Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral at 8 am on Sunday, December 6, 2015“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
“We live in a world that permits everything and forgives nothing.”
My friend Becca Stevens said that to me once, and it’s stuck with me every since. Turns out she was quoting a Roman Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
“We live in a world that permits everything and forgives nothing.”
It’s true, I think, on both counts. Our society is becoming more and more permissive – and we can argue whether or not that is a good thing. Frankly, it’s probably a lot of both. But it’s the second piece of that quote that truly resonates with me.
We live in a world that forgives nothing.
We live in a world that is increasingly merciless. Where we get hammered for every mistake or wrong word or sin of omission or commission. We certainly see it in the political sphere where a slip of the tongue can end a career and where candidates are not allowed to evolve in their opinions or, God forbid, even change their minds lest they be called flip floppers and panderers, a symptom of a near-total breakdown in trust.
But it’s not just there. Increasingly most everyone I know is more and more afraid not so much to make a mistake but to have their mistakes discovered. The mantra of our society seems to be “Do whatever you want … just don’t get caught.... Because if you get caught, we will bury you!”
And so we live in a country where half of married women and 60% of married men will have an extramarital affair in their lifetimes … and yet we are brutally unforgiving when one comes to light – particularly to women.
We live in a country where 64% of men view pornography online at least monthly and pornography makes up about a third of all global internet traffic, yet instead of asking how we can help with an addiction, we cast out as a perverted pariah any man who is discovered with it on his computer.
There are similar statistics for other destructive behaviors. And our mercilessness has devastating effects. Because we live in a world that forgives nothing and that makes almost no allowance for human fragility, our own sin and brokenness is consistently driven into closets and underground in fear.
And that not only sends us into death spirals of shame, it cuts us off from resources and communities that can help us. It keeps in the darkness what only the light can heal.
It is into this merciless world that John the Baptist cries this second Sunday of Advent. And his cry is at once terrifying and liberating. He is proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
What John is inviting the people to. What John is inviting us into as an act of preparation for Christ in our lives flies in the face of this world that permits everything and forgives nothing. Because what he is inviting us into is a radical change in how we approach our own sinfulness.
John is inviting us to come out of the closet as sinners.
Baptism is a communal public act. So when John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, John is inviting us to publicly own our sins and admit our mistakes, to proclaim publicly all those places where we have fallen and continue to fall short, to stand up and say to the world. “Hey everybody – we screwed up.”
But it’s more than that. It’s more than just “Hey everybody – we screwed up.” It’s “Hey everybody – we screwed up and we don’t want to do this anymore. And so we need help.” And yes, the first step is acknowledging we have a problem.
Repentance is about radical change of life. It is about recognizing that of course we fall short, of course we make mistakes. And that when we keep that sin hidden in the darkness it only grows in power.
But when we bring those mistakes, when we bring our sin and brokenness out of the darkness into the light, it doesn’t need to hold us hostage anymore and its power fades. And we don’t need to be imprisoned by the fear of an unforgiving and merciless world discovering our shortcomings and instead we can accept each other’s help and healing. We can form relationships of support and accountability to live new and different lives. We can say commit to something different together with one loud voice saying “We will, with God’s help.”
That is what a baptism of repentance is. It is coming together in Christ’s name and just being dead honest with each other about where we have screwed up and where we are screwing up, affirming that doing wrong doesn’t make us bad, unworthy and unlovable people, and supporting each other in leading a new life.
And that means it is also about forgiveness. It is about trusting that we are made in God’s image and that each of us is beautiful and good and that we need never, never, ever fear losing that, never fear losing our goodness, fear losing the incredible love God has for us. And that yes, we mess up in ways large and small. We make the same mistakes over and over again … and then we also find brand new and incredibly creative mistakes to make. We make mistakes because we are human and though we are in the image of God, we simply do not have the perfection of God.
And in these mistakes, in our sins, if we can own them and together commit to a new life, we can trust that we actually are forgiven. That in this merciless world that permits everything and forgives nothing, there actually is mercy and forgiveness out there for each and all of us.
And that we don’t need to be ashamed.
And we don’t need to hide.
And we actually can be free.
John’s invitation indeed is both liberating and terrifying. It’s liberating because we all long to be free of the burden of carrying our sin in silence. We all long to be free of praying that nobody find out what we have been trying so hard to conceal. We all long to be rid of the voice that says “Oh, if only they knew, you wouldn’t be loved … you wouldn’t even be liked.”
We long to trust in the truth of forgiveness – but our experience of the world is so powerful, we are terrified to try. We are terrified that if we reveal even a little we will be cast out forever. We are terrified that even though God might be forgiving our fellow human beings seem far less likely to be.
We are terrified because we have been burned before and we don’t want to be burned again.
John’s voice crying in the wilderness is one that will take great courage for us to follow. It will take us having the courage to believe in the midst of a world that permits everything and forgives nothing that we can be honest about who we are. That we can take off the masks and tear down the facades. That we can confess our sins and find instead of the wagging finger of judgment the loving embrace of Christ, helping us to overcome our sin and together to lead a new and better life.
Becoming this community of forgiveness will not happen in a grand gesture. It will not happen with us all suddenly pouring down to the riverside for some giant mass conversion. It will happen one encounter at a time as we speak the truth to one another with trembling voice. As we risk to trust one another to hold us in compassion and mercy instead of condemnation and judgment. As we inspire each other with the courage of our own truth telling and give each other permission to do the same.
This second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist invites us to come out of the closet as sinners. To say with one voice “Yes – we screwed up and we keep on doing it.” To trust that despite all the evidence of our lives to the contrary that there is love and forgiveness out there for us all. Amen.