December 7, 2014
Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a, Mark 1:1-8
Last week I promised you that 'sin' is to be the theme for this week's sermon. And, indeed, the reality is we are human and we do sin. The definition of sin is ‘an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law. So every time we love anything or anyone more than we love God, that is the definition of sin. Every time we serve anything or anyone over and above our service to God: that is the definition of sin. Every time we place our own desires over and above what God desires for us, that is the definition of sin. Sin is that which separates us from God and Jesus is the One who has come to mend that separation.
In an article written by Miroslav Volf (one of the most respected theologians of our time) I discovered an old Jewish story in which God, after deciding to create the world, "foresaw all the sin that human beings would commit against God and each other. So the only way God could continue was to decide to forgive the world before creating it." Dr. Volf concludes his telling of this story by saying, "Strange as it may seem, through the telling of this story the commitment to forgive comes before creation." As Christians, we believe that God's plan to forgive human sin culminates in the sending of Jesus, so that humanity may be forgiven. And, our readings this morning prepare us for this coming.
In our first reading the prophet Isaiah is announcing God's intention to visit God's people. Prior to this message the sins of the people have taken them into a deep dark place where they've lost sight of the God who longs to be with them. They've rebelled against God - lived at the expense of their neighbours, putting their own selfish desires above the needs of others. But this passage from Isaiah says, "Prepare the way! I am coming...” The voice of God in the Isaiah text speaks of a God who says, "I will come to my people - I will find them - nothing will keep me from them. I will do whatever it takes to find them. Nothing will stop me."
This, then, brings us to our Gospel text for today which announces that this plan is to be fulfilled in a new and surprising way. I am referring to the first eight verses in Mark's Gospel, where we hear the story of John the Baptist pointing the way to the fulfillment of this promise: that is, the coming of Christ.
Mark begins his Gospel, not as the other two synoptic Gospels with the birth narrative, but with John the Baptist - appearing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. According to Mark, this is the place to start. According to Mark, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is how we prepare ourselves to celebrate in a brand new way the birth of Christ.
So, that said, what might we say about sin within the context of life in this part of the world at this moment in time. As I was pondering this question, I found myself remembering an article I read in the Globe and Mail this past summer. The point of this particular article was that the way in which television characters have evolved over the past twenty years has actually desensitized us to sinful behaviour and maybe even condoned our natural tendency toward it. This article made the point that increasingly over the past twenty years television characters have displayed both sociopathic and psychopathic behaviour and the more we observe this behaviour through television characters the less offended we are by it and the more we subconsciously tolerate it and maybe even model it ourselves.
Many of us grew up watching such shows as 'Father Knows Best', 'The Donna Reed Show', 'Leave it to Beaver'... Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that these shows portrayed the complexity of human nature - I think we may agree that the characters were often one dimensional and rather superficial in character. However, they did raise the bar in terms of expected human behaviour. Goodness, kindness, generosity were common themes in terms of expected behaviour.
This article suggested that the disintegration of human behaviour portrayed on television began with comedies such as Seinfeld, where bad behaviour was portrayed through comedy. And certainly shows such as this did mark a new normal in terms of behaviour as portrayed on T.V. - behaviour that really can be defined as sociopathic/psychopathic (that is, amoral/antisocial behaviour, self centeredness, failure to learn from experience). The Seinfeld characters continued to make the same mistakes over and over again, and seemingly never learned from those repeated mistakes.
So, sitcoms such as Seinfeld where the characters are seemingly not rooted in anything meaningful or true, and possess a conscious indifference to moral behaviour have since morphed into darker and darker characters and plots.And when I talk about moral behaviour, I'm not referring specifically to sexual morality.I'm talking about characters who steal wheelchairs from people who need them, sue companies through finding a loophole in their policy specifically for the purpose of stealing money that is not rightfully theirs, disregard copyright policies - again - for the specific purpose of stealing, taking videos of people in distress rather than helping them...
More recently dramatic T.V. series have taken this to a whole new depth with shows such as Dexter in which the character is a serial killer - yet considered a good guy because he only kills serial killers, Breaking Bad in which the main character - a high school teacher - gets into the business of making crystal meth and therefore radically enhancing the drug trade business, Mad Men in which the main character will do just about anything to get where he thinks he needs to go, Sons of Anarchy, and the list goes on...Each series has a main character and countless characters in supporting roles who seem rooted in nothing meaningful or true and possess a conscious indifference to moral behaviour.It is interesting that in absolutely each case the main character is kind of cute and in some ways quite likeable, which somehow softens the seriousness of their self-centered, destructive behaviour.
So, the point of the article to which I am referring is that the culture in which we live watches this stuff, and slowly, through the continual exposure to this behaviour over time, is being desensitized to sin. Indeed, we are human and we do sin, and it may very well be that we are increasingly desensitized to the reality of sin because of shows such as these. We put ourselves and our own wants before others . . . and shows such as these affirm that this is O.K. We indulge ourselves in uncharitable thoughts and gossip that have the potential to destroy the lives of people around us. We live in a litigious society where people are more likely to slap a law suit against a perceived wrong doing rather than pursue forgiveness and reconciliation. And shows such as the ones highlighted in this article condone all of this to the point that there seems an increased tolerance toward such values and behaviour.
All this creates and continues to create a wilderness. This is the wilderness in which we live. And John the Baptist is the voice crying into this wilderness, urging us to prepare for the coming of Christ; to repent of our sins and discover the forgiveness that is so freely and generously given.
Unlike any of the characters that are portrayed in these television series, our lives are rooted in faith - a faith that holds us to a much higher standard. A faith which teaches us that our primary goal in life is to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength . . . and to love our neighbour selflessly. This simple mandate is what must inform all that we are and all that we do. So, during this season of Advent, perhaps we can take some inventory of our patterns of behaviour; look at the decisions we make - the way we treat others - the priorities we set, and discern whether we are being more informed by the teaching of our faith or by the standards of the culture in which we live (as portrayed on so much of what is found on television),
Within the context of our day to day lives, how are we doing in our relationships with one another? Are we treating each other justly and with kindness and fairness? Are we avoiding the temptation to either initiate or get caught up in gossip that may be harmful to others? Are we seeking to forgive those by whom we have been offended, or are we seeking revenge?
And, as we reflect on our lives within the broader context of the world in which we live, how are we doing? Where in the wilderness might John the Baptist be calling us to repent? Are we sharing generously what we have received, or are we feeding our own wants and desires while neglecting the needs of others. If every individual who has received more than what they need was to share generously with those who don’t have enough there would be no hunger or poverty in the world. Are we supporting a world view that perpetuates a culture based on greed? Are we intentional about where we spend our money? Are we doing the necessary research in order to understand more fully exactly what we are supporting when we spend our money?
John the Baptist cries out to us today - within this wilderness time - and urges us to reflect on these hard questions. He is calling us to identify those patterns of behaviour that tear down the Kingdom that Jesus came to build up / repent of our sins and accept the forgiveness that Jesus has so freely given through his death on the cross.
The season of Advent is a time during which we are called to take a long hard look at our lives and repent. And because we are human, this is a lifelong process, which is why we need season of Advent each year in order to take stock and prepare.
As Miroslav Volf has so aptly reminded us, God knew about the inevitability of human sin as he was deciding to create the world. So, he proactively created a plan as a way to respond. The arrival of Jesus is that plan. God knows we are unable to do this on our own so He has sent Jesus to come and absorb into himself the burden of our sin. That's what the cross is all about. And it is sin that put him there (greed, covetousness, hatred, selfishness...) And it is through Jesus that we are forgiven.
I can't stress this enough, because everything else depends on this central truth, which is why Mark's Gospel begins in this way. Prepare for the coming of Christ through repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As we continue to grow in our own understanding of this central truth, as we confront our own sin and with God's grace repent - we will absolutely discover the birth of the Christ child in new and surprising ways.
And, what follows from this important self examination, repentance and forgiveness is amazing and miraculous . . . all at the same time. When we come to terms with our own wretchedness, confront and name our own sinfulness, and place all that on the foot of the cross where all forgiveness has already been given, then we can recognize that same gift in those whom we (ourselves) have not yet forgiven. I want you to think right now of someone with whom you are at odds; a relationship that is fractured or broken; someone whose behaviour has been hurtful to you or to others. Because, once we have truly recognized God's forgiveness in our own lives, then the natural next step is to offer that same gift to others; to be channels through which that forgiveness is made known in the church and in the world. It must begin with us.
This is radically different from the core values found in so much of what we may see on television and throughout our culture today. The Desert Fathers teach us that way to spiritual wholeness is to focus on our own need for forgiveness. They taught that we will know we're on the right track when we no longer notice the sins of others. Indeed, John the Baptist cries out to us in the wilderness of our own time, preparing us so that our hearts may become the birthplace of Jesus. Rooted in the ancient teaching of our faith and through the living examples of our lives let us show the world a better way than greed, hatred, selfishness... Let us confront and confess our sins and lay them at the foot of the cross where all forgiveness is found so that we, then, may forgive others as we ourselves have been forgiven. And, I pray, that each of us here may be channels through which this extraordinary gift of forgiveness may be made known in the church and throughout the world.