If someone came up to you and called you a sheep, I would imagine you’d take it as an insult rather than a compliment. In our day, referring to people as sheep or sheeple, is to call down a whole host of insulting imagery. The idea of sheep following blindly, obedient to a fault, unable to think or act for themselves, is hardly suited to our society’s notions of informed decision making, questioning of authority, and devotion to personal autonomy. But neither of these ways of being in their exaggerated forms are appropriate for the people of God.
It’s true that sheep are popularly considered rather stupid animals. Perhaps it’s not so much that they’re stupid but that they get so fixated on one thing that they need a bit of prodding to move them along. Corporately, sheep will graze a pasture all the way down to the roots, destroying the very grass they depend on, and so the shepherd must constantly move the flock from one pasture to another in order to be able to return again when the grass is renewed. Individually, a sheep may wander from the flock because of a tempting stream, or the promise of greener grass on the other side. But alone, sheep are helpless against predators, liable to get tangled in the bushes they seem so attracted to, and even if they do manage to survive for a while, without shearing, their fleece will eventually weigh them down so much that it will almost certainly lead to disease and death.
I saw it strangely as if for the first time. I was on the Longfellow Bridge connecting Cambridge to Boston. I usually go over the bridge on the Red Line, the subway, or over another bridge by car. As I stood on the Longfellow Bridge and looked straight ahead, I saw Boston anew. I saw Beacon Hill as a hill not going underneath on the Red Line or sideways. My usual patterns by subway and by car gave me a limited perspective of location, of home. Standing on that bridge, what I thought I knew, now I see differently.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
“Does this song resonate with you?” my friend asked. I took a listen and said “No, I don’t like it.” I listened again. “No, it’s more than that. I’m uncomfortable by it.” I listened again. “Oh, now I know. I don’t like it because it rings true. That song, it embarrasses me, because those words are my life, that’s what I struggle with, that’s what I’m in need of. That song shows my sin. The song also encourages me with the truth of how I’m loved and can love instead of than the distortions and shame I get wrapped up in.”[i]
Sometimes we are quite aware of our bad habits, what we have done wrong, and what we’ve neglected to do. We are also often blind, having covered up, dressed up, renamed, ignored and simply stayed put in patterns that limit what we see.
John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John came preparing the way. Prophets don’t just say: “Repent.” They reveal our sin. They may sing it back to us, making us uncomfortable, helping us remember what we’ve covered up or forgotten. They might bring us out on a bridge so we can see the hill right in front of us.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of his novels set in Narnia, C.S. Lewis tells the story of Eustace, a boy who in his greed turned into a dragon and who limped because of a bracelet that dug into his leg. Aslan the Lion led Eustace in his pain to a beautiful garden and a well with clear water. Eustace wanted to bathe in the water to ease the pain. Aslan said he must undress first. Eustace scratched his scaly skin off, but then saw there was another layer of dragon skin. He scratched two more layers off, but another remained. Then Aslan said: “You will have to let me undress you.”[ii]
Retelling the event later to a friend, Eustace said, “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know—if you’ve ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy-oh but it is such fun to see it coming away. …”[iii]
“Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt—and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”[iv]
Forgiveness is like God pulling beastly dragon skin off. We can’t do it ourselves. Cleansing sin is intense and hurts at first. It is like a refiner’s hot fire or a fuller’s soap that removes dirt and oil from wool. God goes “going deep to the heart” to relieve, save, and heal. God both forgives by removing, unbinding from what confines and by binding up, an inner healing, where wet with grace we remember ourselves as beloved children.
Dear friends, what change in pattern or perspective prompts you to see differently?
How do you hear the pain of your own heart? What words, music, image, person reflects it back to you?
What is your own story, your own experience, of being forgiven? What is the invitation now?
Our repentance is always in response to God. Seeing the obstacle, hearing the pain, and whatever desire we have to confess comes from God. That is God already at work in you, preparing, sending messengers with saving invitations.
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh [yes, all flesh] shall see the salvation of God.”
[i] Sleeping at Last, wrote songs about the nine Enneagram types and unpacks each in a podcast with Chris Huertz. The Enneagram is a valuable tool for self-awareness and growth. Unlike personality profiles based on strengths, each type has patterns of disintegration as well as integration.
[ii] C. S. Lewis (1952) The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’. New York, NY: The MacMillan Company, 88-90.
[iii] Lewis, 90
[iv] Lewis, 90-91
All of us have secrets: secret thoughts, secret feelings, secret fears, hopes and desires. All of us know more about ourselves than we care to share with others. We allow others to think we have pure hearts, but we know that we harbor impure thoughts. We hope others will notice how unselfish we are, yet we know that selfishness still resides in us. We want people to see us as strong and courageous, but we know that often we are weak and afraid.
We live with secrets, all of us. We’re sometimes shocked when we learn something about a person that we never would have guessed, something that had been hidden from us. But the truth is that we will never fully know even the closest of our friends and companions. We are mysteries to each other, like icebergs of which we can see only the tip. And we are mysteries to ourselves. We will never fully understand why we think and act in the ways we do. Only God knows the secrets of our hearts.
Jesus often exposed the secrets of others. He perceived the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He discerned the true motives of the crowds that followed him. He saw into the hearts of his disciples. He knows our secrets. He knows that what we do on the outside does not always match up with what is going on within us. We may appear to be seeking God and trying to do what is right, and yet inwardly we are preoccupied with the impression we are making on other people. We may give the appearance of serving God, but it may not actually be God’s approval that we are seeking, or God’s purposes that we are trying to advance.
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.
Today is Shrove Tuesday. You probably also know it as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. The fact that these two names can apply to the same day might surprise you. Shrove Tuesday comes from the verb, “to shrive,” that is, to confess. The weeks immediately preceding Lent, known historically as Shrovetide, were a time for the faithful to recollect, to soberly recall their sins, to confess those sins, and to receive absolution, all in preparation for the penitence of Lent. Fat Tuesday, on the other hand, calls to mind rich food and drink; we can think of pancakes or Carnival or a more general disposition toward partying hard. These two ideas seem to go together like water and oil. But to understand why they’re linked, it’s helpful to think back to where we’ve been in this past liturgical season. The day of Epiphany, and the weeks that follow, are full of revelation and celebration. The light of the star over Bethlehem, the Presentation of the infant Jesus to the Temple, Jesus turning water into wine, and just this Sunday, Christ’s Transfiguration. “In your light we see light,” the psalmist writes, and indeed, these weeks of light offer revelation and celebration to the world.
But maybe more evocative of this time between Epiphany and Lent than any other holy day is the Baptism of Christ, by John in the Jordan River. There are several reasons why. Perhaps most clearly, it is Christ’s Baptism that immediately precedes his 40-day fast in the wilderness. But more than that, as Jesus recounts in today’s Gospel lesson, the faithful came to the river and received the baptism of John, that is, a baptism of repentance, and in doing so, came to understand the justice of God, and received it with praise. They entered into repentance and found the joy of the kingdom of Heaven, the joy of Christ. They went in following John, the strenuous fasting prophet, and came out with the understanding that this sober-minded repentance pointed toward Jesus, the one who comes eating and drinking, celebrating with his friends as a bridegroom celebrates with his wedding guests.
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.