by the Rev. Robert C. Laird
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
This quote has been attributed to Winston Churchill,
who turns out to be a very deep well from which to draw inspiration for sermons;
in 1932, while in New York City,
Churchill got a prescription from an Upper East Side doctor, which read:
“This is to certify that the post-accident convalescence of the Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of
alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.
The quantity is naturally indefinite but the minimum requirements would be 250 cubic centimeters.”
This is during the tail end of prohibition, mind you,
and the prescriptions calls for at least 8½ ounces of spirits,
seemingly at each meal.
That is a LOT of alcohol.
Churchill had a notoriously stormy relationship with
Nancy Astor, the American-born wife of Waldorf Astor,
who was the first woman to win and take a seat
in the British Parliament;
both Astor and Churchill had famous wits,
and Astor was reported to have said to Churchill,
“If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,”
to which Churchill replied,
“If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
But the quote at hand is the one about history:
“Those who fail to learn from history
are doomed to repeat it.”
It’s certainly better suited to a sermon…
The quote wasn’t original to Churchill,
if he said it (which I couldn’t’ seem to prove in my research),
but echoed a sentiment that was possibly centuries old:
If we don’t look backward,
we will have trouble looking forward.
The Evangelist Mark,
the writer of our Gospel narrative today,
is keenly aware of this fact
as he presents to the reader
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ,
The Son of God.”
Mark doesn’t start us off in genealogy, like Matthew,
who is trying to tie Jesus to David;
and Mark doesn’t start with the birth of John the Baptizer,
like Luke does,
because John’s being a baby (or Jesus for that matter)
isn’t nearly as important to Mark
as what they did as adults.
Instead, Mark jumps right in:
this is the beginning of Good Tidings of Jesus,
who is the Son of God,
regardless of what you’ve heard from Rome;
as it says in Isaiah,
I am sending a messenger ahead of you,
to prepare the way,
a voice from the wilderness crying
“Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Mark is saying,
Remember your history, Israel:
Isaiah said this was going to happen,
and look, it happened:
someone who wasn’t the Messiah
came to prepare the way for the Messiah to come.
And John almost certainly have been tested in that:
he was a quintessential outsider.
He was from the wilderness, not the city;
in a time when travel was suspect,
except under certain prescribed circumstances,
that alone makes John stand out.
But he is dressed like a wild man,
and eats locusts and wild honey;
he must have been a sight to behold!
And it’s hard to imagine that John wasn’t tempted
to think of himself as the Messiah;
after all, there were lots of messiahs
running around Jerusalem at the time.
The mantle was most likely offered to him,
but he clearly refused to believe it;
“I am not even worthy to bend down
and loosen the strap of his sandals,”
John says to those who will listen.
John says to us,
“Look at where you have been,
and get ready, because Jesus is coming.”
People were leaving the city,
leaving the social and family systems
they relied on to live in that world,
and they confessed their sins
to be ready to receive Christ when he arrived.
John was not only inviting Israel to look back to Isaiah
in order to recognize Jesus when he arrived
(and to establish exactly who he, John, was,
since there must have been folks who thought
he was actually the messiah);
John was also inviting the individual people
to look into their own past,
to confess their sins,
and to be forgiven, once for all.
By facing what we have done,
as individuals and as a society,
we are then able to move forward into a future
living with Christ,
who is the Messiah, the Son of God,
who calls us all to new life in him.
Of course, though, it’s not that easy.
We, as humans,
are constantly forgetting our past,
and we are constantly revisiting our mistakes.
Going back to the example of Churchill,
the seeds of World War II were sown
in the battlefields and cemeteries
of World War I.
The failure to believe that Hitler and the Nazis
could possibly be as serious as they said they were
in the run-up to WWII has provided the world with
a veritable library of historical speculation,
and yet in time even those memories will fade,
and we could yet again find ourselves in the same position.
Yet we can also look closer to home
to see the same trend in our history;
we keep building homes and creating communities
on top of fault lines, like in the Bay Area;
and in areas prone to fire, or erosion, like Malibu;
and in flood plains,
like the Red River Valley in my home of Minnesota,
or the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans,
which was ravaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina;
we never seem to learn,
even though we have the opportunity.
This point isn’t to beat us up about having made mistakes;
humans make mistakes like this all the time,
because we are human;
it’s how we’re wired,
and it’s not likely to change any time soon.
Rather, this point is to say
that we make mistakes all the time,
and what John is calling us to
is recognizing that fact,
and repenting of our sin,
that is acknowledging the ways we miss the mark,
and to be ready to correct it,
to make our aim truer,
so we hit the target more effectively.
we keep learning throughout our lives,
and we keep striving to make progress
in our relationship with God,
in making our aim truer,
in living lives more closely attuned to God;
but it’s not an easy thing
(if it were easy, then everyone would already do it).
And because we keep struggling with this as individuals,
we keep struggling with it as a society, too;
part of the reason we keep failing to learn from history
is that there are always new people in leadership;
we keep learning the same lessons over and over again
because there are always new people to learn them;
think of the many generations that have passed
since John first called us to repent;
the call is new in every generation,
because every generation is new,
and needs to learn for itself
the lessons of the previous generations.
Thank God Jesus is there with us
in the midst of it all.
That’s the Good News part
of the “Beginning of the Good News:”
we’re not on our own in all this.
Yes, we’re waiting;
it’s Advent, so we remember that we’re waiting,
and that there have been 2,000 years
of Christians before us,
all of whom were doing the same waiting that we have been,
and yet, God is there with is,
even in the midst of the waiting.
Even as we await Christ’s return in glory,
we have Jesus with us,
in our hearts, in our lives,
in the bread and wine we offer in the Eucharist,
prepared to accept our repentance,
and to bless us,
to baptize us with the Holy Spirit,
baptizing us with grace.
That is Good News indeed!
John makes a new call to us each year in Advent,
calling us to new life,
to renouncing our sins,
to preparing the way for Jesus,
in our selves, in our souls.
And we are new people each time we hear it;
as individuals, we have lived so much more of our lives
and are changed by those experiences;
as a community we are even more changed,
having both new members who are hearing the word afresh,
as well as those of us who are different than we were
the last time we heard the call.
Even though he said it 2,000 years ago,
John keeps finding a new church in need of his call,
ready to prepare the way for the Lord,
ready to make his path straight.
We always need to hear this call,
to work to make the path straight,
to welcome Christ who comes to save us,
and to love us.
And thank God we get to hear it anew each year.
I think Churchill didn’t get it exactly right;
it’s not that we are doomed to repeat history,
but rather that we are given a chance to live it anew,
as people transformed and loved.
Thanks be to God.