Shopping these days feels like sensory overload. We’re bombarded with messages: Your home can be the best with these trees, ornaments, garlands, and nicknacks. Here’s the present for you. Get ready—Christmas is coming! December and year round, our culture tells us to look good and to have the right stuff. That what we have and how we look determines who we are.
We want to have our living spaces in order before anyone comes over. Don’t drop by because it—and I—might not be together. This is hard for me. I have always strived to keep my rooms organized with my loose ends and junk nicely hidden under the bed, in the closet, or under carefully draped fabric.
While it may not be an orderly space, what’s particularly important to your presenting image? We’re taught to consider what we wear, the stuff we own, the people we know, the places we’ve been, and what we have done. We consider what we let others see and for what they don’t see. Get ready—someone is looking at us!
In our Gospel text, someone is coming. God comes to John in the wilderness: not a fun place out in nature, but a harsh land where few people go. John looks odd, dressed in camel’s hair eating locusts and honey as Matthew and Mark tell us. An odd man in an odd place, and lots of people came from all around the region. John is not fancy nor fashionable, but many people listen and do what he invites. John is not the awaited guest; he points to Jesus. Get ready—God is coming!
I can still remember as a young boy watching Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I remember being awe-struck by the amazing miracles depicted on screen, especially the parting of the Red Sea, even with 1956 special effects. But what I also remember is wondering, why ten? Why ten commandments as opposed to, say, 8, 12, or 15? How many do we really need? And for that matter, why have any at all?
Well, I don’t know if this answers the question, but we humans do seem mightily attracted to lists of all kinds, especially numbered ones. Marketing research has even shown that you’re more likely to click on an article or a video online if the headline references a numbered list. “Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight Fast,” “6 Cutest Animals on Earth,” “5 New Theories for Game of Thrones,” etc. And then besides their ability to peak our curiosity, a numbered list can serve as a practical way of remembering something.
So probably for both these reasons, numbered lists are very popular in most faith traditions.
For our part, we begin with the ten commandments, although, as I found out quite a while after watching Charlton Heston, it could depend on who’s doing the counting. The coveting commandments, for example, are most often counted as one, but Lutherans single out the one about your neighbor’s house, while Catholics single out the one about your neighbor’s wife. And besides different ways of numbering them, we could easily decide to add a few more commandments that seem particularly relevant. I mean, if we’re going into enough detail to mention coveting our neighbor’s ox or donkey, why not include some other specific, and maybe even more helpful prohibitions.
Sometimes the message we most need to hear is the one we least want to receive. When such a message arrives, the urge can be quite strong to either fight with – or flee from – the messenger.
Maybe the messenger was your brilliant, beloved professor. Rather than offer your work the praise and affirmation you did not need, she articulated a challenging and pointed critique that she knew you could handle. In the end, this forced you to see things from a fresh perspective and inspired a more mature artistic vision. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was the time your best friend sat you down and said some things that left your heart and your ego badly bruised. In the days, weeks, or years that followed, that conversation proved to be medicine for your soul and a catalyst for new self-awareness. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was a spiritual director who gently pushed you when you were stuck in some existential swamp by persistently asking hard questions. With time, the Holy Spirit used those questions, unearthing insights that ushered in a new era in your relationship with God. But in the moment you thought, “Excuse me?”
…Create in me a contrite heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit…
The gradual psalm we prayed together moments ago, Psalm 51, is the same psalm we prayed aloud in the Ash Wednesday liturgy as we began the season of Lent: “Create in me a contrite heart, O God…”[i] The English word, “contrite,” comes from the Latin, contrītus, which means “thoroughly crushed.” The energy around the word “contrite” is not a prayer that our heart be broken. It’s already happened. Contrition is a state you realize: “I’m just crushed.” If you’ve ever said that or felt that – “I’m just crushed.” – because of something sad or bad that has happened in your life, you will understand the essence of contrition. It’s just that contrition is feeling crushed from the inside out. You are not just the victim; you are also the culprit. Contrition is the dawning of regret or remorse about something you know to be wrong in your life.
There’s a word that shows up in this Gospel lesson appointed for today; the word shows up continually in the Scriptures and in the vocabulary of the church: repent. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine. The English word translated as “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia”: a preposition “meta (after) and “noia” (to think or observe). “Metanoia” – repentance – is something we conclude in hindsight where we realize we had it wrong: something we have done or left undone, said or left unsaid that was wrong. Maybe a conclusion or a judgment call about something or someone which we now see wasn’t right. It may be a whole pattern of actions, brazenly in the open or in the secrecy of darkness that may have snowballed out of control, and it’s wrong. It’s got to stop; we can see it, sadly. And so that’s the other piece about repentance. Repentance isn’t just wisdom gleaned from experience; repentance is regret gleaned from sorrow. We cannot go on, we simply cannot live with ourselves that way any longer. Repentance is hindsight teeming with regret, enough so to fuel a change in life. Repentance is both better and worse than you might imagine.
If any of you were present at the Red Sox’ victory parade in Boston yesterday, you may have some sympathy for Zaccheus, the undersized tax collector who scrambled up a tree to catch a glimpse of a local celebrity as he passed by. It was a bold move, one which would have invited the ridicule of others, but Zaccheus, I think, was used to the ridicule of others. As a chief tax collector, Zaccheus was implicated in the corrupt and oppressive rule of the Romans over the Jews. He was a man on the margins of society, despised by his fellow-Jews and used by the Romans. But some strong desire – perhaps the fruit of his own unhappiness – compels him to look for Jesus, about whom he had undoubtedly heard so much. He climbs a tree to see Jesus, but is surprised when Jesus sees him, and invites him to come down and share a meal with him, an act of generosity that upsets the crowd. “All that saw it began to grumble, and said, ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner’” (vs.7). The result of the meeting, however, is a dramatic conversion, in which Zaccheus promises to give half of his worldly goods to the poor, and to make restitution to all those whom he has cheated.
Pause for a moment to consider your own response. “Do people who suffer deserve to suffer? Are the bad things that happen to us our fault? Is there a connection between suffering and sin? Is God punishing us when we suffer?”
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent. This day marks the beginning of a journey we will make together, a journey towards Jerusalem where we will meet the Lord in his Passion and Resurrection. This is a time for prayer and for fasting, a time for denying the false self and embracing the true self God intends us to become, a time for drawing near to God in the intimacy of love.
Whether it was his unusual appearance (Mark tells us he “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey”- Mk 1:6) or whether it was his extraordinary boldness and audacity (“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”- Lk 3:7), John the Baptist was an effective messenger. We read that “crowds” of people flocked to hear him (cf. Mk 1:5). Convicted by his words, they asked what they could do to be saved.