In these weeks leading up to December 25, our ears ring with the same worn-out words: presents and trees; decorations and Santa; and, of course, Visa and Amazon Prime. They’re all part of our common cultural vocabulary. We know the definitions and connotations. There’s no need to unwrap them.
Almost five years to the day, the prodigal son emptied his bank account, packed a few changes of clothes. and snuck off to the faraway country. Again.
The “black box.” There's a phrase that never harbors good news.
Another plane down.
Another mystery to unravel.
A thousand questions from survivors, the FAA, the media.
All demanding answers.
“There comes a time in almost everyone’s life when they feel like Adam must have felt the first time he watched the sun set. All the beauty and warmth of light morph into night. It doesn’t happen instantly. It’s not like the flip of a light switch. First there’s fear as the sun crawls toward the horizon, then bewilderment as it vanishes, then shock as the world we once knew envelops us with darkness.
She’s cooking breakfast when he stumbles through the back door of their humble Arkansas home. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt unevenly buttoned, as if done in darkness, and in haste. She doesn’t turn around. No need to. More times than she cares to remember, my great-grandmother has seen my great-grandfather looking like something the cat drug in.
Let's face it, Christianity is not for everyone.If you've made such huge strides in holiness that you deem grace a crutch for those still handicapped by sin, if you detect the faint applause of angels clapping their wings at your obedience, if you've led such an exemplary life that you've landed a spot on heaven's honor roll, then you’ll feel like you’re slumming in Christianity.
The first lie I remember telling revealed everything about the man I would grow up to be. In six false words I prophesied my future—and yours as well. Here’s what happened.
When I was a kid, I roamed the alleys and nearby fields with a pocket full of pebbles and a slingshot in hand. My grandfather had carved me the slingshot from the fork of a mesquite tree. I’d even burned my name into the wood using the sun and a magnifying glass.
It didn’t matter if it was the dead of winter or the height of spring, if it was Monday or Friday, raining or the sun shining, a frown was frozen on this man’s face.
We’re in trouble when we start feeling good about feeling bad. It happens frequently on Ash Wednesday. We file forward toward the pastor, who stands there with a dirty thumb upstretched, as if hitchhiking his way toward Holy Week.
The little psychologist within us is often hard at work to pinpoint the origin of our life’s problems. During marital strife, we sift through everything from sexual proclivities to spending habits to discover the source of our discontent. When raising a rebellious child, we replay every episode in his upbringing to determine where things may have gone awry. We want to know when Pandora’s box was cracked open, introducing mayhem into our lives.
I finally climbed all 109 mountains. My journey began out of desperation, fueled by anger and fear. I didn't how how long it would take, nor the toll it would take from me.
I simply climbed, some days an inch, other days a few feet. And sometimes I fell backwards.
Looking back from the final peak, I realize more than ever that this journey was a gift of God.
These mountains are the 109 towering words of Psalm 13. Your tongue can speed through them in less than a minute. But to voice them with your heart and soul and mind, to pray them with blood and sweat and tears, to drag your body over each towering word—that takes time.
It took me ten years.
Are you suffering? Are you angry at God? Does your life seem like a bottle that’s toppled off the shelf and shattered into a million shards—broken, irrecoverable, useless for anything but something to fill up more space in the trash?
Do you keep asking yourself, "How can I ever move on with a life not worth living?"
Then, I beg you, as a fellow beggar, to consider the gift of Psalm 13. The Spirit's gift to us. And to begin your journey from its opening question to its closing affirmation.
The opening two verses are these:
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
As you crawl into the cold, vacant bed and your body shakes. As your eyes rain tears, you cry, “How long?”
As company after company turns down your application, as the cancer continues to eat its way through your body, as your child sinks deeper and darker into the cavernous depths of depression, you scream, “How long?”
Every emotion conspires together to convince you that your Father has forgotten that you are his child. Or worse, you suppose he has turned his back on you, written you off as a lost cause, hidden his face from you.
Rather than praying a lie by pretending all is well, this psalm places upon our lips a truthful plea. A godly complaint. These are God’s words, given as gifts to you, by which you can speak back to him. Voice your misery. Speak the truth to your Father. Climb these mountains.
The next two verses are these:
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
The highest mountain to climb in these verses is the tiny word, “my.”
He is not God but my God. He is not the Lord but my Lord, my Father, my one and only life when death looms nigh.
When our eyes are wet with tears, darkened by doubt, wide with fear, then our eyes look to our Father for aid. “My” is the possessive of faith, the evidence of things not seen. It is the hand that clings to God, the Jacob that won’t let go of the Lord with whom he’s been wrestling all night.
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," Jesus himself cried out. And we, in him, pray the same. He, in us, prays the same. And because our prayer is his and his is ours, we are heard by the Father we both address as "Our Father."
Lest I give up, carry me, my God. Lest every foe I face overwhelm me, fight for me, my God.
Claim him as yours, for he is. He has claimed you in Christ, hears you in Christ, and will answer you in Christ.
God says of you, “My child,” and you say of him, “My Father.”
The final two verses are these:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Here you have reached the summits of joy, where light drives away the darkness. There are no more questions. There are no more complaints or demands or petitions. There is trust, love, rejoicing, singing.
On this mountain you stand with Noah exiting the ark, Jonah spit forth from the fish’s belly, and Jesus walking out of the tomb on Easter morning for you.
Here God answers your question of “How long?” And he affirms that he never forgot you. He held you in the palm of his nail-pierced hand. He cannot forget the one for whom he died. He will not turn his back on the one for whom his back was whipped and pressed into the wood of the cross.
His love is steadfast, never wavering, never retreating, for he is your God and you are his child. He will deal bountifully with you. It may take years, but in those years of darkness and doubt and seeming death, he will stick by your side, shielding you with his mercy.
He will climb every mountain with you. As your high priest, he will pray every word with you. Indeed, Psalm 113 is the prayer of Jesus, as every psalm is. It is his prayer before it is ours. And it becomes ours only in him.
More suffering will come for all of us. This vale of tears is never free of crosses. As there is a time for laughter, there will always be a time for weeping.
So let us pray Christ's prayer, Psalm 13. Climb all 109 mountains in Jesus.
Question, petition, rejoice in him. And remember that one day, we will climb a far different mountain. We will ascend Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, where sorrow and sighing will flee away, where death has been swallowed up in victory, and where we, with resurrected bodies free of suffering, will behold our Lord, our God, who carried us every step of the way.
When residents near Holy Trinity Church were rattled from their sleep Saturday night by the sounds of drums and laughter and fireworks, they didn’t know what was happening. “It was like a full blown Mardi Gras had erupted next door,” one neighbor complained. The church, usually a gentle giant of a structure, dark against the midnight sky, was ablaze with a rainbow of lights and echoed with sounds of whooping and singing. Two police officers were dispatched to the scene.
He hadn’t sinned one single time in a whopping 24 years. We were standing at the gas pumps, late one Saturday night, in my home town of Shamrock, when he informed me of this biographical detail. I was a teenager, fueling my pickup for a night on the town, when this stranger approached me and struck up a conversation. He was a preacher, in town to lead a revival at one of the gazillion churches that dotted our Bible Belt community. I suppose he was out doing his own kind of evangelizing that evening, and, for some reason, I had the look of a potential convert. I asked for clarification, and, he affirmed, straight-faced, vehemently confident, that it had been one score and four years that he had lived sin-free. To this day, looking back, I wish I’d have had a flash of inspiration, and hauled back and bloodied his nose right then and there, just to test his ability to withstand temptation.
I’ve never gone 24 days without sinning. Or 24 hours. Or 24 minutes, for that matter. And neither had that man, his claims notwithstanding. I don’t know whether he was a lunatic, or worse, a hypocrite, but he was certainly one more self-deluded spiritual type who looked at the law of God as a cow stares at a new gate-- seeing but not understanding. The Lord of the law makes things difficult for us, for He not only requires outward obedience but inward obedience. Indeed, He demands inward delight in His “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” Not only must I refrain from murdering someone, even my worst enemy, but I must love him, put his interests ahead of my own, nurse him back to health if necessary, and rejoice in the life that is his. Not only must I not commit adultery, I must refrain from lusting after the body of any woman, not matter how tiny her bikini, no matter how my hormones rage, and simultaneously defend and uphold sexual purity and marital fidelity amongst all. With my mouth and my hands, in my heart and my mind, at work and home and school and church, and even in those thoughts that I alone entertain, there must be complete and uninterrupted love toward God and love towards my neighbor, a selfless devotion toward the good and an utter rejection of all that is bad.
That all being said, come to think of it, I’ve never gone 24 seconds without sinning.
But each person has his particular demon, or demons, that assault him most. Perhaps it’s pride, or lust, or selfishness for you. Maybe it takes the form of drugs or alcohol abuse, or a string of promiscuous liaisons. Maybe it’s your mouth, for gossip and slander are your bread and butter. Unless, like the preacher from my youth, you’re self-delusional, you know what lurks beneath. You know the beast within. And though you stab it with your steely knives, it keeps rising from the grave to attack you again.
Here’s the sobering truth: it’s a lifelong war. There will be no truce between the good desires and bad desires within you. Evil will wave no white flag. Don’t imagine you can arrest your demons, shackle them, put them behind bars, then spend the rest of your life in peaceful bliss. God calls you to combat, to warfare of the spirit, to holy violence against the demons within. I so often forget that. For the slothful soul within me is enamored with an easy, lazy Christianity, that says I'll just go ahead and cave to temptation, then Jesus will absolve me. But such an attitude, that supposes the Gospel is a permission slip to sin, is nothing more than a self-taught lie. God calls you to constant vigilance, for He knows that this life is a war zone. Unsheathe your knife, and kill the beast within over and over and over, for peace is completely attained only on the other side of the grave.
As you fight, cling also to this all-encompassing truth of Christianity: that Jesus of Nazareth has paid, in His own blood, for each and every failure on your part to live up to God’s law. He forgives you, and He will continue to forgive you, no matter what, no matter how many times you fail, no matter how flagrant your trespass. He is not a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of God. When the beast within overcomes you, He will wash you in the blood of the Lamb. When your righteousness does not exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, indeed, when it doesn't exceed that of the porn star and meth cook, He will strip away the filthy rags of your own righteousness and clothe you in His own white, regal raiment. When sloth and lust and greed and addiction have their way with you; when, try as you might, you eventually give in to the allurements of the world and your own flesh; He stands there with a face full of love, saying, "Come to me, all you who stink and are stained and hate what you've done, and I will forgive you, wash you, feed you, let you sleep in my own bed, and I'll sit beside you as you dream of the reality that is no dream, namely, that you are my own dear child."
I stand forgiven. I stand armed. And these two truths stand in harmony, united by the Christ who dwells within me, both as Savior and Warrior.
“When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court,” (John 8:9).
I suppose what finally got to me was him stooping down to write in the dirt. What he’d said about those having no sin casting the first stone, well, that stung, but his writing in the dirt seared. Like his finger was a hot iron, and my soul the soil.
I looked down at the dust under my feet. Adamah in my mother tongue. Thus Adam, the dirt-man. And me, no different, just worse. A dirtbag of bones and blood. And soon, probably very soon, a wrinkled body decomposing into the stuff of its origin. Just getting out of bed in the morning hurts. And, honestly, I don’t think I could even raise my arm high enough to throw this rock if I tried.
The dirt that man is writing in shall soon roll me up like a scroll. My life will be unwritten, erased by the hand of mortality. And fool that I am, I stand here threatening to snuff out the life of a woman caught in the act which I have acted out in my heart with a thousand women. Oh, one of the blessed curses of living long years like I have is filling up those years with even more sins.
What is it we pray in that psalm by Moses? “You turn man back into dust, and say, ‘Return, O children of men.’” Man spoken into being from dust spoken back into being dust. If today were several years hence, the dirt the man is writing in might well be the man I once was.
The only impression I’ll leave in the dust today will be the one left by the rock I dropped before I turned to go home to sin no more. God knows I’ve sinned enough already.
The only sinner who needed to be killed was me. The dirt-man, with sin written all over me, slain by words I couldn’t even read scribbled in soil. And in the mercy that that strange man from Nazareth showed, to the woman as well as to me, I rose again.
You’ve seen it happen, probably experienced it yourself. A serious relationship ultimately darkens. But the disappearance of its light is not like the flick of a switch. It’s more akin to the dying of a campfire: dancing flames burn down to collapsing embers. It takes time. After all, you invested some of yourself in that person. You swapped secrets, made memories, relished intimacies. Even if the relationship ended badly, you can’t simply unremember the happy times. So try as you might to move on, to evict that person from your head and heart, they seem to be everywhere. You drive past that restaurant where you enjoyed a meal together; there’s that song on the radio you danced to. With a mind full of memories, and a present pregnant with the past, learning to un-love an ex-love is an ongoing, long-term struggle.
It is not much different when that serious relationship happened to be with a particular sin. Maybe the addiction or the sex or the stealing or the violence—whatever your lover was—ultimately made your life a living hell before you finally severed those bonds. But there is no delete button in your brain that easily eradicates all memories of that sin-to-sinner relationship. For between the hours of pain, there were moments of pleasure. The demons know to coat their lips with sugar, so that later, even when they begin to devour us, we still foolishly taste the sweetness of their kiss. Even more complicated is when, in the very midst of sin, a gift of God is given. For example, children are a gift of the Lord, but what if a man fathers a child with another man’s wife? That son or daughter, the embodiment of their adulterous liaison, is also the embodiment of a divine gift. These situations of sin and repentance and God’s activity therein can get real messy, real quick.
So here is our dilemma: even though we have given up the drugs, or ended the affair, or stopped the stealing—severed the bonds with whatever our ex-sin may be—we ask ourselves, “Have I repented enough? Have I repented sincerely enough? Since I still struggle to un-love the ‘good things’ that happened while I was engaged in that sin, have I repented at all or am I just deceiving myself?”
The struggle against sin, any sin, is lifelong. A woman may never shoplift again or a man embezzle from his company again, but the monster of greed that drove them to steal abides in the lair of their heart to their dying day. Repentance is not an occasional emotion, but an ongoing motion. It is the motion of God’s hand, reaching down to grab the old Adam by his neck and shove his head again and again and yet again under the waters of Baptism, that the new man in Christ might arise again and again and yet again. The entire life of believers is one of repentance.
Therefore, drawing lines that demarcate where repentance begins and where it ends is like drawing lines in water. It gets even worse if you start asking quantitative or qualitative questions such as, “Am I repentant enough?” or “Have I shown sufficient contrition?” or “Am I sorry because of what I did or only because I got caught?” Such questions are not only wrong-headed; to demand an answer to them from yourself or others is likely only to drive you to question your repentance, its sincerity, and ultimately whether God has forgiven you in Christ.
Here is the most important point I want to make: Absolution is never a layaway plan, forgiveness you finally get to take home once you’ve satisfied the payment plan with enough acts of repentance. That’s because forgiveness does not originate from repentance; it originates solely from Christ. The father did not forgive the prodigal son because he returned home, said he was sorry for his sins, and was unworthy to be called a son anymore. The father had forgiven his son even while that son was feeding swine in a faraway country. The father had forgiven his son before he saw him a long way off and began running toward him. The father had forgiven his son because he was his son, because he loved him as only a father can. So it is with us. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself,” (2 Corinthians 5:19). The world was absolved on Good Friday. And that forgiveness, given to you in the here and now, is not earned, or allowed, or sweetened, or strengthened, or made more real by your repentance.
Should you repent of the wrong you’ve done? Of course. Should you continue to repent as you struggle to un-love that ex-sin? Of course. You will never repent enough. You will never repent sincerely enough. But forgiveness is not based upon having enough repentance or having sufficiently sincere repentance. Absolution is based upon the atoning work of Jesus Christ. His atonement is enough. His sacrifice was perfectly sincere. His blood covers not only the sin of which you repent, but your imperfect repentance for that sin.
The entire life of believers is one of repentance, but more importantly, the entire life of believers is the life of Jesus Christ, whose love for us is always more than enough.
Leave me alone. Please, just Leave. Me. Alone. Got it? Have you not poured enough grief into my life already? Just kill me and be done with it.
I didn’t sign up for this preaching gig. My name is Jonah, not Isaiah. He was the one all gung-ho with his “Send me! Send me!” attitude. Not me. I was perfectly happy back in the land of milk and honey. This swamp of ilk and money repulses me.
Nineveh. The very name makes me throw up in my mouth. A hovel of hate, that’s what this city is. Need I remind you that these pagans find sadistic joy in knifing open the bellies of pregnant women? Ripping the skin off their enemies and draping it over their walls? Beheading, mutilating, and impaling the bodies of their victims high on poles to make the world cower in fear? These people, why they’re not even people; they’re animals. Subhuman. The devil’s spawn. They play at evil. And, to top it all off, they’re the enemies of your own chosen people.
But as if none of that matters, as if somehow even these people are the objects of your care and compassion, you have the audacity to tell me to go preach to them. Cry out against this city, you say. Warn them that if they don’t repent they’ll be destroyed in forty days, you say. So of course I ran away. And of course, you chased me. Onto the sea, into the fish, out of the fish, you chased me. Until finally I walked through the streets of Nineveh and preached. I did your bidding.
I hoped like mad they’d spit in my face and laugh me all the way out of town. I wouldn’t have even cared if a mob of them had beat me to death in a back alley. But heavens no, I couldn’t be that lucky. They believed in you, the whole lot of them. From the lowest slave to the king himself, they just had to repent. And they went all out: fasting, wearing sackcloth, praying for mercy. They went so repentance-crazy that they wouldn’t even let their beasts eat or drink; made farm animals fast. My Lord, they even dressed their cows in sackcloth!
I’m watching this spectacle and thinking, “Oh, no. Dear God, don’t you dare…don’t you dare…don’t you….” Then you do. Of course you do. As if their bloody, prideful, despicable past means nothing; as if their gargantuan mountain of evil weighs not an ounce on the scales of justice; you let them off the hook. They repent and you relent. Just like that.
I saw it all coming, long before today, while I was still back in my hometown. I even told you so. That’s why I ran away—not because I was scared to preach, or frightened of these lowlifes, but to delay this evil day of mercy as long as possible. I just knew it. You and your grace. You and your compassion. You and your slowness to anger. You and your scandalous, damnable, exasperating love!
Where is justice in this, God? You can’t keep on letting evil men off scot-free. Know what you're like? You’re like a judge who, every time a criminal apologizes in court, takes off his robe, lays down his gavel, and walks up to the felon to hug him, kiss him, and ask him to come live with him and eat at his table. It’s beyond ludicrous. It’s shameful, downright embarrassing the way you let mercy triumph over judgment. Listen, when a man sins, he’s got to pay. It’s as simple as that. But you act as if someone has already paid for his crime, as if someone has already been executed in his stead. I simply cannot wrap my mind around it.
If you want to know why I’m so ticked off, well, there’s your answer. You’ve gone and did your God thing again. It’s not too late to change your mind, so I’m going to sit here and watch the city. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to your senses, decide there needs to be more fairness and justice in this world, and you’ll afflict them with plagues, or throw fire and brimstone on at least part of the city, or something, anything, that makes them realize how wrong they’ve been.
I tremble to think of what message this sends to the world. If you want people to get the impression that you are all love, that you’ll forgive their past no matter what, that you will accept and embrace even the most wicked person of earth, keep it up. Keep doing what you’ve done in Nineveh. Keep being that kind of God. But I warn you, that if you do, pretty soon everyone will assume that you love the world so much that you’ll stop at nothing to save it.
When I walked through his back door, one glance at his deeply furrowed brow told me something was askew. I knew that aged face well. For years it had greeted me with a country howdy and near toothless smile when I stopped by to bring him and his wife Holy Communion. We’d sit in their kitchen, the air of which was heavy with a lifetime of fried meals. As we sipped coffee, we’d chat about his aching feet and her arthritic hip and their lost days of lighthearted youth. Then, eventually, we’d shove aside the week-old newspapers and piled-up ashtrays to transform the table into a makeshift altar, over which, in the King James tongue he insisted upon, I’d intone the liturgy of the Supper for these homebound saints. But today was different. For months he’d been adjusting not so well to being a widower, passing the days in his newfound, unwelcome loneliness. But as I joined him on an adjacent stool, and he began to shake his head at the open Bible in front of him, I sensed the issue was something new. He wasn’t sad because of his loneliness. He wasn’t in pain because of his feet. No, he was awful upset, he began to explain, by a story he’d happened upon in his Bible reading. He paged through Genesis until he came to chapter 19, in which the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were charcoaled by the Almighty. But that wasn’t the account that had him all riled up; he’d learned that tale in Sunday School decades before. It was the after-story that had him shocked, the biblical postscript of Sodom’s destruction. Jabbing an indicting finger at the page, he said, “Pastor, I can hardly believe what I read this week. It says here,” he said, poking the page, “that when Lot and his daughters got up into the mountains, both of them girls got their dad drunk and had sex with him. And got pregnant!” Then closing the Bible as if it were too revolting even to have it open to that chapter, he added, “I wish I’d never read that story.”
Dislike that tale all you want, there it is, inking the biblical skin like a tattoo gone bad. It turned the stomach of my elderly friend. Incest will do that. I don't like it for that reason too, and a whole host of others, but undergirding them all is a deeper, darker reason. And it’s a reason that hits closer to home. You see, the story of Lot and his daughters is not just about drunkenness or sexual perversion. It is, at its core, a cautionary tale for all of us. It reveals how hard it is to escape from our own past. It shows the extent to which an environment of iniquity can seep into the souls of believers, transforming them from the inside out, so that even when they “flee to the mountains,” like Lot and his girls, they take Sodom with them.
I should know. I used to live in Sodom. In fact, I’ve lived in more than one city by that name. The first was a deeply religious city, steepled churches gracing every corner. I walked its neighborhoods, Bible in hand, cross dangling round my neck. All the streets were straight, and all the people were, too. Everyone was required to confess that they were sinners, but woe betide them if they actually sinned. For although truth and judgement were in full supply, mercy was a scarce commodity in this Sodom's marketplace. And I was at home there, an upstanding citizen with a heart pumping Pharisee blood.
The second Sodom was a city of rebellion, neon signs winking lasciviously through the twenty-four hour night. I staggered through its slums, intoxicated by lust, living from pleasure to titillating pleasure. Streets wound in serpentine courses through a city whose infrastructure catered to citizens who loved being lost. There was unbounded freedom to be whoever, whatever, whenever you liked. The only law ever enforced was a strict code summed up in three words: follow your heart.
Perhaps you’ve lived in one of these Sodoms as well? Perhaps another? If you’re a refugee like I am, then perhaps you too can attest to how hard it is to leave Sodom once and for all. For it’s one thing to “flee to the mountains,” to try and leave behind the Sodoms of self-righteousness, the Sodoms of sex or drugs or alcohol abuse, but it’s quite another thing not to take bits of Sodom with you into exile. It seems to me that’s what Lot and his girls did. Their hometown may have burnt to ashes, but the fires of immorality kindled there still burned hot in the hearts of this family. I have flames that burn in my own chest. And chances are, if you’re a refugee, you do too.
We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes, but the greatest lesson to learn is that the opportunity to repeat those mistakes is never more than a heartbeat away. You may have fled from Sodom years or decades ago, but it’s only a bottle, a snort, a hook-up, a moment of hypocrisy away. To pretend otherwise is to deceive yourself, and to invite disaster into your life. That’s one reason why, though it is painful to do, recollection of past sins, and the hellish fallout from those, is a seeming necessity for refugees from Sodom. David wrote Psalm 51, his hymn of repentance, after committing murder and adultery. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that song was never far from his lips. He was forgiven, yes, but he needed to remind himself of exactly what he was forgiven, of what the grace of God had freed him from, that he might not repatriate himself to the Sodom from which he had fled. To recall our past sins is not to deny that they are forgiven, but to ready ourselves for a continual fight against their recurrence.
In this fight we are far from alone. We did not leave Sodom on our own initiative, our own will-power. Christ climbed over the city walls to rescue us, and then climbed back over, carrying us upon his shoulders. He bore us up into the mountains, and now, and always, never leaves our side. He knows the past fires that still burn in our chest, so he never tires of dousing those flames with the waters of baptism, daily drenching us with that divine dew. Sodom’s foolish ways he roots out to replace with the wisdom that comes from above, speaking his word over and over into us, to create new hearts and new minds within us, fashioned after his own, heart and minds devoted to higher things.
Most amazing of all, should we ever, God forbid, go astray with Lot and his daughters, letting a Sodom heart woo us back into its clutches, the Lord does not rain fire and brimstone down. He rains down himself. He floods us with the waters of baptism, calls us to repentance, douses the iniquitous flames again and again. For he is not a God who gives up on his children. Quite the opposite. He never wearies, never wavers, of beckoning us away from our past Sodoms, into the present of his grace, and onward to the heavenly Jerusalem, where stories like Sodom are part of past that will never be retold.
(I'd like to thank Pastor Christopher Seifferlein, who provided the idea that I fleshed out in this post.)
A new year, an old tradition: the making of resolutions. Some of us will say No to nicotine this year, others will sweat and swear in torture chambers cleverly renamed elliptical machines. We’ll kick old habits, kick start new ones, and hope by February we're not kicking ourselves for making and breaking yet another resolution. Whatever your goal this year, it’s best to keep it real by remembering this painful fact: it’s just as hard, if not harder, to unlearn an evil as to learn a good. That seems to be the way it goes with me anyway. The bad habits and self-destructive ways of life we foster are, generally speaking, things that we thoroughly enjoy. “Let’s face it,” my mom once told me, while delivering a lecture on making the right moral decisions in high school, “sinning is fun.” It certainly can be, or pleasurable, or even downright exhilarating, depending on what your pet sin might be. That’s one reason, when you retreat and it woos you back, you return like a sow to wallowing in the mud. Pigs like their mud, we love our self-destructive ways of life. To unlearn them takes more than a day, a month, or a year of merely resolving to do better.
It also takes more than you. For we host an inner student who, when it comes to learning anything bad, always scores an A+. Evils find this ally within us. As Paul once lamented, “The good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish,” (Romans 7:19). Boy do we. It would be hard enough to unlearn evil and learn good if we were fully on the side of achieving those goals. But when a huge chunk of us remains unconvinced of the need for change, indeed, is hell-bent on not changing, then we’ve got major challenges ahead.
“A long obedience in the same direction.” I’ve come to love that saying. And I’ve come to hate it. I love it because of its truth, because it doesn’t offer me a quick fix, an overnight transformation of the self. And I hate it because of its truth, because it doesn’t offer me a quick fix, an overnight transformation of the self. One thing I know: I don’t want to be the same person I am now when I turn 50 or 65 or find myself on my deathbed. But if anything is going to change, I can’t wait until I’m 49 or 64 or get an inkling that I might be nearing the end of my earthly pilgrimage.
I’m not an optimist, but a realist. I know that the ally of evil within me will never finally die until I myself leave this world. God may drown this inner foe a million times, and a million times he will bob to the surface, a menacing smile on his face. I know that there will be times when nothing in life will seem more beautiful, more enticing, than that wallow in the mud. But I also know that I am not alone in my struggles. I have a wife who loves me unconditionally. I have friends, and a church, who embrace me as a brother in the faith. And I have a brother in God himself, who became a man, experienced the alluring power of temptation, and never wallowed in that mud, precisely so that he might lift me up when I fall, wash the mud off me, and stand ready to kick the devil where it hurts when he bids me follow my old self-destructive ways.
All of this is why I won’t be making New Year’s resolutions. I’ll be making new life resolutions, because unlearning evil and learning good is a lifelong quest.
John the Baptist is uncivilized. With locust legs stuck between his teeth he’ll never rank on Ms. Manners top ten list. With hair untouched by scissors he’ll never be hired by a Fortune 500 company. And with a wardrobe consisting only of camel’s hair he’ll never make the cover of GQ. Yes, indeed, John is uncivilized. He makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t he? He’s the kind of person you think you have to make apologies for: “Oh, yes, John, he is a bit eccentric, a little off-the-wall, not your run-of-the-mill biblical figure. You just have to look past a few things, that’s all. I’m sure deep down he’s a very normal person.” But—to twist an old country song—mamas don’t want their babies to grow up and be John the Baptists; let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.
Why does John make you uncomfortable? You know. It’s not just the clothing; it’s not only the hair; it’s not even really the diet. John the Baptist is uncivilized--that’s the problem. He doesn’t live in an air-conditioned, three-bedroom house with a white-picket fence and a two-car garage. He didn’t marry his high school sweetheart and raise two lovely children. He doesn’t buy his clothes at Dillard’s and his groceries at United. John didn’t even hold down a job. Turning his back on both city and village, John lives in the wilderness, the Judean wild country his unwalled bedroom. Although entitled to the priesthood, John’s temple is the desert, his altar the Jordan River, his vestments animal hides. Although he is the culmination of the OT prophets and--as Jesus said--the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7:28), John spits in the face of flattery, deeming himself unworthy even to touch the shoestrings of the Messiah with his sinful fingers. John is everything that civilized sinners don’t want to be.
“Who are you, John?” That’s what the civilized priests and Levites want to know. “I am not the Christ,” John emphatically answers. “What then, are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” Humble John has nothing to say about himself, so, thankfully, Isaiah the prophet has already spoken for him: “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’”
John is the forerunner, the one who trots ahead of the Messiah to announce His coming. He is the advent man, the preacher who prepares you for Christ. John is what the psychiatrist would call a monomaniac--someone with an excessive interest or irrational preoccupation with one subject. A monomaniac about Christ--yes, that fits John to a tee.
“Who are you, John?” “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.” Why in the wilderness, John? What’s so important about the desert? Why not build a church in the civilized section of the country or at least erect a pulpit on the street corner? Good grief, John, why not just get half an hour of religious T.V. broadcasting so we could sit in our living room recliners and ponder your message? Why must we travel out to the wilderness?
But John the Baptist is unrelenting: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John beckons you away from that place called civilization where civilized sinners are all too easily duped by the demons into believing the lie. Leave that place where you are easily tricked into believing that your job is your life, your family is your life, your possessions are your life. Leave that place where trivial pursuit is not just a game but a way of life. Leave that place where death masquerades as life, where the person who is “living it up” has made pleasure into a god, where the person who is said to have lived a “full life” may never have been baptized, where “real life” has nothing to do with Christ but just getting by in a dog-eat-dog world. Leave that place where people think they have civilized sin, but where, in fact, sin has transformed them into savages at heart.
There is part of us that is uncomfortable with . . . no, there is part of us that hates John the Baptist. The ugly Old Adam in us hates to be stripped naked and made to stand ashamed in the front of the mirror of the law. So he loathes John. For John lays bare how comfortable we’ve become with our love of mammon, how adept we are at blaming others for our shortcoming, how easy we are on ourselves. This preacher’s sandpaper words are much too abrasive for our civilized hearts. His preaching grates on our modern sensitivities. But John will preach no Walt Disney version of the law. He is “calling you to repentance, that you might escape from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes again in glory,” (Proper Preface for Advent).
So John beckons you out of civilization into the wilderness of repentance. To live a life of repentance is to sit at John’s feet in the desert sand. And what do you see in this wilderness of repentance? Barrenness stares blankly at you; the hollow eyes of death peer into your soul. When you go to St. John in the desert, into the painful stillness where you are utterly alone with the law of God, there your eyes behold with clarity the desert of your own heart, filled only with the wild monsters of your sins. Sit in the dust of this wilderness; pick up a handful of dirt, watch it trickle between your fingers. Behold your origin and your end. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There, in the wilderness of repentance, where the pride of life is absent and the humility of death pervasive, there confess what you see: “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin,” (Liturgy for Private Confession/Absolution, Lutheran Worship, p. 310).
John calls you out into the wilderness, into the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water. St. John the Baptist, we call him. He’s the water-man. John beckons you out of the civilization of sin, into the wilderness of repentance, to lead you ultimately to the river of life. And once he’s got you to the water, he’s done his job. For there, standing in the oasis of the Font, is your Savior, Jesus Christ. John points and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sin. Behold, the Lamb of God, who gives you the life of absolution in the water of Baptism.”
Ever since the day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, our Lord has been found in the water. He locates Himself there for you. Flowing through the desert of repentance is this liquid of life. There, your conscience which burns with the heat of sins committed, finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven. There, your heart, which is dried and cracked under the blazing sun of the law, finds shade and refreshment in the shadow of the cross. There, your mouth, which is parched from the confession of sins, is filled with the sweet drink of the compassion of God. Our Lord is found in the river of absolution. Come to Him. Drink of Him. Bathe, swim, soak in this fountain of immortality.
Your Lord has been baptized in blood, sprinkled on the Font of the cross by His own sliced veins. A soldier braced himself and thrust his cruel spear upward into the side of our blood-bathed God. That spear opened the fountain of His flesh and out flowed a river of blood and water, one fork filling the chalice, the other the Font. So when you desire forgiveness, you go to the blood, for without blood there is no forgiveness. The life of God is in the blood of His Son and that life-giving blood is in the Chalice, the Font, the Absolution. Go there for forgiveness. Go there for life. Go there for God.
The only true and lasting life is in the wilderness of repentance for there alone flows the Jordan River. Only in the water to which Christ has tied Himself is there life. Here the penitents truly “live it up,” really have the “full life,” and live the “real life” in Christ. Here the trivial is not pursued but the eternal is found. Here the shame of sin is removed by the name of the Forgiving One. Here uncivilized John places us into Christ’s keeping, where He makes us citizens of the heavenly fatherland.