Advent 2, Year C,nSunday, December 2nd, 2012
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In my first year of seminary, I participated in a Bible study run by laypeople at a local church. In one session, the subject of the worship service came up, and why we do what we do every Sunday. One woman started complaining about the confession at the beginning of every worship service. “Why do we do it so often?” she asked. “I don’t have any sins to confess! I’m not a sinner!”
I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say. How to answer that? She thought she was perfect, that she didn’t sin? She thought she never did anything wrong? I wondered if her husband and children would have agreed with her. I wondered if her boss would have agreed with her. I wondered if her co-workers and neighbors would have agreed with her. I wondered if the people in her life less fortunate than her would have agreed with her. Reading today’s Gospel lesson, I wonder if John the Baptizer would have agreed with her.
John was the son of a priestly family. His father, Zechariah, served at the Temple in Jerusalem. He was from the biggest city in Judea, the center of Jewish life. He undoubtedly was connected in some way to all the important people in the land—the priestly caste, after all, had a good bit of power. Being a priest was a good job, a comfortable job, and since it was hereditary John had it made. He could have had a very nice life, a much more comfortable life than the vast majority of the people in Judea. And yet, John tossed it all away to go live in the wilderness on what he could scrounge. John followed the word of God, away from everything that people expected of him.
God called John to tell the world that they were sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, and to offer that forgiveness to all through the waters of baptism. God called John to prepare the way for Jesus. God called John, and John went.
Given his family’s position, John would have been in a good position to see the excesses and the injustices of everyone from the Romans to the Temple leadership to the ordinary people on the street. If he wandered outside the Temple complex through Jerusalem, he could have seen just about every walk of life. And if he stayed in the temple, he could have seen the infighting, the petty bickering, the power plays common to powerful people. I bet he heard a lot of justifications, too. “It’s not that bad, everyone does it. It’s a necessary evil, it’s for a good cause.” Or how about this one? “It’s not my fault, it’s just the way the system works.” Or “It’s not my fault, they made me do it.” Sound familiar? Nobody likes to admit it when we do things wrong, when we make mistakes. It’s easier to tell ourselves that we haven’t done anything wrong than it is to own up to our failings. And it’s easier still to point fingers at other people. You’ll notice that John doesn’t make distinctions. John doesn’t say: you people who don’t go to Temple are sinners who need to repent. John doesn’t say: you Roman invaders are sinners who need to repent. John doesn’t say: you religious leaders are sinners who need to repent. He doesn’t go after the non-Jews, or the Jews from different factions, or the people everyone knew were sinners. No, filled with the word of God, John called everyone to repentance and forgiveness. He wasn’t just concerned with the big public sins that everyone shakes their head at and points fingers at. John was concerned with all the things, big and small, that turn us away from God and away from other people. And John was concerned with all people, calling them to the water.
We, today, are still being called to the water. John the Baptist’s words echoes through the centuries. All who are brought to God, whether as infants or as adults, come to the water and are baptized. In that water, the old, sinful self is drowned and we rise up forgiven and renewed children of God. There is repentance, a turning away from sin. But it is God who calls us, and God whose Spirit is given to us in baptism, God who washes away the stains left by our own actions, thoughts, and hesitations, God who forgives us. It is God who calls us to turn away from our sins, God who calls us to live lives worthy of the kingdom he will bring. John quotes Isaiah: prepare the royal highway, for God is coming, and everyone will see the salvation he brings. In that salvation we will be washed clean of our sins, all the broken, petty, selfish, nasty little bits will be wiped away. One of the images of baptism is drowning: we are drowned in the water, our sinful self is killed, and we are reborn as children of God. Martin Luther liked to say that the reality of a baptized Christian is that we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ.
Drowning is violent, scary, dangerous, something we’re not in control of. People like to think of the Christian life as being all about our choice: we choose to come to Jesus (or not), we choose to repent, we choose to believe. And, certainly, we can choose to turn away from God. But it is God who calls us and claims us, who gives us life and light, God who is coming to bring salvation to all people. We are not the ones in control; God is. And that’s good news because our sin and brokenness are far greater than anything we could ever fix on our own. Every day, in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and by what we fail to do, we show our impurities, our imperfections, our brokenness, and our sin, no matter how hard we try to hide it or deny it. It is only through God’s grace and mercy that we are renewed, made pure, and our sins are forgiven.
The prophet Malachi understood this, when he used the image of a refinery to describe God’s actions. In an old-style refinery, crude, unrefined ores are heated in a vat until they melt, and the impurities rise to the surface. The refiner stands beside the vat of molten metal, skimming all the bad stuff off the top. The refiner keeps skimming until the metal is pure—and knows the metal is pure when he can see his face in it. We are the crude ore being melted and skimmed of impurity, and God is the one doing the scraping. We can’t do it ourselves—we don’t even realize what the impurities are, half the time!
We live in a culture that prizes self-reliance and self-righteousness. We idolize those who can take care of themselves, and we hate admitting we need someone—anyone—else. We like to have things all planned out, to know where we’re going and why. And yet, there are some things we can’t do. We can’t cleanse ourselves of our sins, we can’t heal the broken places in our souls, we can’t make the bad things we say and do disappear. All we can do, on our own, is paper over the cracks and pretend they aren’t there.
It takes courage to admit we aren’t perfect. It takes courage to admit that we need help, that we can’t do everything by ourselves. And it takes courage to follow God’s call, whether that call leads us out into the wilderness or just leads us to do new things here at home. The Christian life is not an easy one, because it strips us of our illusions and shows us just how much darkness there is around us and inside us, how much brokenness there is. It shows us all the things we should have done but didn’t, all the things we did do that we shouldn’t have.
And yet, there is hope, even in our darkness, because Christ is coming. We can’t fix ourselves, but God calls us to the waters of baptism. God calls all of us, from all walks of life, no matter what we have done or failed to do, and washes us in the water. Our sins are drowned, we are purified, the crooked places inside us are made straight. We are made ready for our Lord, who comes to bring salvation to all
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.