Lately, I have been listening to a new podcast hosted by the Lutheran minister, Nadia Bolz-Webber called The Confessional. Each episode of The Confessional features a guest who speaks with Nadia and reveals (to her and us) some of the worst things they have ever done. When I first heard about this podcast, before I had heard even a single episode, the traditionalist in me had his doubts. I imagined there might be something a little unseemly about taking the tenderness and intimacy of a one-on-one confession into the arena of public listening. The seal of the confessional is a grace that I cherish. The knowledge that whatever I disclose will be met by only three sets of ears—my confessor’s, mine, and God’s—is irreplaceable. I wondered if something about this kind of sacramental reconciliation would end up lost (even cheapened) over the airwaves and apps.
Yet as I began to listen to each of these brave, faithful people tell stories about their most notorious failures and deepest shames, my own suspicions began to disperse as something else became clear. Yes, these are stories about human failure, human weakness, and human insufficiency. At the same time (and perhaps more significantly), these are stories about God’s boundless generosity, forgiveness, and desire to be reconciled with his creatures.
In the midst of some of the heaviest stories of human fallenness I have ever heard, the Rising Dawn of a different reality grasped at me from within the darkness of each tale. By God’s grace, each of these guests to The Confessional was participating in the high calling of God’s purpose—not only in their personal lives, but in their walk through the world and its peoples.
The Annunciation scene, which we just heard from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, is a familiar one for us brothers here at SSJE. Day by day, morning and evening, we pray this scene together in a church dedicated to Mary herself. As we do so, we are reminded of Mary’s brave response to the angel Gabriel, “be it unto me according to your word.” In my own praying life, this scene is a source of great inspiration. At the same time, especially within my own seasons of darkness and unknowing, this scene can also cause me a bit of desolation. The more penitential colors of Advent have been particularly vivid for me these past three weeks, I wonder if they have been for you. The prophetic cry of the Advent prophets has called my own awareness into the wilderness of my own failures and insufficiencies. “Of course Mary responds that way,” I think to myself, “she was stronger than me, more faithful than me. How will I ever have the courage to really say ‘be it unto me according to your word,’ and mean it?”
I hear my question echoed in the pages of Second Samuel this morning. “The king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’” Like King David, I can be distracted by anxiety about my performance for God, about what I can do for God. Yet like the unexpected announcement of Gabriel to Mary, God’s reply to the anxious David is equally startling. After a list of great promises for David and his people, God invites David to change his perspective and realize that God’s glory is not shown by what human beings do for God, but by what God does for human beings: “Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”
The wilderness walk of Advent is drawing to its fulfilment in the great festival of Christmas, and as we hear these texts from Isaiah and Luke this morning, I am reminded of the awareness that broke upon me while listening to The Confessional. Each of these faithful people were giving me a peculiar gift as they told their stories and exposed their own insufficiencies to the light of day. While each different beyond measure, these stories shared a spiritual thread. No matter the content of their revelation, each in some way came face to face with their own need.
By dispersing the smokescreen of self-sufficiency and self-righteousness, each admitted that they couldn’t do this alone. Perhaps this is what drove those great throngs into the Judean wilderness to hear John the Baptist preach, to confess their sins, and to be baptized—not their awareness of their ability or their strength, but instead an awareness of their deep inability and neediness.
But of course, that was not the awareness that broke upon me while listening to The Confessional. The thing that caught me off guard while listening to these stories was the way God managed to take each one of these frail human beings, once they had admitted their need, and provide for them in a way that they could not. The way God took the content of their suffering and seemed to share a bit of his own Life to save his creatures in peril.
It is significant that, in just five days, after almost four weeks of stern readings from the prophets and the Revelation to John we should arrive at the miracle of Christmas. For in Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary we witness something almost scandalous. God has answered David’s desire to build God a house of cedar—David’s desire to do something for God—with an almost incomprehensible gift. The gift of God’s own self in Jesus—the revelation that God will provide more than we can ask or imagine for the working out of God’s reconciliation with us. A gift that promises that whatever shortcomings and failures we may need to confess, none of those things can keep God’s saving purpose from being fulfilled.
As Advent draws to a close, the knowledge of the miraculous gift imparted through the humble cooperation of Mary of Nazareth reminds me what seasons spent walking the way of repentance are really for. God does not need our repentance. Repentance is not something we do for God. Repentance is, in the end, more about making room to see what God has been doing and will do for us. For us, as for King David, God’s glory is not shown by what human beings do for God, but by what God does for human beings. For when we cooperate and make the often difficult journey of repentance, we at last turn to the One who alone has the power to heal and save us. He alone can give us grace, at last, to say ‘be it unto me according to you word.’
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
 2 Samuel 7:2
 2 Samuel 7:11
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