Many, many years ago, my father was teaching me how to paint. Of course, I wanted to get right to it and start to slap the paint on the wall but, he told me about preparation. First, we had to clear out the room. Then, put down drop cloths to catch any paint that might get spilled. Next, remove the hardware from the doors and all receptacles and switch plates.
Next, we had to remove all of the nails or anything else that might be sticking out from the wall. After all of that, the holes were filled with putty. That was it for the first day. The next day, we sanded everything and then ran our hands over the wall and sanded any rough spots that we might find. The next step was to wipe everything down to remove any dust from the walls and baseboards to be painted. That was the end of the second day.
The third day began with getting all of the supplies we might need, paint, brushes, rollers, poles, stirring sticks, rags, etc. Now it was finally time to put the paint on the wall. So it was day three, and we finally got to the task at hand, slapping the paint on the wall.
My father explained that putting the paint on the wall was only a tiny part of the job. If you wanted the job to look right and last, you had to prepare. Preparation, he said, was 90% of the job.
Preparation is what Advent is all about, and that is precisely what we hear from the lips of John the Baptist this morning in the Gospel reading, prepare the way of the Lord.
John was the cousin of Jesus. It is unclear if they knew each other, but my guess is they did. Jesus’ family and the family of John did not live far from each other. Mary, the mother of Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the mother of John, in a story that we will hear in a few weeks. John’s job was to prepare the way for Jesus. He called the world to repentance in preparation for what would happen next.
Repentance is one of those strange things. No one likes to admit when we have done something wrong, but acknowledging our wrongdoings is an essential part of our spiritual life. Of course, we do not want to talk about sin; sin is one of those words that is not polite; however, it applies to all of us.
Now, I do not believe there are any murders among us this morning, but there are other ways of sinning, not just big ones. Sin is simply missing the mark. The goal of the spiritual life is to be more Christlike and, if you are anything like me, we fail at it daily. That is what sinning is, striving for the goal and not quite making it.
However, we know that God forgives us in those times of failing. The system was set up that way. God says, “I’m going to give you an example to follow, and I know none of you will be able to follow that example completely so, I have made provision for that, it’s called forgiveness.” This is great, but it comes with a bit of a caveat.
For forgiveness to be complete, there needs to be an acknowledgment of our incompleteness. Therefore, in the Lord’s pray we pray, “forgive us our trespasses,” that is, acknowledging our need for forgiveness before God. This is not to say that if we do not ask for it, God will not forgive us, certainly not. But we acknowledge that we need forgiveness for ourselves, for it helps us not to make the same mistakes.
The other part of repentance is the promise to try not to do whatever it is again and to strive to be a little better tomorrow than we were today. This is where growth in the spiritual life comes in, the daily task of being better than we were yesterday.
So, what is the mark we are trying to achieve?
Jesus left us with two simple commandments. First, he summarized all of the law and the previous teaching when he said, Love God with your whole heart, your whole mind, and your whole soul and love your neighbor. So, we love God with all that we have and love and care for those around us. It is that simple. Love God, love everyone.
In effect, Jesus wiped away all of the liturgical sacrifice and other such things that had been imposed on the people. There was no longer a need for sacrifice for forgiveness; we had direct access to God to seek forgiveness. The sacrifice is us and our desire to put God first in our lives and to care for those around us.
We need to strive to put God first in our lives. Study God’s word and spend time in prayer each day. These might seem like easy tasks, but I think we can all agree that it is not as easy as it sounds.
Caring for others has to go past the idea of taking care of their material wants and needs. Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeding, clothing, and housing folks; Jesus talks about that as well. But how do we feel about others in our hearts?
Who are we to love? Close your eyes for a moment. Think about the one person you know or know of that makes your blood boil to be around. The person that if they were on fire, you would put it out by banging on them with a stick. That is the person you are called to love. It’s easy to love those who love us back, but we are not called to take the easy road.
A moment ago, I mentioned the Lord’s Prayer and our asking for our trespasses to be forgiven. I purposefully left off the second part of that line, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Forgive us as we forgive. Forgiveness of others is essential in our lives for spiritual and psychological reasons.
If someone has done us wrong, and we withhold forgiveness, we give them power over a bit of piece of our lives. When we forgive, we take that power back. We can forgive the other even if they do not acknowledge that they have wronged us; forgiveness is for you, not for the other person. Let me say that again; when we offer forgiveness, it is for us, not for the other person.
And forgiveness does not mean forgetting. Just because we have forgiven someone does not mean we need to forget what they did or did not do. We are not called to take everything thrown at us, and we are not called to be doormats that are taken advantage of. Seeking justice is part of forgiveness, so we can forgive the person or persons but still wish to see justice done.
In a few moments, we will partake in the Sacrament of Communion. We will be asking Jesus to dwell in each of us in a very tangible and physical way. We need to make ready; we need to prepare; therefore, on Sunday’s when communion is served, we recite a prayer of confession. We acknowledge that we have missed the mark, ask for the forgiveness of God and others, and hear an assurance that we have been forgiven.
Friends, the act of acknowledging that we have done wrong is not designed to make you feel bad; it is simply an awareness that we can and will do better, and we seek God’s help in doing just that, being better.
John came to call us to repentance to make the crocked place straight and the rough places smooth. Let us strive to do just that and to use this time of Advent to prepare for the coming of the Christ Child.