Turn, Turn, Turn

December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

Isaiah 40:1-11   Mark 1:1-8

 

Peace on earth and mercy mild

God and sinners reconciled

 

I’d like to begin this evening by letting you all in on a little secret. I know we’re still getting to know one another and that what I’m about to say is very, very personal and probably not really even socially acceptable, especially not at this time of year.

(But honestly that’s never stopped me from sharing something in a sermon before and I don’t see why it should stop me now.)

My secret is this: We are already 2 weeks into Advent. There are only 17 shopping days left between now and Christmas. I have a concert in which to sing, 4 more worship services for which to prepare, a pageant to oversee, 5 in-laws coming for the holiday, and pretty much all my shopping still left to do.

But for the first time, in a very long time, actually for the first time in as long as I can remember… I am not overwhelmed. I am not stressed to the breaking point. I am actually looking forward to Christmas. (Cue horrified gasp!)

Yeah…you see, I warned you it was bad. I mean how dare I say that out loud. No one can say that anymore – especially not at Christmas time when our already overfull schedules go into hyper-drive- and double especially if we are in the ministry? I sound like a total slacker, which I am not. In truth, I have never said anything even remotely like that before. Advent, for me, has honestly always been a bit of a nightmare.

I know that’s terrible to say, but it’s true.

In December’s past, every time I have looked at a clock, rather than see what time it was, all I could see was how little time I had left.

Every day felt like an episode of 24 – remember 24? – with a big Christmas bomb set to go off at the end if I failed to do everything that needed to get done. And honestly there was so much to do, so much I thought only I could do, that the pressure near about killed me.

Now, I knew deep down that something wasn’t right.

I knew deep down that something needed to give.

I knew deep down that something needed to change.

But it’s hard to see exactly what’s wrong – with your patterns, your life, your soul – when you are already trying so very hard to do everything right, when you are already trying so very hard to make everyone else happy, when you are already trying So. Very. Hard. Period.

Which is why I think our ancestors, in their great wisdom, posted John the Baptist – that truth telling, locust eating rogue – right smack dab in the middle of this road we call Advent. And, lest we good church going folk be tempted to skirt around him – you know, throw him under the bus in favor of a carol sing or a Christmas pageant – he appears in week 3 too.

There is no getting around John the Baptist or his message of repentance on our way to Christmas. He may not see us when we’re sleeping or know when we’re awake, but John knows that even the best of us are sometimes bad – not good – and he calls us on it for… goodness’ sake.

 

Mark wraps him in the mantel of the prophet Isaiah and then places him before us; honey the only sweet thing dripping from his mouth. John comes to us, year after year, offering us that peculiar comfort that can only come from telling the truth; a comfort that at first blush does not feel the least bit comforting at all.

I mean none of us wants to hear that we’re wrong, especially if we’ve worked so hard to be right. None of us wants to hear that we need to change, given how much we’ve already invested in becoming exactly who we are. And none of us wants to hear- given how hard we try to prove it to the contrary- just how mortal, sinful, corrupt, limited, mean, lazy, vain, venal, violent, or self-centered we can be.

 

Not all of us most of the time, but I dare say most of us at least some of the time.

(I won’t tell anybody if you won’t, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.)

 

It’s just a hard truth to hear because – the state of the world notwithstanding – I do think most of us really are trying to do our best; even those folks with whom you vehemently disagree.

 

I’m sure there are some bad apples out there – people who wake up determined to do as much damage as they can – but I think most us really are trying our best to discern what is right and live accordingly.

 

Only there comes a point – no matter how good or right you think you are – when you have to stop and look at where your life has brought you, what your actions have wrought, and ask: is this the life God wants for me and those around me? Are my actions – no matter how well intentioned – life giving for me, and those around me? Am I bringing more love and light and healing and hope into the world…or not?

 

Whether you are minister or a police officer, an activist or an artist, a politician or a parent – whatever you do, whoever you are – every now and then you need to stop and take stock. Are you living the life God created you to live, or have you lost your way? Is your life bearing fruit or have you lost your bearings?

 

Last fall, I came face to face with the reality that for all my hard work and good intentions, I was lost…desperately lost…and that flame inside me that is my call to ministry was flickering out. I thought it was God or circumstance driving me to work harder and harder and harder, but more than anything, I came to realize it was me: my pride, my ego, my fear of failure, my need to do everything and do it well.  And when I started to crumple under the strain, when my family began to suffer, and my body began to break down, I wanted someone to blame, anyone to blame, anyone but myself… because I may have been doing too much, but at least I was doing the right things.

 

And then God whispered in my ear, “Sarah, too much of a good thing is still too much. Lay it down, turn around, and come back to me before you lose yourself completely.”

 

Repenting for me meant acknowledging my limitations, admitting that I simply couldn’t do it anymore; allowing Jesus to be the savior of the world…not me. Repenting meant turning and walking away from the life and ministry I had built before the bitterness in my heart overwhelmed me and spilled out on to the people I loved.

 

I had to turn and walk away, and as humbling and heartbreaking as it was, I thank God that I did. I thank God because it was in that turning where God met me, picked me up, and carried me here… here to a new ministry where I am working hard, but thanks to a new vision and wonderful colleagues also living well.

 

I am at peace for the first Advent in as long as I can remember, because I know deep down that I am where God wants me to be internally as well as externally. It wasn’t easy getting here. There was some real wilderness in-between. But I had a choice, and as terrible and counterintuitive as it seemed in the moment, I believe I made the right one.

 

That choice is the very choice the prophets put before us all this morning. There are times in life when we can retreat from reality and maintain our illusions of control and competence, or we can choose instead to lay it all down and confess that despite our best efforts we are only human, no more constant than the grass.

 

We can double down on what we know deep down isn’t working, or we can turn around – which is what the word repentance literally means – turn around – stop trying to defend ourselves, stop pretending to be something we are not, and let God have the last word… not just with regard to who we are, but who we might yet be.

 

Now I know that word repentance is hard, but would it help to know that repentance is never the end of the story? I know it doesn’t have the greatest connotations, no doubt because we good religious people have abused it like so much else, but does it help to know that repentance is not, nor has it ever been, God’s endgame?

 

God doesn’t groove on your shame or your sorrow, your regret or your pain. God doesn’t need to make us feel bad about the things we‘ve done wrong so that God can feel good again, anymore than God would have us grovel before God would deign to forgive us.

 

The good news of the gospel is and will forever be that

you are forgiven, already.

The good news of the gospel is that you are loved, already.

 

Repentance is not the end… but the means. Repentance is what opens us up to the reality that God wants more for you and me than these hells we pave our way into.

Repentance is what enables us to turn around and see that God has not abandoned us, but is coming, always coming toward us, the better to help us up and out of the messes we make of our lives and the lives of those around us.

To paraphrase the priest Paul Fromberg: “(Ultimately) Jesus doesn’t care if you feel guilty. (What) Jesus wants (is for) you to change. Repentance isn’t simply about saying you are sorry. That’s an apology. That’s etiquette. Repentance is (revolutionary). Repentance is about rebirth.”

[1]

 

Repentance means you don’t have to live the way you’ve been living or be the person you’ve been being for one moment longer if it’s not working. I don’t care how good your intentions are. I don’t care how badly you’ve screwed it all up. God in Christ is making all things new and that “all” will always and forever include people like me and people like you.

 

A friend of mine told me about a priest who used to hear confessions in his church growing up. He was the most popular of the priests in this regard and the line outside his confessional was always at least 5 times as long as anyone else’s. People were willing to wait as long as need be because whenever this priest heard your confession he would always respond by saying, “Is that all?”

“Is that all?”

Friends take a look inside yourself right now. Not inside anyone else, because that’s their business. Take a look a look inside yourself and see what if anything needs to change.

“Is that all?”

Because if that’s all, than now is as good a time as any to lay it down and turn around, the better to see the one who is coming, always coming, coming with arms outstretched to welcome you and carry you home.

This Christmas can be different, because you can be different.

You can turn.

You can change.

Amen and Amen

[1] Paul Fromberg as quoted by Sara Miles in “City of God,” p 20