Not Clean But Washable
The rest of the world may be rushing toward Christmas this morning, but not us. Outside, people may be driving down the street with trees tied to the roofs of their cars or sitting down at their dining room tables with stacks of cards and their address books, but not us, not yet. For these last weeks of Advent the church makes us wait, knowing more about time than we do, knowing that the sky must grow dark before the star appears and that the best way for us to see it is to lie down, and to be still, and to wait.
So here we are, waiting together. We will sing no Christmas carols this morning. We will smell no frankincense and myrrh. However, we may long for a preview of the Holy Family bending round their marvelous light, that is not who we get today. When the curtain goes up this second Sunday of Advent, who we get is John son of Zechariah, better known as John the Baptist--not exactly who we had in mind--but in Luke's drama of redemption he is the first one on stage, the forerunner, whose job is to prepare us for what lies ahead.
In many ways, John has the best job in the whole Bible. As the last of the Old Testament prophets, he is out of place in the New Testament. Luke does not dress him in camel's hair or feed him on locusts and wild honey like Mark does in his gospel, but still John stands out here, a Hebrew prophet in the classical mold, quoting scripture and drawing crowds in the wilderness. When he arrives on stage, time has not yet turned. The old covenant is still in effect. The world is till waiting for a savior. Then the word of God comes to him and nothing is ever the same again. With all the strength in his stringy body, John heaves himself against the scenery and it turns, the old world disappearing into the darkness as a new world spins into view. John is not a Christian and never will be, but he alone among all the prophets is granted the privilege of proclaiming the Messiah and living long enough to see him come.
it is a monumental job but a limited one. John is not the Messiah. He is not even sure who the Messiah will turn out to be and when it turns out to be his cousin Jesus, John has his doubts. But the one thing he has no doubts about is how you prepare for the coming of the Lord. You clean house. You empty trash. You change the sheets in the guest room. You turn your heart inside out and shake it hard--beat it, maybe--until it is good as new. Then you bathe, letting the warm water soften you, letting it dissolve your knots, your weariness, your grime. Then you put on something as fresh as you are and you wait, with anticipation bubbling inside your breast like a spring of bright water. You wait somewhere where you can see in every direction and you keep your eyes peeled for the one who is coming, coming to you and to the whole world to make everything new.
That is what John suggested people do. He even offered to help them, which makes you wonder why he was not the most popular prophet of all time. Maybe it was his manner. Maybe it was his appearance. Maybe it was his vocabulary, because he did not call what he offered a bath. He called it a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and those are words that rub a lot of people the wrong way. It is not hard to understand why.
In the South, where I grew up, repentance got all mixed up with snake handlers and sweating evangelists with microphones under revival tents. It was something I read about on the back roads of rural Georgia, where hand-painted signs said things like, "REPENT BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE," or "THE LORD JESUS IS COMING, PERHAPS TODAY. ARE YOU READY?" The paint was usually blood red on white and did nothing to whet my appetite for the coming of the Lord. Mostly I prayed he would not come, not today or ever, because it was clearly bad news for me if he did.
I was riddled with sin. That was the message. Everything I did was contaminated somehow and nothing I did could change that, although it was clear I should never stop trying. If I slipped up and felt glad about something I had done, that was pride, and if I persisted in my gladness, that was outright rebellion. My early teachers wanted me to know that when Jesus showed up, the first thing he was going to do was to make the whole world stay after school and write one hundred times on the blackboard: "I am a bad person. I am a bad person. I am a very bad person." The point, I think was that people should spend their whole lives trying to please God even though they knew for certain they never could.
Well. You either take to an idea like that or you do not. it either sounds right to you or it does not. If it does notif you get tired of looking in the mirror and feeling sad and ashamed at what you see--if you know somewhere deep down inside yourself that God sees more than that, and that you were not created in order to be punished but in order to be loved--then you tend to drop some words from your vocabulary, words like "repentance" and "sin." You decide you are all right like you are--that you are a good person who does not need to be forgiven--and that those who tried to tell you otherwise were not only wrong but cruel. You retaliate by celebrating your strengths and enjoying your accomplishments. You tell God what you have done right and you quit keeping a list of what you have done wrong. Maybe you stop using words like "right" and "wrong" altogether, substituting "human" and letting it go at that.
If you come to church, however, your resolve will be tested, because many of the old words are still in effect. Words like "Bless the Lord who forgives all our sins," words like "We are truly sorry and we humbly repent." The words are gentler than they are some other places, it is true, but still you may try to protect yourself from them, mumbling them or putting mental parentheses around them, because they still have plenty of bite.
Have you noticed that? Even after you have talked yourself out of them, even after you have convinced yourself that you do not believe in them anymore, they manage to get their fingers inside of your chest and squeeze your heart. Maybe it is just bad memories, but then again, maybe it is more. Maybe it is because the words describe something that is real, something none of us can talk ourselves out of because it is true.
However poorly they may have been handled in the past, however shabbily they may have been used to bend us to someone else's will, there is a chance that the words still get to us because they are calling to a part of us that wants to answer back but does not know how--the part of us that knows we are not all good any more than we are all bad--the part of us that does not know who we are but wants to know, and suspects that God knows, and desires more than anything to be known by God--to be saved, not thrown away--to be kept and made whole by the only one who knows how to do that.
That is all that repentance has ever meant: to turn toward the God who is forever turning toward us. Long before Elmer Gantry got hold of the word, it meant simply to turn around, to go another way. It had nothing to do with feeling guilty or sorry or afraid. Those are all stuck feelings, and the word for them is remorse, not repentance.
Remorse is what you do after you have driven into a major mud hole and your tires are spinning, digging deeper trenches every time they go around. Remorse is what you do while you tramp around in the mud yourself, lamenting your decision to go out on such a bad day, cursing your poor judgment in leaving the road in the first place, gunning the engine over and over again to convince yourself that you are not really stuck. Remorse is fine, but it does not get you anywhere.
Repentance does, but it begins with the sure and certain knowledge that you are stuck, and that despite everything you have been telling yourself to the contrary, you do need help. That help can come in a variety of ways. If you have got a mobile phone, you can call a wrecker to come haul you out. If you do not, you can always abandon the car and hike back toward the highway. Or you can look out through the mud-caked windshield and see a man in striped overalls walking toward you with a plank under his arm. When he leans through the window and offers to wedge it under your back wheels, repentance means having the good sense to say "thank you" instead of "no" or "not yet" and taking the man's advice to try putting the car in "reverse" instead of "drive." Repentance is what happens inside of you when he leans on the bumper and you feel the car begin to move, and keep on moving until you are back on the pavement again with shaky legs and a grateful heart, looking around for the kind stranger who has disappeared without a trace.
Repentance is a reprieve, a fresh start, a return to the road. It is not remorse, it is an end to remorse, celebrated with a trip to the car wash and a long, hot bath. When John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, that is the experience he had in mind--not staying after school to fill the blackboard with apologies but finding yourself back on solid ground again, clean and knowing whom to thank. Repentance is not an achievement, in other words. It is a gift--a gift God is pleased to give anyone with the good sense to say "thank you" instead of "no" or "not yet.
As far as I can tell, God will always have plenty of repentance to give away. I figure there are oceans of it in heaven, because so few of us are interested in it here on earth. God draws a bath for us and we tiptoe around it, sniffing suspiciously at the rising steam, thinking of all the reasons why it is too hot, too deep, too shallow, too complicated, too easy, too late, too soon for us to get in right now.
The real problem, I think is our fear that if we come clean, we have to stay clean sitting quietly on the sidelines of life with our hands folded nicely in our laps while the rest of the soiled, boisterous world goes by. Some us do not want to do that and the rest of us do not think we can, so we just stay where we are and gun our engines.
But it really is not like that at all. Repentance is not a one time thing, a big, never-to-be-repeated splash that empties the pool of water. It is not even a two or three time thing. It is more like a daily thing, or at the very least a weekly thing, something the people of God do every time we gather to meet our Lord.
Confessing our sins against God and our neighbor, we clean house and empty trash. We turn our hearts inside out and shake them hard. We turn them toward the God who is always turning toward us and them God bathes us--having seen us as we are and having not turned away--God washes us and rinses us and wraps us in mercy--not for the first time and not for the last time, but once again, because we need regular laundering and there is no shame in that. We are not here because we are clean but because we are washable and because we mean to bathe in God's presence every chance we get. Amen.
Barbara Taylor Clarksville, Ga