At the 9 o’clock service today, we had the Christmas pageant with over 90 children—which means about 40 angels, 30 lambs and 10 shepherds. A few angels couldn’t keep their wings on and a star adamantly didn’t want to wear her star on her head. In years past, we have had an occasional Ninja warrior or Owl, who is really a child who just didn’t want to be an angel or lamb. The pageant is a very nostalgic metaphor of what we think our Christian life should be like. We see loving, beatific young Mary. Strong, capable Joseph. The perfect, glowing baby who doesn’t ever cry. Angels singing like little angels. Lambs staying clean and in their place. We bring this Christmas tableau into our own living rooms—with the perfectly trimmed tree, cherubic children and glowing, happy parents. If only this little play would stay in place, our Christmas would be what we have always dreamed it would be. But our visions of the picture perfect Christmas don’t match the reality of our lives, as we work through our long ‘to do’ list in order to make everyone happy. The truth is that we are the Ninjas and Owls—not wanting to be angels today. Not because angels don’t exist, but because deep down we know we are not angels.
In the book of Mark this week, John the baptizer is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!” We might hear this to say, “Prepare ye the way of the perfectly executed Christmas party!” or “Prepare ye the way of the 9 batches of Christmas cookies.” Or maybe “Prepare ye the way of the perfect gift for everyone on your list.” A little harder, “Prepare ye the way to pay all my bills.” Hardest yet, “Prepare ye the way to make it through this season since my loved one died.” The needs of the season can be overwhelming as we try to keep up and stay sane. But the gospel of Mark today gives us a message that our souls are desperate to hear. The voice is crying out to us in the wilderness that promises to relieve us of our unremitting guilt and just love us.
John the baptizer was a strange dude to be so popular. Usually eating locusts and wearing camel hair would keep most people away from you—but thousands streamed into the desert for his baptism of forgiveness of sins. For over 300 years, the prophets had been silent as they waited for the Messiah until John’s message of repentance. For the Jews, this was an old, old story that was being fulfilled as the Isaiah portion of our Mark text reminds us. According to the prophets, repentance would pave the road for the Messiah.
When we hear the word repentance, however, we think of the guy on the soapbox on UVA Grounds or in Manhattan screaming, “Repent for the end is near!” We take that to mean “Confess your sins and quit all the bad behavior!” If I asked how many people have talked to one of these Repent guys—very few hands would go up because we are not attracted to someone shouting at us to change. The funny thing is, we do it to ourselves all the time. There is a little Repent guy in all of our heads shouting, “Change! The end is near!” The end of people liking you, the end of the good job, the end of happiness, the end of good health, the end of being a good person, the end of the good times, the end of love. Your little Repent-guy harangues you for every little thing that doesn’t go right. Also called The Accuser, he either blames someone else or he blames you. This inner Repent-guy gives language to what we already feel and experience; that something is wrong with us and we need help. Romans 7:7 says that the Law gives language to what we already experience and thus tells us what to confess. This is why John the baptizer came before Jesus to prepare the way. John was the law, which is the revealed mind of God. The law has this role in our lives, to tell us there is something not right in our behavior and our world, to move us to confession and to create the craving for saving. The law cannot love you, it can only point out where you are wrong.
The law of God is like the fence around a house. Children with a fenced in yard will play right up to the fence. Children with no fence play close to the house because they don’t know where the boundaries are. The law is like a good fence which can keep you safe. But a fence is not a relationship. If your mother were standing in the yard, helping you when you were afraid or hurt, you would play without worry about the fence. The law is interested in results while grace is interested in relationship. Your mother is like grace, standing with you in the world to help you when you are hurt or afraid. Jesus Christ came to be your mother so you could live fully up to the fence with an abundant life.
Repentance is not about how well you play in the yard but how much you trust your mother to be with you. It is a position of openness to being loved and knowing you cannot keep yourself safe because you are a child who does not know the world like your mother does. Repentance is what it feels like to be loved. Thomas Cranmer called repentance the renewing of the power to love.
Historian Roland Bainton shed some light on how we got twisted up with the word repentance, thinking it meant doing something instead of trusting Christ. When the gospels were translated from Greek into Latin, the Greek word ‘to be penitent’ was mistranslated as ‘to do penance.’ This left us with a system where we tried to figure out every sin we had ever committed and then to pay the penalty, either with money or works, for a long list of individual sins. We still think this way. When we feel guilty, we try to figure out what to do to make ourselves feel better. Maybe helping the homeless, baking cookies, exercising, being nicer, buying more gifts, eating the cookies, drinking the wine. It doesn’t mean these aren’t good things to do—it means that we are trying to solve a spiritual problem with a temporal solution. This is a Jesus + way to live. C.S. Lewis said that, “Repentance means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into…it means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death.” What must die is our idea that we can save ourselves, that we can repent on our own. One thing and one thing only will make you ‘right’ again—and that has already been done for you. Jesus made a full, perfect and sufficient satisfaction for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
Advent is a penitential season, which means to turn to Christ knowing we are totally dependent on His saving grace and not our own abilities or knowledge. Like sunflowers, we turn toward the light that is God in a position of openness. And God, in his great mercy, fills our arms not with judgment and guilt, but with a baby. A baby who is the love that came to save us from guilt and sin. A baby who knows everything about us and loves us through our imperfect housekeeping, burned cookies, cheap presents, bad choices, and especially because deep down we are not angels, nor are we expected to be. We are ninjas and owls–forgiven and loved.