December 05, 2021
A sermon preached by Rev. Will Ed Green for Foundry United Methodist Church
Sunday, December 5th, 2021
What would you do if you were you were really free? Free from things that trip
you up, habits and attitudes that keep you from really living life fully? Free from guilt
and shame that keeps you rooted in past wrongs and old regrets? Free from believing
something you’ve done makes you less worthy of God’s love or capable of doing of
God’s kin-dom work?
On this second Sunday of Advent, John’s good tidings of God’s forgiveness come to us from an unexpected place. Not halls of earthly power where past wrongs are adjudicated by corrupt court systems. Not pulpits of religious power where divisions between right and wrong and welcome and unwelcome are laid down. No, God’s word comes from to John in what the Scripture calls ‘eramos’ the deserted places, the wilderness. Places which represented vulnerability and risk, which existed outside the realms of what was tame, safe, or familiar. These are good tidings find us in places we don’t expect to find them.
Once invited to the wilderness we’re called to us to ‘metanoia,’ or to change our minds, the word translated here as repentance—and in the verses proceeding the ones read today—doesn’t mince any words in demanding it. This isn’t a simple sojourn for a quiet picnic in the woods. It is a spiritual experience which invites intentional examination, one in which things that limit our perception and insulate us from truth are stripped away. We’re called to confront the truth about who we are. The truth about how we live. The truth about how both of these reflect—or do not—the values we profess. Now. Let me pause lest you think I’m going to go all “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God” you here. Centuries of bad theology have left us associating repentance with street-corner preachers proclaiming our impending doom and destruction. But Luke’s ‘metanoia’ isn’t about shame, and it’s certainly not about damnation. It is a free gift of
God’s grace—the kind John Wesley called ‘justifying grace’—that invites us to confront and honestly address the spiritual and emotional baggage that weights us down in life so that we can we can move more freely in our relationship with God and with others. These good tidings aren’t just about confrontation, they are the promise of transformation.
John’s baptism of repentance is the first step on a journey of ‘afesis,’ the word translated as forgiveness. It literally means ‘a release from bondage, a letting go of the former things as if they’d never happened at all.’ If these are good tidings of confrontation, they are also good tidings of invitation. An invitation to freedom from anything that prevents us from receiving the hope of God’s love and our call to be that hope made alive for others in the world.
Luke echoes the ancient words of the prophets Isaiah and Malachi—each of whom themselves wrote from wilderness places at wilderness moments in the lives of God’s people—offering hope that our present realities and possible futures are not bound to, or by, our previous mistakes. Even in the wildernesses of our sin and brokenness, where our lives are full of trip hazards like regret and shame and constant detours caused by habits and ways of thinking we know we need to change, God comes to be with us. Helps us face, without fear or shame, the fact that we don’t always get it right. That we’re fallible. That we fudge up.
And then, get this! God helps us clear up that clutter that’s clogged our paths. Grants us grace to map out a new way, to change our minds about the directions we’ve been journeying and sets us on a new path where we are free to live more freely and fully in the light of God’s love. These are good tidings of freedom and hope.
The question is, I suppose, whether or not we’re really ready to receive them. I grew up in a family system where we were really good at apologizing for every little transgression. Quick to say I’m sorry, in no small part I’m sure, lest someone hold our error against us, but also in the firm belief something fundamental about who we were was broken.
But forgiveness, the kind we receive today, turns this relational economy on its head.In a world where we’re pre-conditioned to keep score, where Santa’s making a list of who’s naughty and who’s nice, we learn quickly how to define ourselves by the worst we’re capable of. God’s promise of, as the old hymn puts it “grace that is greater than all our sin,” means that we loose a vital part of how we’re taught to judge ourselves and others in the world. It’s easy to say I’m sorry. And it can be so much harder to believe it. This week I returned to my long-time spiritual companion Henri Nouwen for insight into what good tidings the word ‘forgiveness’ might hold. He points out that the real work of forgiveness begins only when we first allow ourselves to be forgiven. “It is very hard to say,” he writes,“Without your forgiveness I am still bound to what happened between us. Only you can set me free.” He goes on, “That requires not only a confession that we have hurt somebody but also the humility to acknowledge our dependency on others.”
I remember a Christmas some 20 years ago when my siblings and I all got chocolate malt balls in our stockings. Midway through the afternoon we realized my younger brother was missing…along with all the chocolate balls. So we began to frantically search the house not really clear which one we wanted to find more. Eventually we found them both together, my brothers feet sticking out from underneath his bed and, when we pulled him out tinfoil and chocolate covering his face as he frantically shoved every piece of candy he could grab into his mouth. My mother, ever ready to teach us a lesson, invited us all into the living room. After a stern talking to about not taking other peoples things she told my brother that we were going to forgive him once he apologized, and it would be like it never happened. Immediately he burst into tears, and when she calmed him enough to speak, he told her he didn’t want to be forgiven. If we for gave him, that meant he'd have to forgive us someday too.
I think of him there now, face still glittering with foil and tears running down his cheeks, befuddled at the idea that we weren’t going to hold this moment over his head— except for the occasional sermon illustration—any more than he could hold our wrongs against him over ours. Sick to his stomach, not only because of the chocolate, but perhaps because there was nothing he could do to fix what he’d done—there was no way we were getting the chocolate back—and that meant he had to rely upon someone else to receive it.
That’s the thing about these good tidings of forgiveness that can be so hard to grasp. We don’t earn them. We can’t buy them. No amount of keeping score or stock of our past wrongs, no amount of self-loathing and regret will somehow make us worthy of them. They simply are. Flowing into the wilderness places of our lives where we’ve become lost wandering down roads of past wrongdoing and regret. Into the backroads and byways we’ve built to protect ourselves from our need for others or from confronting the fact we are—despite our temptation to occasionally believe otherwise—masters of our own destiny.
But Emmanuel, God with us, forgives freely and with no other purpose but to set us free. And does so, over and over again, no matter how many times it takes, until we’re able to really receive that gift. So we gather, lighting candles to brighten the gloom of the wildernesses in which we wander. We come to the table, proclaiming “in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” to help us remember that Our God meets us in our wilderness places, amidst the tangled messiness of our lives. Invites us to face the facts of our past mistakes, our old hurts and long-lived resentments, not to shame us our drive us to different behavior through guilt, but to help us lay them down and walk away. To trust that we are in fact who God has said we were since the Spirit hovered over creation’s waters, beloved
And when it’s hard, the old lies of naughty and nice, of worthlessness, of fear, creep in, God gives us grace, sanctifying grace, new each day, that is big enough to hold the truth of our brokenness and possibility of our becoming whole. You are beautiful. You are beloved. You are worthy of freedom. And there’s nothing in this world—no power, no preacher, no denomination or political party—that can change that fundamental truth God has baked into your being.
It is not lost on me that here, at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke chapter 3, the path laid out begins with forgiveness. With freedom from our sin so we’re able to participate fully in what Christ is up to in the world, so that “all flesh can see the salvation of God.” Everything else Jesus does, all the miraculous signs and wonders, all the moments of teaching and reprimand, every table overturned and belly filled, begins with the belief that God, by God’s grace and with our assent, “forgives our sins.” Advent is not simply a season of waiting. It is also an invitation to holy preparation. To go with boldness into the wilderness places of our lives, to examine where we’re getting tripped up or bogged down or detoured. And to let God to come and do what God does best. “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free. From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.” What would you do if you were you were really free? This Advent, my hope of us—for you and for me—is that we find out.