Advent II: December 9, 2018
“He, John the Baptist, went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There may be no more loaded sentence in all of Scripture, theologically loaded that is. Repentance, forgiveness of sins, such themes have vast connections and import on how we understand our and the world’s salvation history in Jesus. They are words of enormous complexity pointing to ways of thinking that are no longer in the common vocabulary.
Try putting the word “sin” into your smartphone. In my voice recognition software the word is not recognized. It keeps trying to write the word “send.” What the reading from Luke is inviting us to see, however, is that the Advent saint par excellence, John the Baptist, is calling us to something that is essential for our own soul’s health.
I saw an article in a newspaper, the headline of which said, “Human sin creates problems.” Really? Is that news, some kind of new awareness that has come along? Gosh, human sin creates problems. Well I’ll be! Of course human sin creates problems. As we just recalled the bitterness of war in our annual remembrance of Pearl Harbor, or even as we observe the present ongoing threats to the human family around the globe, it doesn’t take a lot to understand the consequences of some of our behavior on this planet. What are the root causes of war? Human sin (all sides by the way). What are the root causes of racism? Human sin. What is the root cause of lying? Human sin. The abuse of power; the drive for more and more with never enough; poverty; not tending to our life of prayer and going deep in our call to discipleship; any unwillingness to reach across the divides we’ve created to embrace our neighbor? All of it comes from human sin.
You get the picture. The Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer defines sin as, “Seeking our own will instead of the will of God.” The result is that it ends up, again from the Catechism, “distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.” Sin is rebellion against God. It is the abuse of God’s good gifts to us offered by God in extravagant love. That’s what John the Baptist is addressing. His ancient proclamation is a challenge to how God’s people continually miss the mark of God’s great vision of justice and hope for all people and the responsibility of God’s people to participate with God in the building of the New Creation. When we push God to the periphery of life faith becomes trivialized into merely whether or not one smokes or drinks or dances, and gets reduced to a sub-Christian level of a pagan moralism of being good or bad, with God nothing more than a kind of heavenly Santa. The result is that God becomes irrelevant to how we do business in our families, work, or even politics and our engagement with the world.
The vision set forth today is to “Prepare the Way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Every valley is to be filled, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked straight, the rough ways made smooth. We are given a vision of God’s grand excavation of the human condition. Nothing is left the same as God is about creating a highway with the removal of every conceivable obstacle for the saving arrival of God among us and in us. We see it perfectly in the One whose birth we celebrate in a couple of weeks.
The scene is set for us by Luke in the specific geo-political circumstance of his day, that is, the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate was governor, Herod was ruler of Galilee, his brother Philip was ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias was ruler of Abilene, and during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The point Luke is making is that all discipleship happens in the religious and political context of one’s time in history and it is those principalities and powers we are to be confronting. Those of us who long for a world of fairness, compassion, kindness and justice, are drawn to see that John the Baptist’s prophetic voice exposes the nonsense that keeps us from making the Reign of God real on this earth. The promise is that God’s grace, working in us, can break through impasses of all kinds.
We prayed in the Collect this morning that, “we would heed the warnings of the prophets,” bold voices speaking truth to power such as John the Baptist. And yes, he too was dismissed, even silenced, by the powers of his day. Yet we know from the biblical witness that he was angered by the waste of it, the sad senselessness, the stubborn unseeing willfulness of a people who mouthed God with their lips, going through all the actions and rituals, but neglecting the radical discipline and obedience of God. So it is, in his context and now in ours, that a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and for us to find a way to walk in a whole new direction, incarnating the truth of God in our day.
The Baptist is pointing of course to Jesus, the One coming. We repent so as not to cut off ourselves or anyone else from the One who loves us most completely and the baptismal promise that we belong to God forever. That includes right now. Prepare. Be ready. Make the way smooth for God and each other. Turn in a new direction. Be loved and love with wild abandon. Yes, human sin creates problems. But we follow the One born in Bethlehem who has conquered it all for everyone in the hope that “all flesh,” not just certain ones we think are worthy, “shall see the salvation of God.”
The gift is that we are set free for God and one another. Perhaps you can take great comfort in St. Paul’s prayer of joy for the people in Philippi: “…that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
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Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.