Many people have been asking for a copy of the sermon Bishop Terry Finlay preached on December 6 on the topic of forgiveness. If you know someone who requires a print copy please contact the parish office.
I am always curious about how, someone as strange as John the Baptist was able to attract so many people to his ministry in the desolate wilderness of Judea. When I was a child, I thought he was a frightening figure who sometimes appeared in my nightmares. Who was this fierce creature dressed in animal skins, eating bugs of all things, and shouting at me in such a threatening way?
I was glad to read lately that well-known preacher Barbara Brown Taylor felt the same way. She said, “Why did people flock to him; I cannot figure it out. Everything I know about John makes me think I would have gone out of my way not to see him. He sounds too much like those street evangelists who wave their bibles and tell you that you are going straight to hell if you do not repent right now.”
As Flannery O’Connor said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd!”
Yet flock to him they did, defying bandits and danger, they came from the surrounding countryside and even as far away as Jerusalem. And getting there was not easy. I was surprised during my visit to Israel to see that for myself. I think I expected the wilderness to be a flat, sandy scrubland. Instead it is a bleak, stone-covered expanse of deep ditches and ravines, a harsh, rocky, grey landscape.
And what drew them to come from far and near to listen to this man of the wilderness? Were they just coming to see an oddball sideshow, or was there something more happening? Were they actually hearing the authentic voice of a prophet? A voice not heard in Israel for over 300 years?
Herb O’Driscoll, well known Anglican writer, tells us that John was part of a movement among young men of the time; he was a Nazarite, a man of the desert, a person of contemplation and ascetic living. He dressed in a way that reminded people of Elijah and he spoke with a conviction that touched chords of insight.
Unlike others who may have been preaching and teaching around the countryside, he was not on an ego trip, he was pointing beyond himself. He made it clear his ministry was only a preparation for someone else, someone whose arrival would be good news for humanity.
This was the impetus behind all his energy, commitment, and urgency. He wanted people to be ready for the great Teacher who was coming, so John spoke powerfully to them, calling them to think about their values and their priorities in a way that challenged their lives.
As Harry Truman, outspoken former president of the U.S. said, “I never give them hell. I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”
I think sometimes, though, that we shortchange John’s great message. We think of John as someone raging about repentance, the weird person with the sign on the street corner. But we neglect to focus on the other part of his story, his offer of forgiveness. He literally gave them a clean start, a bath of forgiveness in the River Jordan, the chance to start again.
For me, the offer of forgiveness is one of the great treasures of the church. William Willimon, formerly chaplain of Duke University Chapel tells the story of a noted scholar and visiting lecturer who spoke on the major world religions by giving one or two aspects that made each faith unique or noteworthy. For Islam he mentioned the way faith penetrates every aspect of life and stresses prayers throughout the day. In Hinduism he admired the broadness of the faith and the way it attempts to embrace all reality. Finally he came to Christianity and the listeners were curious what he would say was unique about our faith. “Forgiveness,” he said, “Christianity is unusual in its focus upon, its demand for,… forgiveness.”
And forgiveness is not just something we receive; it is something we are expected to give. John told us that true repentance brought divine forgiveness. But when Jesus arrived he took this further and made it clear that we too are expected to pass on forgiveness to others, as difficult as that may be, we are to do what we can.
A most powerful example of that was vividly brought home to me a few years ago. On a trip to South Africa I visited Robbin Island. You may remember that this remote island was the place where Nelson Mandela spent 28 years of his life, imprisoned for crimes against the racist government of South Africa. Here in a cramped, austere cell, he paid the price for being an outspoken critic and activist against the evils and injustice of apartheid.
As our boat approached the island through wild and stormy seas, I thought back to the day we stared at the television screen and wept as Nelson Mandela walked out of that place to freedom, we were dazzled by his grace and dignity after such a long punishment.
The prison is now a museum, and my guide, David Matandi, was himself a former prisoner for 16 years. During the struggle, he had been a freedom fighter in the military wing of the ANC but now he took groups through the former prison and tried to redeem something from his past for the future.
I was with a group of European university students and I doubt any of us shall forget David’s words that day. He talked to us about the miracle of the growing community that lives on the island. Here former guards and wardens and prisoners now meet together regularly. They work together and live side by side in the community without animosity.
He said that once freedom came, they realized they could not carry the burden of hatred from the past. “If we were going to build a new future,” he said, “we knew we would have to find a way to let go of the anger and the pain and forgive each other.” Of course, they remember the past, but they have to work it out, or, as David said, “It would cripple our new lives, we would just be hurting ourselves.”
It was a powerful message, strongly stated and I shall hear it ringing in my ears for a long time to come. Forgiveness can change peoples’ lives in amazing ways.
John the Baptist knew this. His is a lively story of a strange man who drew people out of the comfort of the synagogue into a wilderness where he helped them to face the truth about themselves and their relationships. He asked them to offer up their weaknesses and mistakes and in return gave them the marvelous gift of forgiveness. Most important of all, he gave them the good news that the great Teacher, full of truth and grace, was coming to live among them.
Like those people gathered on the banks of the Jordan many years ago, we here at All Saints need to hear this challenging message. During this busy season of Advent, I hope each of us will take time to reflect on our lives and accept with humility the gift of forgiveness at so many levels.
This is an amazing community with a strong involvement in social justice but we need to re-think what it means to be a Christian community in need of forgiveness for ourselves and for others .. no more power struggles, no more crippling anger, no more intimidation … just begin the journey of forgiveness given and forgiveness received. May we then be ready to receive the Christ child with a clean start and live that out in the coming days. If Nelson Mandela can do it, … if the Robbin Island community can do it ,,, then we can do it … knowing that something marvelous and new lies ahead. Amen, my friends, Amen