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December 10, 2006 (Advent II)—“I Can’t; God Can”

Interim Pastor Steven Jensen

Luke 3:1–6

Perhaps if we want to properly prepare for the coming of Jesus, rather than looking in the manger, or decorating trees and houses, or buying and wrapping presents, we need to listen to John the Baptist. While only two gospels mention the nativity, all four talk about John who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus.

The word of God caused John to preach a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, not just a regular ritual cleansing. Perhaps for Luke, the foremost characteristic of Christians is repentance—“upon reflection, a change in one’s mind or thinking” (Greek).

I’m still learning about repentance and find that everyday people and events give me new insights. This week I was the Navy League representative at the December 7th Pearl Harbor commemoration and was able to bring Intern Pastor Derek as my guest. The 65th anniversary was billed as the “last” formal remembrance by the remaining survivors who gather every five years at the site. The remaining 350 survivors recognize that there will be many of them who will not live to the next ceremony, and others will be too infirm to travel. That was one more sobering realization amidst other sobering reflections that day.

It was easy to strike up conversations with the survivors. Many needed to tell their story while they were still able. Others, however, came to Pearl Harbor to make peace with the events of the day, the perpetrators, and the military hierarchy who failed to head off the attack—and with themselves. I know no one here ever exaggerates their contribution during a life-altering event, but a few among that group acknowledged that they did and needed to acknowledge that—and to give credit to the true heroes.

I found it telling that one of the first groups to lead off the pier-side ceremony was a Buddhist priest from the Japanese peace organization that has participated the past 20 years or so. She told the audience that they needed to regularly remind themselves to repent of attitudes and desires that lead to war and hope that their lessons need not be learned by others in the same way they had to learn them.

Later we also attended the opening ceremony for the Pacific Aviation Museum on Ford Island. Chuck Yeager and Wally Schirra were featured speakers, but the special guests were Japanese Zero pilots who had participated in the attack. They later said they needed to attend to show their remorse and repentance for their attack and to assure survivors that they had lived very different lives after the war—ones that sought peace, harmony and brotherhood.

In addition to that poignant day, I made several hospital visits this week and discovered that no matter the malady, many conversations revolved around a recognition that we do not know the number of our days God has given us, and it is never too early to prepare to meet Him. We also talked of repenting of saying, “That’s just the way I am,” when it comes failing to share with loved ones how much they mean to us or how they have made our lives worth the living. No one else can give such a gift to those in our lives, and changing our attitude about sharing that information is critical.

What else is there about our thinking that needs changing? Simply stated, I think that it is the idea that we can do it by ourselves. We are justified before God by our good lives. We are pretty good people because we obey the commandments. We aren’t as bad as those sinners. And, if we find we are coming up short in some of these areas, we might reflect on our misdeeds only to discover ways that we can stop doing the bad things and start doing good things. The problem with this type of repentance is that it doesn’t seek outside help. The mind still thinks, “I can do it by myself.” It hasn’t been changed.

I think that the reason Jesus had so much trouble with the scribes and Pharisees was because they were doing pretty well by themselves. They were living good, moral, obedient lives before God and neighbor. In contrast, the sinners and tax collectors were quite aware that they didn’t measure up to God’s or society’s standards. They knew that they couldn’t do it by themselves. They needed help. Repentance is declaring to self and God, “I can’t.”

12-Step programs begin with the first step, which is an acknowledgment that I can’t do it by myself: “We admitted we were powerless over (addiction)—that our lives had become unmanageable.”

Having worked as a chaplain with various substance abuse centers, it was clear that the more seriously the clients took this first step, the more likely they were to follow through the program and find the needed help in the other steps. They knew that they could not do it by themselves. They knew they needed their higher power. They knew they needed the care and support of the AA community. If they continued to think that they had some power over their drinking or other addiction, recovery and sobriety were very unlikely. It was also generally true that the first step back into their addictions was a failure to keep up with their daily devotions—(AA has its own devotional book)—and participation in the “community”—(going to meetings). How important are devotions and church attendance for staying strong in the Christian faith?

The other side of confessing “I can’t” is “God can.” God can “remove” our sinfulness. Every time the word “sin” is used in Luke, the words for “to forgive” or “forgiveness” are also present.

At least for Luke—and I believe for us—we cannot talk about sin without the offer of forgiveness. Robert Capon in Hunting the Divine Fox, points out the church’s real job.

The church is not in the morals business. The world is in the morals business, quite rightfully; and it has done a fine job of it, all things considered. The history of the world’s moral codes is a monument to the labors of many philosophers, and it is a monument of striking unity and beauty. As C.S. Lewis said, anyone who thinks the moral codes of mankind are all different should be locked up in a library and be made to read three days’ worth of them. He would be bored silly by the sheer sameness.
What the world cannot get right, however, is the forgiveness business—and that, of course, is the church’s real job. She is in the world to deal with the sin which the world can’t turn off or escape from. She is not in the business of telling the world what’s right and wrong so that it can do good and avoid evil. She is in the business of offering, to a world which knows all about that tiresome subject, forgiveness for its chronic unwillingness to take its own advice. But the minute she even hints that morals, and not forgiveness, is the name of her game, she instantly corrupts the Gospel and runs headlong into blatant nonsense.

The “moral church” becomes, not Ms. Forgiven Sinner, but Ms. Right. Christianity becomes the good guys in here versus the bad guys out there. Which, of course, is pure tripe. The church is nothing but the world under the sign of baptism.

Luke adds the other verses to his quote of Isaiah 40:3—those about the transformation of the ups and downs, and sideways-ness of life into straight and smooth and level paths. While this image can lead to the idea of reversal—that is, the rich become poor and the poor become rich—it seems more likely that Luke intends a meaning of equality. In other words, the rich and poor meet in the middle. I think that part of this equality is Luke’s emphasis that in God’s kingdom (and church) human differences don’t matter. There will be rich and poor. There will be slaves and free. There will be males and females. There will be young and old. There will be Jews and Gentiles. There will also be straight and gay. All are invited. We might say, here there is a level playing field for all people. “All flesh will see the salvation of God.” None are excluded from the means of God’s salvation.

The only other time this particular word for “salvation” (soterion) is used in all of the gospels, is when Simeon sings: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:30-32).

What did Simeon see when he declares he has seen God’s salvation? He had seen the infant Jesus, and there was a change in Simeon’s thinking about death.

Later in the gospel a closely related word (soteria) is used when Jesus tells Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (19:9). What had come to his house? Jesus had invited himself over and there was change in Zacchaeus’ thinking about wealth.

“Savior” carried the idea of “victory over enemies.” Enemies were outside forces—an invading army or a disease that had invaded the body. Salvation meant defeating and driving out the army or healing the disease.

Jesus, the Savior, has come, and enemies are still all around us. There are still armies that invade and suppress people. There are still germs that invade bodies. There is still sin in the world and in our lives. The world isn’t what it should be. Our lives aren’t what we would like them to be. How can we say that God’s salvation has come? Nothing seems to have changed. There are still hills and valleys and crooked and rough roads. There are inequalities between people. All are not treated equally. Many people do not see God’s salvation.

Often people miss God’s salvation because they are looking in the wrong places. Like his followers in old Jerusalem, they want to see a powerful military leader or a great physician. The savior is a baby in a manger. The salvation is seen in the face of an infant or in an adult who invites himself for supper. Seeing God’s salvation means seeing Jesus—one who doesn’t save himself from death on the cross.

We don’t live in a perfect world. There are still wars. There are still diseases. There are still rough roads to travel. But we don’t look to the world to see God’s salvation, we look to Jesus—Jesus present in Scriptures—Jesus in the manger—Jesus on the cross—Jesus present in the sacraments—Jesus present in our coming together in his name—Jesus present in the lives of his followers—Jesus present and eating with sinners. Do we see Jesus’ presence in the person next to us in the pew—or behind and in front of us?

Perhaps when we begin to see Jesus in each other and in ourselves and treat one another (and ourselves) as we would treat Jesus; more of the world might have a glimpse of God’s salvation.


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