RCL Year A
Psalm 72.1-7, 18-19
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How often in life in life do we say ‘I’m sorry?” How often do we think it even if we don’t say it? For some of us, including me, saying I’m sorry” becomes such a part of our common everyday vocabulary of courtesy, we say it so frequently, that the words themselves almost loose their meaning. Maybe its our upbringing, our attempt to be good little boys or girls, maybe its just something in our personalities, I don’t know, but it is a habit that certainly annoys some of my friends and family, and like all habits it’s hard to break. If someone bumps into me – my immediate response is to say, “I’m sorry,” someone steps on my foot – again “I’m sorry.” A friend complains about the weather, “I’m sorry,” - as if I had anything to do with the weather or any control over it. But other times our “I’m sorry”s are not just words, they are more heartfelt, more sincere. We say, “I’m sorry” when we’re late, “I’m sorry” when we’ve forgotten a commitment, or when we’ve spilt someone’s drink. Sometimes, usually those times when it is most needed, ‘I’m sorry” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily. Sometimes it involves struggle, and real sorrow; when we’ve either intentionally or unintentionally hurt another’s feelings, when we’ve disappointed a loved one, been careless, or let down a friend. These apologies can involve real soul searching, real pain.
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” You, like me, may be more familiar with the reading “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John stands on the fringes of society, both literally and figuratively to proclaim, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is almost here and you might miss it!” What does John mean by repent? Does he mean that we should be sorry for the bad things we’ve done, or for the careless way that we’ve lived? Perhaps, but in English we often muddy the words and loose the distinction between being sorry and being repentant; they are not the same. Being sorry, or to use an old-fashioned word “contrite” is not what John the Baptist is demanding. Contrition is a feeling of remorse over something that we have done, a grievance we’ve caused, or to use a not very popular word, a sin that we’ve committed. Contrition is to have an awareness of one’s guilt, and while it is the vital first step in repentance, it is just one step. There’s an ancient Christian prayer called the Act of Contrition, many of you who grew up in the Roman Church will be familiar with it, but for us Anglicans it still exists in our prayer book as the General Confession. We use it at the Eucharist and in our daily prayers. It reads, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.”
“We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Here are those words again, sorry and repent, and they are each quite distinct. John proclaims, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The original Greek word used in Matthew’s Gospel is Metanoia. It doesn't mean to be sorry, it means instead to have a radical change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of one’s outlook, of one’s vision of the world and of oneself, it means to turn away from a path that one was on and to head in another direction. John is calling us to follow a new and unknown path; submitting our will to the will of God.
Most of us find it relatively easy to say we are sorry, and even, unless we’re sociopaths, to realize and openly acknowledge when we’ve done wrong. I can clearly see an interaction in my head. “Mom, I’m sorry.” I’d teased my brother, not cleaned my room, or committed some other childhood infraction. “It’s nice that you’re sorry, but don’t let it happen again” my mother would reply. Why is the memory of that interaction so clear? It’s because it did happen again, one thing or another, again, and again, and again, and I wasn’t even a particularly bad child. We are much the same with God and our prayers for forgiveness. We are truly sorry, but we commit the same old wrongs, the same old infractions, the same old tired sins, again, and again, and again. Why? We know what we should do; we think we know what we want to do. Why then? Because we’re human, because we’re weak; we try to stand on our own feet and find our own paths, following our own habits, and customs of doing things. We are sorry, but we forget that bit in the General Confession about walking in God’s way, about repentance, about metanoia, about turning from our own course and walking in God’s path.
Being sorry is easy, metanoia not so much. And when it comes down to it, are we really even sure that we want to change our direction; after all we kind of like our path, our plans, our independence. How committed are we to “Preparing the way of the Lord?” In his wonderful little book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis tells of a person trying to follow Jesus. “Imagine” he writes, “ yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Have you ever lived in a house undergoing renovation? Even a bathroom remodel is painful, but a whole rebuild of our cozy interior house into a palace for God, that is something else entirely, and just as in Lewis’ example, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” We each have maps and blueprints we’ve laid out for ourselves, but when John calls, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he calls us to turn away from our own paths, plans, models, and blueprints, only then can we prepare God’s way; only then can we allow God to prepare his way in us. But we cannot make that radical turn through our own abilities; we can only do it is only with God’s help and through God’s mercy. God’s grace alone can allow us to make it happen, to stay on that new path, God’s path, and to walk according to God’s plan. Paul tells us that the steadfastness and the encouragement of scripture, necessary for living in accordance with Christ Jesus come as gifts from God.
John calls the Judeans of his day to a ritual cleansing, not a baptism in the Christian sense, but to a repeatable public act of reconciliation with God. Like John’s baptism, we too are offered a repeatable ritual of reconciliation with God; you can find it in the prayer book on page 446, the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or in older terms, Confession. It is a rite that Christians have used in one form or another for centuries, particularly in Advent and Lent. If this is new to you, when you have a few moments, take a look at the notes, read the words of the ritual. Talk to a priest. I guarantee that if you avail yourself you will find it a blessing. To paraphrase a common Anglican saying regarding Reconciliation, “All may, none must, most should.”
After all being sorry is easy, metanoia not so much. But metanoia is what we must have, what we must find through the grace of God, if we are to reach it, the kingdom of God, the city on the hill. And it is near at hand, just over that hill, just beyond the bend, a kingdom where the wolf lives with the lamb, where the leopard lies down with the kid, and the calf with the lion; where a little child leads them all.
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.