitment.
And then, Step 9 is to “Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” Make direct amends. “Do not pass go!” “Go directly to ‘Make amends.’” No shortcuts.
This sounds so hard, and yet when I have spoken to people who have done this, they are so lightened – their hearts are lighter! Sometimes the things we need to atone for – our sins – are so heavy – they wear us down.
I am reminded of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Marley’s ghost is weighed down for eternity with chains and locks and money boxes attached to the chains. He says, ““I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I put it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” And then he asks Scrooge “Would you know the weight and length of the strong chain you bear yourself?” His sins were heavy. Just the way he lived his life weighed him down.
The Jewish holiday of Roshashanah and Yom Kippur is an extraordinary holiday of atonement and forgiveness. In preparation. the entire house is cleaned. There cannot be so much as a crumb of leavened bread anywhere! I have seen observant Jews in Chicago trooping over to a bridge in Skokie and dumping crumbs into the river.
First, people beg for forgiveness of their sins against God. Sins against God are violations of the Commandments. Next they beg for forgiveness of their sins against others. Sins against other people require forgiveness from the offended party in addition to forgiveness from God. The offender must ask for forgiveness from the offended. Now, here’s what’s interesting: With very few exceptions, the offended is obligated to forgive. Obligated to forgive! Think of it! It’s as though everything is cleaned up! They can’t live in bitterness and anger. I’ve often thought that Christianity could do with some Roshashana and Yom Kippur. To literally clean our souls.
To me, this is what Isaiah meant when he prophesied the coming of John and Jesus that is part of our Gospel reading from Luke for today. To prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare ourselves for Jesus, we make his path to our hearts straight by making our paths straight, by evening out the valleys and hills of our lives, by making what is crooked about us straight.
It’s not about taking blame or placing blame – it’s about moving forward. It’s about fixing ourselves, cleansing ourselves.
In other churches there is a rite to help people fix themselves. It’s called Confession.
In the Episcopal Church we call it the Rite of Reconciliation. It’s available to anyone at any time. However, there are certain times of the year that are considered most advantageous for the Rite of Reconciliation. One of them is Advent because we are preparing for the arrival of the human Jesus, the Messiah. The Rite is in the Book of Common Prayer on page 447. There are actually two versions of it. One is shorter and one is longer with more prayers. The reason we call it the Rite of Reconciliation is because sin comes between God and us. It messes us up and draws us away from God. When we’re sorry and ask for forgiveness, we are trying to come back into right relationship with God. We are making our path straight. We are trying to reconcile with God. This is a rite that is completely private and as we say – “Under the Stole.” Confidential. It’s important to remember that it’s not about shame – it’s about reconciliation.
This is really what John was doing with people – encouraging them to be ready for Jesus. And that is what we are asked to do. To work together to be ready for his birth as though it’s happening for the first time.
I have been to that part of the Jordan River where John baptized Jesus. It’s actually very narrow there, more of a creek. It’s a little touristy now. People can put on these very flimsy T-shirts and go into the river and be baptized. The T-shirts say something like “I was baptized in the Jordan River!” Kind of odd. Kind of tacky. But people were very excited to be baptized in the Jordan. What struck me is that the entire little area is marked as off limits. It’s a little tourist spot in the middle of a “No-Man’s Land” between Israel and Jordan. You can enter from either side, but you have to go back the way you came. You can’t cross the river – less than 10 feet in width. Men with guns guard it all. A beautiful place of reconciliation is surrounded and guarded by instruments of violence. Makes you think about how hard true repentance is, how hard truth-telling is.
Gerald May was a psychiatrist and theologian. He once said,
“Honesty before God requires the most fundamental risk of faith we can take: the risk that God is good, that God does love us unconditionally. It is in taking this risk that we rediscover our dignity. To bring the truth of ourselves, just as we are, to God, just as God is, is the most dignified thing (and I would say grace-filled thing) we can do in this life. “
As we prepare to welcome Jesus yet again, for the first time, may we become prophetic. May we become truth-tellers. May we rediscover our dignity in God’s unconditional love.
Sermon 12 6 15 Advent II