The readings today invite us to talk about sin. One of the advantages to using a lectionary cycle of readings instead of having the preacher choose is that sometimes we are invited to address subjects that we might otherwise avoid, and sin is an unpopular subject outside of fire-and-brimstone preaching. But that is the invitation for today, so let’s talk about sin and we’ll see if I can tell you something you don’t already know. But let me preface that with some thoughts about this season; I promise you I will arrive back at the subject of sin!
Advent is sometimes compared with Lent in that both are seasons of waiting and preparation with attention being paid to our own levels of preparedness or lack thereof. So it’s easy to be misled by the similarities into thinking they are basically the same; in fact Advent is sometimes called a little Lent. But there are also key differences. Lent is a time of penitence, of fasting, of focusing on our inner lives and how we come up short of what we want to carry into our relationship with God; a focus on our moral life if you will. Advent seems to emphasize more our community life and our shortcomings in relationship with others; our ethical lives if you will. Lent recalls liturgically the time of Jesus’ presence on earth, as he attracted more and more opposition, leading to his death and ultimate resurrection. Advent recalls liturgically the time of waiting for the first appearance of the Messiah on earth, with people knowing only that God had promised his coming, and that the Messiah and salvation are linked.
Advent is a melange of warning, desperation, comfort, waiting and promise. As such, it seems to me that the message of Advent is just what this year of 2020 calls for. We have been through a year that began with warnings, which has at all times felt desperate, which has had us seeking comfort while being denied comfort in all the usual places, and which has been typified throughout by waiting for the fulfillment of the promise that some day it will be rectified, it will be over. Advent is built on the experience of the sun disappearing to the south and believing in the promise that it will return. It is a season when the first light of dawn is appearing on the horizon and we are trying to figure out whether to trust it.
I’m talking about several things here – the pandemic, the politics, the killings of unarmed black people and the subsequent demonstrations, the fights over masks and denial, the separation from families, the inability to attend church as well as our usual comforts of restaurants, bars and sports, among the other things we have had to put off or replace as best we could. Advent is built for this, as a reminder of what Christianity believes, what it has been through, the things we have done and failed to do, the things we have accomplished, the things we wish we had done better, the things we wish we could do over, the fulfillments we have had to wait for.
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of what I’m learning and what it is costing. I keep finding myself fishing back in time to what the Christians of other ages thought and did when faced with enormous and explosive challenges to what they believed, and I think I am learning to understand them better, which is hard but not bad. It helps to remember that however difficult the things they went through, they came out the other side; or at least the survivors did.
What are you leaning on in these days? What are you learning? Let’s see how the readings for today can be useful for this season of Advent.
Advent focuses for these first few weeks on the message of John the Baptist that we need to prepare ourselves for the incarnation of God’s Messiah. It continues with the assurance that the promise of that Messiah will be fulfilled, indeed that promise is being fulfilled already even if we can’t see it. The beginning of Advent takes us to a region desperately tired of being dominated by a ruthless foreign invader, with the Jews trying to understand which religious sects were really speaking for God, trying to understand why God was not responding to their pleas. Advent continues with personal warnings to prepare ourselves coupled with the promise that God’s salvation will soon appear.
The people were leaning on the hope contained in prophets like Isaiah, who were very hard on the nation as it drifted away from adherence to God’s laws but who were also enormously hopeful about the future, telling the people that God might seem to have abandoned them, but would bring about a restoration. God had not forgotten the people of Judah and Israel though it might have seemed like that. The prophecies were of a hard-earned salvation, earned by living through the consequences of their own waywardness.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar to today’s ears?
Don’t you love to read the words of the prophet and poet Isaiah as he says “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” But then come some harder words: “…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This is the promise of knowing that the punishment is ended, not the promise that the people get to skip the punishment; but yes, it is comforting to know that there is an end to it all, that a restoration is coming, that there is a way back to the condition of blessedness. To hear the words “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” is to hear words of grace.
The reason, by the way, that so many of the prophetic scriptures are set in poetic lines is that the function of prophet was also the function of poet. The two callings were mingled, perhaps because the words of prophecy can best be conveyed by poetry. Poetry has always been used to go beneath the surface of emotions and facts to look for truth. That is what we need at times like these; to seek the Spirit of God and listen to whatever we find in our seeking; to step above the day-to-day concerns and see what that looks like.
We don’t like being reminded of how far we fall short, and we are used to our human responses when we are accused of wrongdoing – the demands, the condemnation, the rejection – or when we accuse others of wrongdoing. Christians have a variety of histories and traditions around sin, from the confession to the judgements imposed to the forgiveness offered to the atonements demanded. We are most comfortable when we focus on the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice has cleansed us from sin and canceled God’s judgement. We are aware of the demands that we forgive others as we have been forgiven, which we say whenever we repeat the Lord’s Prayer. Some of us find it easier to forgive others, some of us find it easier to forgive ourselves. Many people struggle with the notion that God will forgive those who are guilty of terrible sins. Many of us struggle with the notion that God can forgive us. Both of those struggles find a place in my own head. We find at the same time the desire for others to experience appropriate consequences for their behaviors, and the desire to avoid consequences for our own; or the fear that we will, in fact, receive consequences.
As we move from the Hebrew scriptures to the New Testament scriptures we are used to thinking of them as less judgmental, less wrathful, more focused on forgiveness and less on punishment. But if we are willing to avoid the temptation to skip over the hard pieces, we find uncomfortable things there as well. 2 Peter reminds us that if we don’t pay attention, the consequences can sneak up on us like a thief in the night, and he tells us that Jesus is not returning as quickly as expected because God is trying to cleanse as many as possible before the consequences arrive. The problem with delayed consequences, as 2 Peter lays out, is we may begin to think they will never happen. That results in a loss of focus. We are told to pay attention to our sinfulness and work with God to break its hold on us. In 2 Peter salvation is offered by grace, but we need to pay attention and grasp what is offered. Grace is offered unconditionally, but we have to accept or receive it. This reminder is also part of Advent.
The first act in the event of the Messiah’s coming, after the birth itself of course, is the appearance of John baptizing people for repentance of their sins. We are told by him that if we pay attention to the need for confession and forgiveness we will meet the Messiah, who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
All this talk about sin presupposes that we all know what sin is. Do we? Most of us are used to thinking of sin as committing particular acts that violate a moral or ethical norm. They might be things that are illegal, or they might not be. In the Middle Ages, there were books published as guides for the priests that listed all the possible sins people might commit, together with the proper atonements. But while the Bible does list individual sins here and there, and focuses particularly on breaking the Mosaic laws, it has an overarching understanding of what sin is. The individual laws are simply expressions of that understanding.
The Greek word that is translated as “sin” is hamartia (ἁμαρτία), which is a term from archery meaning to miss the mark. It is a failure to accomplish what we as humans, and members of God’s kingdom, are supposed to do – to hit the target, to hit what we should be aiming for. The catechism in the Prayer Book asks “What is sin?” and answers, “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people and with all creation.” So we could say that what God asks of us is a proper relationship with God, with other people and with all creation, and sin means to miss the mark of either accomplishing that or trying to accomplish it.
When Jesus was asked what the most important law was he said “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” and oh, incidentally, to love our neighbors as ourselves. The other laws, and all the things we find in the prophets, are simply illustrations of that.
So there is a trap to thinking about sin as doing bad things, although doing bad things is certainly sinful. The trap is that we might deny we are doing those things, or think we have solved the problem by making a list of the things we shouldn’t do and then behaving accordingly. Rightly understood, however, sin is simply selfishness. To beat sin what we have to do is focus in on our need to love better, to avoid breaking relationship, to understand that God loves us, God loves all others, and that as Creator, God loves the creation. The sad fact of being human is that we tend to fail at all of those realizations and foci.
So seeking and receiving forgiveness are necessities even when we think we have been “good,” because the human condition is that we are always trying to hit the mark but not always hitting it. We are mediocre archers at best! That is why we need a Messiah rather than just needing a set of laws.
I want to make a point here about broken relationships, which is that we can’t always blame ourselves for them Human relationships can be broken without our help, and our determination to love others despite what they have done doesn’t mean everything will be fine. But that doesn’t mean the relationship is broken by us or that we have to fix it. We just need to avoid breaking it ourselves, and fix it if we can. We can love people whose relationships with us are toxic without exposing ourselves to the toxicity. We can forgive without allowing ourselves to be used, which is a part of loving ourselves.
If it is true that we always have to be in a good relationship with everyone, then God is asking the impossible of us. Jesus did not have a good relationship with Judas Iscariot, but that was not Jesus’ fault nor was it sinful, because he kept the door open and did not break the relationship himself.
So think of Advent as a time to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Messiah into our homes and hearts. That did not happen just once; it happens continually as we determine to do what we can to avoid missing the mark. If we feel good about our Advent journey it will be far easier to welcome the infant Messiah when Christmas arrives.