My sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2013
I don’t think John the Baptist would have an Elf on his shelf. For those who don’t have kids, Elf on the shelf is the trend of Christmas 2012 and 2013 where you get this little elf that sits in your house and you tell your kids that the Elf is going to report to Santa every night on whether the child has been naughty or nice… the elf is Santa’s Big Brother style spy. If you’re good—you get presents. If you’re bad… look out. There have been moments this week in Nathan’s behavior where I really would have liked to be able to say something like, “If you do that, the Elf will know and tell Santa!” so I totally get why this is a fun family activity and I don’t want anyone who has an Elf on the Shelf to feel bad… but I think it’s a very different take on sin than what we get today in the Gospel with John the Baptist preaching repentance. Elf on the shelf is about never sinning.. at least visibly. You can only sin in the next room over. You are naughty or you are nice. It’s about who you are, not about how you handle your inevitable sin.
John the Baptist is crying out “repent!” In Greek, the word is metanoia, and it means to turn around. To repent is to turn away from our sin and go in a different direction. That’s different from experiencing God as spying on us and judging us. Repentance is about self-judgment. Repentance is about using our knowledge of good and evil—discerned from God’s revelation through scripture, through the laws and mores of our time, through the response of our neighbors, and our own hearts—to determine that we have done something wrong or sinful, and choosing to turn away from it. He preaches his message of repentance—and the crowds come by the thousands, confess, repent and are baptized.
And those crowds include “many” Pharisees and Sadducees. John takes them to task for coming and joining in the ritual… He doesn’t seem to experience their presence as genuine; perhaps they’re only there because baptism in the Jordan was becoming trendy—a 1st Century Elf on the shelf. But I find it interesting in Matthew’s gospel that the Pharisees and Sadducees are coming not just to be voyeurs, but to be participants. They are coming to be baptized. They are coming to confess their sins and repent. Allowing for some skepticism, it speaks to me that even the people who were relatively powerful at that time and place, and who were religiously privileged, felt that something was lacking—that John’s message of repentance was something they needed, too.
What interests me today is what brings them there. Why is the message of repentance so compelling to so many people—both then and now, because our conversation at Bible and Brewskis this week was one of the more vibrant we’ve ever had when we brought up sin and repentance. What brings us to the Jordan? What brings us to a place where we feel a need to repent? What is it about speaking openly about our sins that is actually compelling and cathartic—instead of trying to hide them?
Dr. Brene Brown is a social worker and researcher whose work on vulnerability and shame went viral after she gave a TED talk in 2010. It’s available on YouTube, and I highly recommend it as a good way to spend 20 minutes—perhaps as part of your Advent preparation. I find her work resonates with a lot of people and is helpful when we think about sin, guilt, repentance and forgiveness. Dr. Brown bases some of her research on people who are “whole hearted” on distinguishing between shame and guilt.
Perhaps against our cultural instincts, guilt is good. It’s a like a little take off on Gordon Gecko: Guilt is good. When you do something wrong, you should feel guilty. You should feel bad. Guilt can make us do good things: apologize, make right our mistakes, repent and change direction so that we don’t do the bad thing again. Guilt can inspire us to connect more deeply to the people around us. But you feel guilt because you have done something bad, not because you are something bad.
When we do something bad and feel like we are something bad because of it, that’s not guilt, that’s shame. Shame is not helpful. Shame prevents us from connecting to others, isolates us, and inhibits our ability to apologize and truly repent. When we act out of shame, we do not experience metanoia—we do not turn around. We move blindly forward, because we don’t believe we—or our circumstances—can change. I would add theologically to Brene Brown’s research to say that when we act out of shame, we do not believe forgiveness is a possibility—and if we don’t believe forgiveness is a possibility, then you should just deny and hide your sins because there is no way to be free of them.
John raises the stakes of our anxiety this week with his binary clarity about wheat and chaff. The wheat is valuable and the chaff needs to be burned. We hear this and assume that either you are wheat or you are chaff. You’re naughty or nice. But think back to Brene Brown’s work on guilt and shame. A person who feels guilt says, “I am a grain of wheat that has chaff around it that I need to let go of and burn.” They know they have value—and also know that not everything about them has value. There are some things we need to let go of, and consign them to the flames. The person who lives out of shame says, “I am chaff and I have to cover that up so no one will realize it and throw me into the fire.” They do not recognize the kernel of grain inside themselves, and aren’t willing to risk starting to burn off the chaff so that that grain can become visible.
God calls us this Advent—and always—to let go of our shame. To bear fruits worthy of repentance, because we are worthy of repentance. We are worthy of forgiveness. You are God’s beloved child, and you are worthy of forgiveness from God; you are worthy of forgiveness from your neighbor; and you are worthy of forgiveness from yourself. We are so worthy that God sends his Son to us this season, to be born in that stable, to teach and preach and heal, to die, and to be raised.
Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” To abound in hope means to believe in the possibility for forgiveness. To abound in home means to believe in our infinite worth as children of God. May this Advent be a season of hope abounding in each one of you. Amen.