December 6, 2020

Repentance

Preacher:

Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength,  O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; is reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.
2 Peter 3:8-15a
8 But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. 9 The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you,[a] not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.[b]
11 Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening[c] the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? 13 But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
14 Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; 15 and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him,
Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

 

 

Brother Cadfael is a monk who solves crimes. He is the protagonist of a series of 21 novels written by Ellis Peters, which was a pseudonym for Edith Pargeter, who died fifteen years ago.
Thirteen of her novels were turned into British television mystery movies by ITV.

I have the complete TV series and in one of the movies there is an occasion where Brother Cadfael, played by Derek Jacobi, goes to a convent to find a nun to come and testify regarding a murder.

The difficult thing is that the nun’s testimony is of a time before she was a nun, a time when she lived her life as a prostitute.
Brother Cadfael explains the situation and why her testimony is needed, and asks if she will come, knowing that her testimony will reveal to the world her sordid past.

She replies, in effect, that she has nothing to hide, nothing of which now to be ashamed, because she has confessed it to God and received forgiveness.

It was one of those moments that really stuck with me, although it was not a major part of the plot…
But the idea that someone would be completely free to tell the truth about themselves, even if it put them in a bad light, was so at odds with how this world seems to operate, and often how some of the rich and powerful operate.

How many times have we seen rich and powerful people deny what seems so obvious?

One of my comedic heroes of quite a few years ago was Bill Cosby. In later years over 60 women came forward with stories of various sexual assaults and misconduct, some with the story that Cosby drugged them. Cosby denied them all. Most of them the statute of limitations had run out, but Cosby was convicted of indecent assault and currently is in prison.

Then there is the story of Harvey Weinstein one of the most successful and most powerful movie, play and musical producers, who had more than 80 women make allegations against him of various kind of sexual abuse including rape. He denied it all. But he was tried, convicte and was sentenced to twenty-three years in prison.

I remember the scandal with President Clinton over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky where his famous words were that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,”
…and then there was the whole thing about what “sexual relations” really meant, and eventually the President admitted that he had an improper physical relationship with Lewinsky.

I am not equating President Clinton with Weinstein or Bill Cosby, and I am not even trying to judge them. They were all judged by various courts and by public opinion.

My point is how difficult it is to publicly confess to wrongdoing, and how the dominant trend these days for legal and public opinion reasons is to deny, deny, deny.

And talk about someone denying the truth… President Trump for weeks would deny the truth of US election and claim all kinds of fraud without a shred of evidence.

And there then are the protesters all over the world denying the truth of climate change or the Covid-19 pandemic.

And yet what we need more than anything, I think is the truth.

That is what confession is. That is what repentance is…
It is telling the truth.

It is telling the truth about yourself, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But wow! It is one of the hardest things to do.

I remember one time, there was a tragic accident, and a child died…
…and one of the parents said: “it was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.”

And I thought to myself. If the lawyer were here, the lawyer would have said to not say anything. In fact, I was also thinking that even if it was me at fault, with such a tragedy, I don’t know whether I would admit it like that. I am sure I would have fudged the truth. What a courageous thing to say: “it’s my fault. I take responsibility for the death of my child.”

But today I think it is that acknowledgement which is our salvation.
“I am at fault. I take responsibility. This is the truth of what I have done. This is the truth of who I am…”

Today John the Baptist comes on the scene. He is a messenger of God. The Greek word for messenger is an angelos which we often translate as “angel.”
John the Baptist doesn’t look like pictures we have seen of angels, although to tell the truth, I don’t know how many people have seen an angel. In the book of Isaiah, they were described as flaming beings with six wings.

To me they sound more terrifying than angelic, but artists renditions of angels often depict them as beautiful people with or without wings.

But John the Baptist is a wild creature, living in the wilderness, eating locusts and honey and without any fancy clothes.
And he comes on the scene preparing the way for Jesus and his message is that of repentance.
In fact, the wording is: proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

I think that words like “repentance,” “sin,” even “forgiveness” are loaded terms for Christians, and every branch of Christianity seems to have its own take on these words.
Sin has been used to describe a whole host of activities. There are arguments about what actions are sinful or not. There are those who argue that everyone is a sinner.
There are debates about whether all sin is equal in the sight of God. Does taking a cookie out of the cookie jar the same as Harvey Weinstein raping and abusing dozens of women?

There are debates about how forgiveness works and who is forgiven and who is not, and if there are unforgivable sins…

And we don’t have time, nor do I have the inclination to go into all of that.

But let me say this about a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
What if this baptism is an immersion of the truth in your life so that you could like that Nun in Brother Cadfael just tell the whole truth about yourself without shame or fear or embarrassment or worry???

That you would be free to talk about everything in your life, and free to own up to mistakes, hurts you have received or done, thoughts that were not helpful… times when you were not your best self…?

Confession is good for the soul. Today John would say it is the way to prepare for the coming of the Christ.

Or maybe it is even stronger than that. Maybe confession, repentance, telling the truth, is the way for Christ to be born in you.

So why is the truth so hard. I was a chaplain with the RCMP. I used to ride with them and keep them company often on a Friday night. I would go out on the evening shift and often get home at three or four in the morning.
Whenever someone would be stopped for speeding or especially drunk driving nearly always the first words out of somebody’s mouth was a lie.

“I only had one drink.” “I wasn’t drinking, swear to God.”
These from people blowing 3 times over the legal limit.

I think when I was a child I was in awe of the police and I think I would have had a very difficult time lying to the police…
…but my experience with the police is that they are lied to all the time…
…constant and ubiquitous lying. You know I think it is important to have questions and discussions about how best to help the poor, domestic situations of conflict, situations of mental health, and whether there should be police interventions in all these cases, or whether funding should be shifted to different programs…
…but believe me… being a police officer is no picnic, and some of the things that police have to deal with… tragedies, deaths, assaults, suicides, violence, victims, alcoholism, drug situations of all kinds…. and a pandemic of lying…is not easy.

And at times I think the hardest thing to deal with is the lying.
Why is confession and repentance so hard? Why is the truth so difficult? Because we don’t want to face the consequences.

This starts young. One of my granddaughters is sitting on the toilet and the toilet roll has been emptied of all the toilet paper and it is all over the floor.

“Spencer, did you unroll the toilet paper?”
“No, Sloanie did.”
“Spencer, Sloanie wasn’t in here. Did you unroll the toilet paper? “
“No, it was someone from outside the house.”

“Spencer, you should not lie. You will get in trouble. Did you unroll the toilet paper?”
“I kinda did.”

As we get older instead of getting worse at lying, sometimes we get better.
One of the best ways to avoid the truth of our own sin is to point the finger at someone else. In fact, we get so sophisticated in avoiding the truth, that we convince ourselves that we aren’t lying at all.

Harry, did you do that sin. No.

Harry did you do that sin. Well, someone else is at fault.

Harry did you do that sin. Kinda.

I sometimes think, that we think, that God needs our confession.
That in order for God to forgive us, in order for God to accept us, in order for God to welcome us, or in order for us to be Christian, or in order for God to take us to heaven we have to repent.
That somehow God needs our confession and repentance before God can be God.

But I think the deeper truth is that while God wants to hear our confession…
That it is we ourselves who need confession. Telling the truth about ourselves to ourselves and to others is about setting ourselves free to be ourselves.

It is about being whole and healthy in body and soul. It is being freed from that which threatens one self. It is being found when one was lost. It is being healed from the perverse effects and powers of personal and corporate sin. It is even to be set free from condemnation and rejection.

The reason we don’t want to confess is that we are afraid of punishment, afraid of rejection, afraid that we will be cast out forever.

And yet the good news of Jesus is that we don’t have to be afraid, that Jesus loves us, that the only one who is in a position to condemn us is Jesus, and yet Jesus doesn’t condemn us, but forgives us and intercedes for us.

Jesus is on our side.

And that is the word of the prophet Isaiah today. Even though there is much to confess, even though we sin. Even though we are caught up in systems of sin…
…that we can take great comfort in God who loves us.

And so, the paradoxical message of the prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist is that the way to find comfort, the place to go to find peace and acceptance, the path to forgiveness is to journey into the wilderness of one’s own soul and confess.
Lay it all bare.

And in the wilderness of your own soul, In the dirt and the filth and the muck and the pain, and the agony of sins done, hurts given and received, conflicts unresolved, unholy thoughts, dubious actions and nefarious plans….that when you lay them bare…you will find the Christ is there in your wilderness with you.
Comforting you…forgiving you… accepting you….

Let me confess on behalf of myself and the church.
I confess as a minister of the church, sometimes I and the church have not been a safe place for you to confess and tell the truth.
I confess that sometimes I and the church have been judgemental and have pointed fingers and have accused instead of forgiven and accepted.

I confess that sometimes I and the church have not provided the opportunities for healthy confession and truth telling.

I confess that sometimes I and the church have harbored thoughts about punishing the bad guys instead of healing the bad guys.

I confess that I and the church at times am as much bad guy as good guy.

I confess that I and the church participate in systems that systemically discriminate against the poor, against minorities, against indigenous people, against people of colour, against women, against people of other faiths or no religious faith… against people with mental illness or physical disability, against people with differing sexual orientations or sexual identities; and often do not do much to try and change the systems.

I confess that I and the church have betrayed Jesus in thought word and deed, and have not always loved my neighbour as myself, nor loved my enemy, nor forgiven others as God as forgiven me.

I know these are general confessions and my specific ones, I think I would be afraid to mention in public…

But let me tell you again how deeply sin distorts and damages our souls. And most sin is rooted in some kind of lie. And lying is a walking death that rots us from the inside out.

I suppose it is a minister’s job to stand before you and encourage confession, encourage the truth…
…encourage you to go into the wilderness where there are no supports, no friends to lie for you, no false witnesses, no lawyers to tell you to keep your mouth shut and say nothing incriminating, no bank accounts to buy your way out, and nobody to flatter, fool, seduce, twist or manipulate to avoid the truth.
…but let me tell you, when you go into the wilderness of your own sould and lay it bare and see it for what it is…
…it is a way to see Jesus who was born in the wilderness of a barn… it is a way to hear Jesus who was tempted in the wilderness to lie and not be himself… it is a way to experience Jesus, who endured the wilderness of the cross…to forgive you and show you what real living is…

So, I hope you take some time today to do some good old-fashioned confessing and repenting. Turn it around and go Christ’s way.

But more than that…could you be a safe place for others to confess…
Could you stop judging to hear another’s story. Could you offer forgiveness even to one who doesn’t even know how to repent. Could you be a listener to someone’s truth even if the truth is that they have distorted the truth and hurt so many people?
Could you take up a cross like Jesus and be there for the people who have hurt you, and still love them and forgive them and accept them and heal them.

For the truth is this Jesus who died for you, who is there for you, who will not leave you, who lives in you. This Jesus who intercedes for you, this Jesus who forgives you unconditionally, loves you extravagantly and gives you unlimited grace…
…is the one we put on the cross.

And when we lie, when we hurt, when we deny, when we point the fingers at others instead of ourselves, when we participate in systems of injustice, we crucify him again.
But we have the ability to shift the landscape, to level out the bumps, to pave a straight road to truth, to justice and love. To prepare for Jesus to be born in us. And it starts with the truth. It starts with repentance.

Amen