Mark 1: 1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” 4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When we go home today, or to a restaurant, and chew on roast sermon, I hope that it will be clear to everyone what it was about: reviving the lost art of confession. People then may ask, “But what does confession have to do with Advent and Christmas? That sounds so gloomy and serious. I’m all ready for sheep and shepherds and wise men, Mary and a manger. So, why are we muddling about with the likes of cranky old John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism, and of hearing people’s confessions?
Now the early church saw no disconnect between Advent and the confession of sin. After all, when the tradition of Advent began some time into the 7th Century AD, it was actually a Penitential Season, a time of self-examination, spiritual house-cleaning, even fasting and confession of sins. One might think that we saved that stuff up all year for Lent. But Advent was also originally a season for soul-searching, while we’ve made it a time for frenzied shopping and office parties. Our spiritual ancestors looked not for bargains during Advent, but for renewal; they didn’t prepare Christmas gift lists as much as they may have prepared lists of things they had done that they wished they had not done, and of things they needed to do to set things right.
To celebrate the Lord’s coming, they understood that we must also prepare the way of the Lord, as Isaiah and later, John the Baptist, said, to “make straight his paths.” For John, that meant repentance and confession of sins, in advance of baptism.
Now John saw much that was wrong with society and the powers-that-be, and he said so. His dress and his diet tell me that he was a conscientious objector to the usual way of getting food and clothing, they were so corrupt and oppressive. Better to wear camel’s hair than the latest fashion in tunics; better to eat bugs and wild honey than to shop at the Imperial Market, if you care about truth and justice.
But if we would straighten out the world, we must never forget to examine ourselves. To address the sins of society without also addressing the sins of the heart and the home is like trying to perform heart surgery with a tattoo pen: we can draw all the pretty pictures we like on the outside, but that only gives us the comforting illusion that anything has changed on the inside, where it all starts. The kingdom of God comes on dual tracks: the transformation of the human heart along with the transformation of human relationships, in the home, the neighborhood, the nation and the world. One does not move far without the other. John called for both.
The 19th Century English author, G.K. Chesterton once overheard someone say about a Roman Catholic priest, “His pie-in-the-sky idealism about heaven and mercy and all that is quite comforting, but what would he know about the real world?” How absurd, thought Chesterton, to think that a man who hears hundreds of confessions a week would know nothing about the real world! So Chesterton wrote crime mystery novels about a fictional Father Brown. When he’s not doing his priestly duties, Father Brown is solving crimes in 19h Century London, drawing upon knowledge of the human heart gained in the confessional booth. No, he never rats on the people who confess their sins to him. He just knows, from years of hearing confessions, the motives, the secrets, and the strategies of the human heart for cooking up crimes, justifying them, and then covering their tracks.
I think of Father Brown whenever I imagine John the Baptist at the riverside, also hearing hundreds of confessions, maybe each day. For all the insight that John gained, it must also have been draining and distressing to dredge the depths of human guilt, over and over again. And yet there’s no record of John ever having said, “Hey you, over there with the purple Disneyworld towel—outta the water! I told you during confession, there’s no baptism after your kind of sin.”
No, John’s harshest words were for the powerful and pious people who felt no need for confession and a clean slate. Whatever terrible things John heard by Jordan’s banks, it was the smug and self-satisfied who came out to force his confession, whom he called, “a brood of vipers.” For they were entrapped in the most subtle and yet binding sin of all: pride.
So who wants to get or send a Christmas card with John the Baptist on it this year? Yet John is an indispensable part of the Advent Season. Because he reminds us to “prepare the way of the Lord…to make straight his paths.” And key parts of preparing God’s way and straightening his path are self-examination, and if necessary, confession of sin.
You see this not only on the Jordan River, in AD 30. Confession of sin is key to every movement and moment of spiritual renewal. For example, the practice of altar calls, to come forward to receive Jesus, began during America’s Second Great Awakening, a revival during the 1830’s. What often pricked people in the heart and drew them to the altar in tears during that revival were alcohol abuse and slavery, and their part in it, whether by having slaves, or by their silence about it. If you came to the altar a slave owner, you knew you’d better not leave it one for long. And when you gave the revivalist your name as a new convert, that was partly for pastoral follow-up. It was also to enlist you in the abolitionist cause.
I saw this effect in the most stunning way some 20-plus years ago, when I was part of a support and recovery group. We were in it as part of our treatment, some for drug and alcohol abuse, myself for clinical depression. I hope its safe for me to say that. If not, too late now.
One man in this group had scared us with his size and his attitude until someone asked him, “So, what are you protecting under that gruff exterior?” Then he began to cry and melt before us, as he confessed to domestic violence. He looked at his hand with shock and horror as he said, “I raised this against God’s gift to me, my wife.” Only by naming it did he finally understood the depth and depravity of what he had done.
The most surprising thing about this confession was what came afterward: not what he expected, nor what he deserved, but what he received, the love and support of the rest of us in that group, and an awakening to the love of God for himself. I saw another woman reach out to touch his arm and say, “Thank you; that took courage; we love you.” He went from being a cold, dark presence among us, to being a beloved big brother. None of that would have happened without his confession.
So, what do we want most for Christmas? Last week, when she led worship, Sarah Kahle shared some powerful words about Advent being the time in which we allow ourselves to experience our longing for God, instead of subverting and diverting that longing into frenzied busy-ness, over-consumption or endless entertainment. That means naming and dethroning anything that we have allowed to take God’s place.
Believing as we do in the priesthood of all believers, we do not obligate ourselves to go confess our sins to a professional clergyman in a confessional booth for there to be forgiveness. We can confess directly to God and know we are forgiven. But I can also see the value of some sort of confession of sin to others, even if only because of how easily we can fool ourselves. If, for example, we are constantly confessing and repenting to God of the same particular sin, we may have a problem that requires some help. And this problem, whatever it is, could be getting bigger and more powerful than ourselves, because of the added element of denial and secrecy.
For over time secrecy creates a strange internal world of crazy-making contradictions, in which on one hand we convince ourselves that our entrapping, enslaving sin is not so bad, its okay, no big deal, everybody does it, even while, on the other hand, we feel increasingly bad and shameful about ourselves, because of our powerlessness over whatever it is that binds us. Oddly enough, both the shame and the denial add fuel to the problem, supercharging the temptation into entrapment.
Take away the secrecy, and our enslaving tendencies and temptations lose at least half their power over us. In the daylight of confession, the monsters of denial and shame shrink to become children who just need some love. Through confession we may come to admit that our problem is worse than we thought. But we’ll also find that we ourselves are not bad, as we feared. We’re just human. And only real humans can heal and grow, not the false selves we wish to project and protect.
But its not just the confession of our own sins that can set us free. I find sometimes that people also keep terrible, burdensome secrets of sins that have been committed against them. Perhaps we feel shame for having been powerless to prevent them and protect ourselves. Or we may fear that people will think less of us for having been a victim, and not always in control. Even if we’re not at fault, secrecy can have the same debilitating, enslaving effect as if we were. Most slights and sins against us can easily be forgiven. But with certain kinds of abuse, exposing and naming the sins done against us is necessary to our healing, growth and liberation.
Ironically, we can only be healed and grow through a love that does not need to heal or grow us in order to love us more. And yet whenever such unconditional love touches the real wounds and infections of a soul sick with shame and secrecy, it can have no other effect but to heal and change us. That’s why we must choose the time, place and person for our confession carefully. Don’t confess indiscriminately, to the first person you see on the street, or even in the church. Don’t post it on Facebook either.
Nor do we here insist that people confess their sins before everyone in the church, unless they have hurt or somehow involved everybody. We need the unconditional love of wise, compassionate and yet principled people who can keep confidentiality. The point is not to be an open book to everybody. That can do more harm than good. The point is that every part of ourselves be an open book to somebody, so that there are no dark corners of the house of the soul in which bad things might grow and fester.
For the sake of honesty, transparency, accountability and freedom from secrecy, denial and shame, we have pastors who hopefully fit the bill. And we have each other. Perhaps a deacon, a mentor, a prayer partner, a small group, our spouse, a parent, or a counselor can help by hearing a needed confession. If for some reason I’m not the person to talk with, I can make referrals. Speaking personally, I have a spiritual director, and other friends and occasional counselors with whom I can unburden myself and confess when its not appropriate in the home or the church.
Yes, we can take all things directly and personally to God. But sometimes we need the ears and the heart of a fellow human being through which to connect with God. God has gifted the church so that through us he might bind our wounds and help us grow. He seems to be in no hurry to do such work without us.
The point, again, is that all of ourselves be an open book to someone. For in the end, nothing will remain hidden, neither from the sight of God nor from the sight of mortals. The Day of the Lord’s next Advent is also called “the day on which all secrets shall be revealed,” or the day on which “we shall know as we are known.”
The thought of such exposure and illumination could either be scary, or comforting. If its scary, remember that the God who knows us better than we know ourselves also loves us better than we could ever love ourselves. His will for us is also our greatest want: not to be blasted away with the fiery heat of judgment, nor withered away the chill of indifference, but to be brought back to life by the healing warmth of redeeming love, to be set free of the burdens of shame and secrecy. And such is his will.
Its not a question of if all secrets will be revealed, but whether the secret to be revealed about ourselves is a heroic story about what we overcame, or a tragedy about what overcame us. The difference between the two is repentance and confession. If what we want most for Christmas is God and a deeper, more liberating and transforming relationship with God, then we must dump everything that hinders us, weighs us down, and which stands in the way of that, beginning with any secrets. Don’t be surprised, nor ashamed, if we could use a little help with that from time to time. As did the people whom John baptized.