Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 1.68-79; Philippians 1.3-11; Luke 3.1-6
The Boy and Girl Scout mottos are ‘Be Prepared.’ I found this little phrase incredibly appealing as a kid. It always seemed so practical and useful and it appealed to my own natural sense of wanting to be in control. The idea that I could, through my own hard work, prepare for anything was fantastic – it sounded great to me.
For me, remembering how much I loved that motto really pointed out to me my own inclination to lump together the concepts of preparation and control. I know I’m not the only one, and I wonder if we struggle with this culturally too. An example for me is the aftermath of the burglary that happened to Pastor Seth and I last year. In the wake of the house being broken into, we immediately starting losing sleep over ways we could protect and prevent it from happening again. A lot of the suggestions we heard were about that: alarm systems, lights on timers, tv’s left on, motion sensors that trigger a dog barking noise. And yes, we take some basic steps to prevent breaking into our house from being particularly easy.
BUT, in our preparing, and attempted preventing, I realized there was no way to control the situation. If someone really wanted to get into our house, there was nothing we could do to stop them. Once I owned up to that, let go of the control, I realized there was a certain amount of preparation I could do that would give me peace. With a little bit of work, I now live in a house where if someone DOES break in, there is not sensitive information for them to get their hands on, our identities and financial information is safe. Our stuff, all replaceable, is insured and documented.
While I cannot control what happens to our house when I’m not home, I have prepared enough now that even though a burglary would still be very problematic, it would not be panic and fear inducing.
How much have we, as individuals and a culture, turned preparing for Christmas into a stressful, chaotic month of trying to make everything perfect, of trying to control it all. Prevent disasters at all costs, throw a perfect party, find the perfect gift, and decorate the perfect tree. Make Martha Stewart proud.
And perhaps this striving for control or perfection is what our guilty ears hear when we hear John the Baptist’s words today. Perhaps we are hearing: “you’d better repent and try harder or else.” When we hear this, we have turned repentance into some sort of self-improvement scheme. We have turned repentance into another way to control and perfect our lives, instead of a way to prepare. An often heard definition of repentance is turning away from something or toward something else. Our Scripture today invites us to, instead of turning toward being right, trying hard, saying sorry, being nice to others (although they are all good things), to turn toward something much deeper. To turn toward forgiveness.
In the Gospel of Luke, we cannot hear about repentance or sin without hearing about forgiveness as well. We see it today: John proclaims a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. And every time the word sin appears in the gospel as a whole, it is also paired with forgiveness. As we immerse ourselves in the gospel of Luke for the next year or so, we are immersing ourselves in a story and conversation where we cannot talk about repentance or sin without also talking about the offer and gift of forgiveness. We do not see God’s salvation enter into the story once we have done the work of becoming better, of reforming our sinful ways. Our own repentance and change alone does nothing for our salvation, but with God entering the equation, with Jesus coming, with forgiveness, we see the bigger picture of God’s salvation.
Before John the Baptist, there was Zechariah, his father. In Zechariah’s beautiful, Holy Spirit inspired song, we hear of the richness of the connection between salvation and forgiveness of sin. We are reminded that it is in the tender mercy, the tender compassion of our God that the dawn from on high will break. No perfect Christmas celebration, no amount of preparation, no amount of perfect behavior, no amount of repenting in the form of self-improvement will bring the dawn from on high. Only God.
Zechariah acknowledges the freedom, the salvation that comes when we are saved from the hands of enemies. But the truth of salvation, the end purpose of God’s redemption is not merely deliverance from political domination or earthly enemies, as important as that is, but the creation of conditions in which God’s people can worship and serve God without fear. It is the difference between defining something negatively and positively. Negatively defined, salvation, or freedom, is a release from the power of enemies. But positively defined, it is worship and holiness of life. It is like the difference between telling a toddler to ‘please walk’ instead of telling them ‘don’t run!’ Guess which one gets better results and makes everyone feel a bit less defensive and combative?!? (It’s ‘please walk’)
We must remember that the breaking of the dawn, which God does, not us –shines light into darkness, and guides our feet into the way of peace. When we remember this, when we prepare for the gift of salvation in this mindset, then we find ourselves in the midst of forgiveness rather than the rallying of troops. We cannot control ourselves to the point where we no longer need to repent. Not possible. We will always need forgiveness. We cannot control the world to the point where we no longer need to prepare for unexpected disasters or inconveniences, from burglaries to falling trees to medical diagnoses. We will always need God. I can have peace instead of worry when I leave my house now because I prepared. We can have peace instead of worry every moment of our days because of what God has done through Zechariah, through John, through the Holy Spirit, through Jesus.
John and Zechariah and the Holy Spirit aren’t calling us to repent in order to create a better version of ourselves. While self-improvement is an admirable thing to set our sights on, we are being called to repent from the entire idea that we can do everything ourselves. Repentance is finally admitting to ourselves and to God that we can’t. But o how fortunate we are, because God CAN. To every no, God says yes. To every mistake, God says ‘forgiven’. To every death, God says ‘resurrection.’
And God’s chorus of ‘yes, forgiven, resurrected, loved’ empowers us to face the enormity of the world’s grief. That chorus of ‘yes, forgiven, resurrected, loved’ frees us to do justice and love kindness. That chorus of ‘yes, forgiven, resurrected, loved’ reminds us that while we cannot fix everything, we also cannot abandon the needs of the world.
It is Advent. We wait. But we are not idle. We wait, and we also prepare