Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 2, December 5th 2021
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, so we continue to reflect on the theme of the Coming of Jesus, and how to prepare for it.
Our gospel reading introduces John the Baptist, who lays the foundations for the ministry of Jesus. We are given a quick overview of the political scene to see the whole world as the context for what Jesus is and what he will do. At the same time we are shown that those in power have no idea about what’s happening out in the wilderness of Israel where the real action is. It’s a reminder that what really matters in the world may have n0thing to do with what’s on the front page of the newspaper.
Then John the Baptist appears, describing himself to be like a road construction worker, who prepares the way for those who lay roads. When it comes to laying roads, preparation is half the job, so John is worth paying attention to. His ministry prepares the way for Jesus’ ministry, and the name of that preparation is a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’.
Baptism literally means ‘being overwhelmed by, or immersed in water’. The experience is one in which a person is submerged under water symbolising death to their old way of living, to then break free from the water into a new way of living. That’s a good explanation of the action of baptism, even if it’s only done symbolically, but it’s the second part of the phrase that’s most interesting: repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s something we engage in Sunday by Sunday as a means of constantly being reborn to a new life.
The term translated repentance literally means ‘going beyond the mind’. Forgiveness of sins occurs when we are able to go beyond the mind. What is it about the mind that we need to go beyond? It is its tendency to hold onto sin. And what is sin? A good description I read was to think in terms of sinful experiences, and then to think of wrongs done to us and wrongs we have done to others.
Our minds tend to hold on to wrongs done to us and wrongs we have done to others. This is especially so with wrongs done to us because often these experiences fire up the brain’s defensive responses. If we have been significantly hurt in a particular way, our brain can be hypersensitive to anything which touches on that, and so re-engages your whole self again with that experience. In that way, our holding on to sinful experiences is reinforced.
There are other ways our minds hold on to sinful experiences, because there are plenty of critics around, who feed off the strength they get from putting others down, and our own doubts can make us vulnerable as well. One thing for sure is that our memories are very good servants when it comes to holding onto wrongs done to us.
As far as wrongs done by ourselves to others, guilt is the most powerful driving factor, and we’re all blessed with varying amounts of it. In small doses it’s a good servant if it drives us to do what we should, within the commitments that are important for us, but it can also be detrimental when it becomes too powerful.
The truth is we have been wronged and we have wronged others, and in the varying ways we have each experienced that, we have to come to terms with it in our own ways. Unless we face up to what has happened and what we have done, we can be out of touch with parts of ourselves, and thus block God from them. The problem is when the wrongs done to us and the wrongs we have done to others become elevated to ultimate status in our lives, so that we identify with them. In this way we see ourselves primarily as victims, who have been wronged in particular ways, or perhaps we wallow in our guilt over wrongs we have committed against others. Our self-image becomes one of being a bad person, or a wounded person. In this way, our sinful experiences shape and direct who we are.
The problem with either of these states is that we cannot become the people we are meant to be when we are like that. Jesus describes himself as the vine of life, of which we are the branches. In other words, creative life is meant to flow through us. Our being is meant to flow from Christ, not from the wrongs done to us or the wrongs we have done to others. Jesus also describes us as the ‘salt of the world’. Salt adds flavour, it makes food more special, more appealing. That’s what our lives are meant to be like. It means we bring something good to others. Like everyone else, we are a blessing for others. It’s easy to see that being true for others, but does it feel true for ourselves? Just the presence of a baby in a room is a blessing for everyone else (until it delivers gold into its nappies). Can we see ourselves in that way? Without getting too big headed about it, that is the spiritual truth about ourselves. The deepest truth Jesus knew about himself was that he was a son of God, and it is what he wants to convey to us more than anything else – that we are offspring of God. if we don’t know that and feel that, we need repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness meaning ‘letting go of’.
How can we let go of our experiences of being wronged and the wrongs we have committed against others? Two ways (John Shea The Relentless Widow). The first is to recognise that it is in the nature of the mind to cling to sinful experiences. We need to be mindful of this. Just noticing it and being mindful of how it works means we are already beginning to move beyond it.
The second way is to remember our sinful experiences are not ultimate, but God is. The world only exists because God allows it to. It cannot exist of it’s own power. And neither can anything in it. So if only what God ‘holds onto’ continues to exist, and God does not ‘hold onto’ sin, then the ongoing experience of sin is only present in our lives because we are holding onto it. Contemplating that truth puts the responsibility for forgiveness of our sin onto ourselves, as we already have it from God.
In Advent we are given varying images of what the coming of Christ means for us. Today we are reminded that what Christ really wants to come and tell us is that we are blessings to the world, and that if we are falling short of that, it is a tragedy. Christ is with us all the time, but maybe too is John the Baptist, or at least his spirit of preparation, trying to clear a way within us for the Spirit of Christ to be able to flow through. Maybe John’s spirit is strongest of all in those areas of our lives where we are overwhelmed by our experiences of sin, and so they require our special attention.
It may be that we have no experience of Christ in our lives, but that could be because we are so focussed on wanting the ‘big thing’ that we don’t pay attention to our need for preparation. He can’t get to us if there is too much in the way. Fortunately, he sends before himself the one who can prepare us, if we cooperate. And if we do, then when he does come, his presence will be obvious. It will be within the energy set free within and through us.
Today we lit two Advent candles, reminding us of ‘God’s saving peace’. We are saved from our preoccupation with ourselves and from wallowing in guilt or victimhood, by God’s peace.