This is the first time I’ve planned out a sermon, only to have to rewrite it all in the face of a crisis in the news. I don’t imagine it’s necessary to go into the details around the events in San Bernardino because we all know them all too well by now—another week with yet another monstrous assault on all that is decent. Yet again we are left with fear and sadness at a world that so often seems very second rate indeed. Yet again we are left with a sense of exhausted futility in the certainty that nothing will be done and that another tragedy just like it will be repeated all too soon. It’s a world that is all too easy to be cynical about.
Well, to this world, which shows every sign of being insane, we hear from our Gospel reading Good News. “God rest ye, and let nothing ye dismay,” as the hymn goes. To San Bernardino, to Colorado Springs, to Paris, and indeed to all of us personally as individuals, we hear of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, of a world put in order around its savior. In tragedy we need to have our world put back in order. When my father died, I went home from the hospital and spend the whole night cleaning the house—trying to put my world right again.
Luke writes of God putting His world in order: “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.” If the Gospel is to be believed, this is not a world where all the pain, and death, and sadness, and confusion this world can engender can have the last word. The last word is not despair, but God’s word—His Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
It’s natural to look to the Scriptures to find a Christian response to this tragedy. Our reading today does not offer a solution to the problems of the world, but offers a way of living in a world of problems. And so we have this season of Advent, a whole month of preparation for Christmas Day, a Day when there can be goodness, and generosity, and decency because of what God has done for us, this thing that God began when he became incarnate in the Virgin Mary. John the Baptist tells us that because Jesus, who loves us and gives us eternal life, is God’s final and definitive word, we can, and should—repent. Repentance our response to San Bernardino. Repentance is the joy of a Christian at the arrival of the Kingdom of God.
We don’t like talking about sin repentance very much in the Episcopal Church these days. Which makes sense. It has to be admitted that the way we Christians have tended to talk about sin and repentance has been kind of a drag, and our Gospel and the congregation of the Lord both deserve better. It brings to mind first of all sexual sin because sex is, well you know sexy. Maybe repentance brings to mind groveling and scraping before God, like God needs to see how miserable we are before he can love us. It’s becoming a novelty in Episcopal churches to hear the prayer before communion “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table o Lord.” A priest friend of mine calls that the “Humble Crumble,” though I confess I quite like that prayer, at least every once in a while. Repentance might bring to mind a God that is wrathful and sitting up in heaven waiting to damn us if we don’t behave ourselves. And to be quite honest, throughout history this doctrine of sin and repentance has been misused as a weapon of oppression by the people in power again and again.
However, I think we need repentance. We surely don’t need the Church to tell us that, for all the self-esteem reinforcement in the world, something is not quite right. Walk into any bookstore during New Year’s Resolution making season, and see the self-help section stretching as far as the eye can see. Now—I’m not saying we’re all, you know, vile and depraved sinners, but I think all of us can remember times when we were not all we could have been—times when we could have been kinder, braver, more honest. Times when we could have made the world a better place. This sense of ourselves is a natural part of life, and what good is a Church that does not speak to this universal human experience?
Luke doesn’t think of repentance as being guilty and miserable. John calls us to repent because of a new work of mercy that God is doing in the world, this world of San Bernardino, not because God is itching to use his thunder bolts. Luke invokes this marvelous poem from the Book of Isaiah. “Prepare the way of the Lord.” “All flesh shall see the salvation of God,” because the gift of God’s grace is a new opportunity, and a fresh start. Not an end, but a beginning. It is the grace of God that makes a new world and a new course in life possible.
Which I think is a much more constructive way of looking at repentance. God doesn’t need our groveling to forgive us. God doesn’t need anything. The gift of his grace, His baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, is a fresh page in our lives. It’s a fresh start where we can have another go at getting things right, with every conviction that we CAN get it right because God newly creates a world where it is possible.
Isn’t that feeling of a fresh start wonderful? There’s a reason the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions endures. It feels good starting a new year with a new promise to get things better, more on target. We offer our own sort of this grace in the Church in more than one way. We offer baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We repent as a community in the Eucharistic service, and if any of us feel the need in our hearts we also offer the sacrament of confession with a priest. I’ve undergone confession with a priest before, and I would recommend it to anyone—all I do is email my priest and schedule a chat with him in his office. If you want to do it old school, they have full-on confessionals at the Church of the Advent in Beacon Hill. If you want to make it a regular practice with a regular confessor, which I also recommend, the Society of St. John the Evangelist over in Cambridge has long arranged for confessors for anyone that seeks one.
It’s a little scary telling your sins to another person, to finally admit them out loud, because they somehow become more real once you speak them. In fact I think that’s exactly what makes confession so powerful and so effective. I promise that you leave confession feeling so much better. You leave with new resolve, that a new life really can be possible.
So we have tidings of comfort and joy, even considering the news these days. San Bernardino is not the last word. The arrival of Jesus in our midst is the last word. This arrival makes a whole new world possible, a world where we beat our swords and assault rifles into ploughshares. Jesus arrives in our own lives too, in our lives of relentless chores and exhausting jobs and chaotic families, and that arrival gives our lives new possibilities. These new possibilities are not a cause of shame or guilt or the usual things we have tended to talk about when we talk about repentance. Repentance is nothing less than the joy of a faithful Christian, a resolution to start things afresh in an age that is growing old.
I’ll leave you with more of a question instead of pat answers. A wise movie maker always leaves room for a sequel. The truth is, neither I, nor Rev. Amy, nor a pope, nor indeed anyone else, can tell you precisely what new possibilities that gives your life. The work of repentance is the work of greeting the arrival of your Lord into your own life and discerning with him in his Scriptures what those new possibilities are. AMEN.