David Watson, priest and canon of the Church of England, wrote about his conversion experience in his autobiography You Are My God. This conversion experience began when his college chaplain, a priest named John, inquired about Watson’s faith. Watson writes:
“John began by asking if I felt any need of God. I couldn’t honestly remember feeling any need, apart from the impulsive cry when I was suffering from a hangover. That surely was enough. Perhaps in my more reflective moments I was unsure of the purpose of my life. ‘Is that what you mean by a need of God?’ I asked John. He explained that a sense of purpose is certainly included, but that our primary need of God exposes itself in our need of forgiveness. In countless ways we have broken God’s laws, we have gone our own way, we have done our own thing. That is why God is naturally unreal in the experience of us all, until something is done to change that. Surprisingly, I did not need much convincing about this. I was ashamed of some things in my life; I would not like the whole of my life exposed. Also, I could see logically that this was a possible explanation of my sense of God’s remoteness and unreality. If he did exist, and if I had turned my back on him, it followed that there would be a breakdown of communication. ‘Yes,’ I said after further discussion, ‘I’m prepared to admit that I have sinned and so need forgiveness.'”
During Advent we simultaneously anticipate the birth of the Messiah and his Second Coming at the end time. That’s why the scripture lessons for the four Sundays in Advent are devoted to the so-called four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell – also known as “the four last things anyone wants to hear about.” This Second Sunday of Advent, we are called to more clearly engage the subject of God’s judgment; we are challenged to realize that we have sinned and are in need of God’s forgiveness – that is what God’s judgment means to us in the here and now of this life. God’s judgment is his love and his truth. If we would hook into God’s love, we must walk through the door of repentance and forgiveness. It is only the assurance of God’s love that makes the step toward repentance, toward a turning around, possible. Judgment is also about truth. About the centrality of that truth to the health and well-being of the human spirit. Somehow for many of us truth became a luxury item rather than a basic necessity of survival. Scripturally, there’s no better way to get into this subject than to encounter John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is the great forerunner and preparer of Jesus. He emerges from the desert bearing a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is no surprise, for before his birth, John’s father, Zechariah, had prophesied, “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.”
Christians have adopted John the Baptist as one of their own. He is “Saint John the Baptist.” But, I think, it is important to remember who John was to the people who came out into the Judean desert to hear his message of repentance and forgiveness of sins. For those desert seekers, John was another prophet in a long and venerable line of prophetic voices sent to the descendants of Abraham. John’s ministry was “a continuation of salvation history, the tradition of God’s dealing with the covenant people.” The Old Testament prophets had repeatedly challenged Israel’s assumption that the God of Abraham, their God, could, should or would be limited by the needs of the nation or those who governed it. John’s prophetic voice announced the beginning of the final deconstruction of a god increasingly identified with nationalist and parochial interests of a particular group. His message, proclaimed to all, even to tax collectors and soldiers, heralded the coming of the One who would finally and forever disabuse human notions of ritual purity and social acceptability as guarantors of divine favor. John’s appearance in Luke’s gospel anticipates the universality of salvation made available in Jesus’ birth and his final deconstruction of Israel’s “tribal god.”
The Baptist’s message of the “wrath to come” sounds fearsome, because it is. It creates a moment of truth: namely, that all devices for maintaining an illusion of innocence must be abandoned. Innocence in this sense is not complimentary; it means “not yet wounded.” We have to abandon any illusions that we have not substituted our image of God for the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are all in some sense wounded and in need of forgiveness to salve our wounds. So often in talking about sin we focus attention on personal failures. John’s call to repentance also calls attention to what we have come to call structural or institutional sin. We don’t just ask forgiveness for our own sins but also for sins done on our behalf. John’s demand for truth and repentance clearly recognizes that actions are not without their consequences. That no one, no one, even the so-called chosen, can escape that fact.
Knowledge of God’s power to save is knowledge of God’s ability to rescue and set free and preserve. God’s power to save comes through the forgiveness of sins. The verb translated “to forgive” in New Testament Greek is aphiemi, meaning “to let go, to set free,” and it designated the restoration of a relationship between two parties which had been broken through some offense.
John the Baptist is not the Christ. He says so himself. But John prepares people for Christ; he points to Christ. John the Baptist stirs up awareness of the human need for forgiveness, the need to have what we have done and left undone “let go and set free,” as we turn, by grace, to God in repentance. Is this not in part a description of what our ministry as followers of Jesus Christ is meant to be: to constantly be open to our need for God, partly through the need to be forgiven and to forgive; and then to point, like John, to Christ, the One who finally and fully “sets free and lets go” the burden of our confessed evil?
It’s terribly important how we understand ourselves in relation to God, in the face of our sin and the evil we do and done on our behalf. God’s purpose is not to condemn us for the evil we do, but to change evil into opportunities for good. St. Paul said that the Law was given to multiply opportunities for us to sin in order to multiply opportunities for us to receive God’s loving forgiveness. Such is the logic-defying nature of God’s love. Unfortunately, we have almost all had our relationship to God damaged by those who condemn the sin of others in God’s name. So much so that the very words sin and guilt are avoided in the normal course of things. Indeed they ought to be avoided if all they do is instantly conjure up feelings of condemnation and worthlessness. Jesus taught that we are of infinite worth, supremely loved by God, regardless of what we have done in our lives. Most of us find that very hard to believe. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may not perish,” might not be defeated in life by the results of the evil we inevitably do, that we might not give up on life in the face of death, but rather find life – and indeed the hope of everlasting life. Unfortunately, too many evangelists stop at John 3:16 and don’t go on to the next verse: for “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
The word of God came to John in the desert. Advent is a time to look for “desert places”: the place of solitude, the place of true silence in which we can become fully awake to our sin and God’s forgiving grace which alone can heal it. How might we pattern our life after John the Baptist’s? Then we can come out of the isolation of our own desert and proclaim the message of forgiveness that we ourselves have experienced.
During our time of expectant waiting this Adventide we might spend time with our loving God in a more conscious way as we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord. There’s a prayer I use in some of my more serious times of solitude, and I’d like to share with you. It’s one that my dear friend, a Franciscan friar, a true man of God taught me, and it sums up what I’ve been saying here this morning.
It goes like this: O my God, you are here. O my God, we are here. You are where we are always, and always you love us. When we do good, with a love that brings you joy. When we do evil with a love, that brings you sorrow. But always you are where we are, and always you love us. We are your human creatures. Amen.
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