December 9, 2012
Have you ever thought to yourself, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”?
Maybe it was the latest report of rockets falling in Israel. Maybe it was images of the security fence along the West Bank. Maybe it was a report on dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay. Maybe it was the story of the mother of an aspiring 13-year-old cheerleader hiring a hit man to kill the mother of a rival cheerleader. Maybe it was the latest family gathering that ended in shouting. Maybe it was the stupid thing I said when I just should have kept my mouth shut.
“This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.”
If you have ever felt this way, then you have a sense of the biblical concept of sin. As you may have noticed, it is complex. Two things are actually going on when you say, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.” First of all, you have a sense that something is not right. But there is also a second thing. In order to say that something isn’t right, you also need a vision of what things are supposed to be like. So sin, in the biblical tradition, is a derivative concept. First, you have to have some sense of what is right. Only then can you say something is wrong.
In the biblical tradition the vision for how things ought to be is called shalom. We translate this word as “peace,” but it means much more than an absence of warfare or a calm state of mind. Shalom or peace in the scriptures means universal flourishing, wholeness, harmony, delight. The prophets spoke of a time when crookedness would be made straight, when rough places would be made smooth, when flowers would bloom in the desert, when weeping would cease, when the lion would lay down with the lamb, when the foolish would be made wise, when the wise would be made humble, when humans would beat their swords into ploughshares. All nature would be fruitful and benign, all nations sit down together for a sumptuous feast, all creation would look to God, walk with God, and delight in God.
As Cornelius Plantinga says in his book “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin,” shalom is a “rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom he delights.” In the Bible, shalom, or peace, is the way things are supposed to be.
Sin, the way things aren’t supposed to be, is the violation of shalom. Of course, sin is an affront to God, but it is an affront to God because it breaks God’s peace. And what breaks God’s peace? Twisting the good things of creation so that they serve unworthy ends. Splitting apart things that belong together. Putting together things that ought to be kept apart. The corruption of personal and social and natural integrity. A moment’s reflection or a look at the evening news can easily supply specific examples.
Now, all this talk about sin may sound like a bit of a downer. Especially on December 9. Many of us are getting into the holiday spirit. Decorating the tree. Listening to Christmas carols. Feeling jolly. We even came to church this morning! But instead of the baby Jesus and heavenly choirs of angels, we get John the Baptist, a rough prophet prowling about in the Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Not exactly “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas”!
But here’s the strange thing. We still refer to this message as good news. After the gospel lesson is read, the deacon or the person appointed to read this passage will have the audacity to say, “The gospel of the Lord.” That is to say, “the Good News of the Lord.” How can this be? Some of us will say, “No way.” An Old Testament prophet wagging his finger at us and calling us sinners is definitely not good news. Others of us may be willing to admit the importance of John’s message, but only as a prelude to good news, something we must do to get ready for good news of the birth of a savior. We need to go through the hard process of acknowledging and repenting of our sins so that we may make ourselves ready for the gift of Christ. It may be a necessary process, but we still wouldn’t call it good news. The doctor who tells us we have to give up fatty foods and start exercising may be telling us a truth we need to hear, but we won’t really rejoice and burst into song when we hear it.
And yet there is a way that John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins can actually be seen as good news, and not just as a necessary, grit-our-teeth-and-get-through-it prelude to good news. After the lesson, the deacon will say, “The gospel of the Lord,” and we can respond, “Praise to you, Lord Christ” not with a palms-up, raised-eyebrow puzzled expression. We can really mean it.
I think we can see John the Baptist’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news in three ways. First, if we hear John’s message and it rings true, if we have ever said, “This is not the way things are supposed to be,” then we already know God’s peace. As noted before, in the biblical view, sin is a derivative concept. We must already have a vision of how things ought to be if we feel as though things aren’t that way. We must have some sense of God’s peace, to know when it is broken. And this is good news. We do have a vision of God’s shalom, God’s peace. It has been given to us in our scriptures, and in our religious traditions, and in our reflection on creation. We have been given a vision of the world as created and redeemed by our good and generous God, a world made to be fruitful, abundant, harmonious, life-giving, peaceful, whole, filled with deep and abiding joy. If we hear and respond to John’s message about sin, then we must already know about God’s peace. And that is good news.
A second way we can see John’s message as good news is that if we hear and respond to his call to repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then we must believe that there is something we can do about it. John is not saying things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be and they never will be; get used to it. His is not a message of futility in the face of the brokenness of God’s creation. Rather, it is a liberating and joyful call to realign our individual and collective wills with the purposes of God. If we already know of God’s vision of shalom, we can be people who promote flourishing, seek wholeness and restore harmony. We can be repairers of the breach. To hear and respond to John’s message is good news, because in spite of the fact that things aren’t the way they should be, they can change and so can we. People can stop killing each other. Hungry people can get fed. Parents can love their families and raise healthy children. Enemies can become friends. It is good and, indeed, joyful news to know that we are free to respond to God’s call to shalom.
Finally, we can hear John’s message about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins as good news because if we already know God’s peace, if we can respond to the call of God’s peace, then in some deep way we already trust in the eventual triumph of God’s peace.
In our gospel lesson, John is described by the words of the prophet Isaiah as:
“the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
It is an emphatic message: all flesh will see the salvation of God. And this is good news, the Good News. Yes, things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. But we already know God’s vision of shalom. We can turn our hearts and minds to God’s purposes. And we can trust that someday all things will be put to rights, all tears will be wiped away, all swords will be beat into ploughshares, and all flesh will see the salvation of God. God and God’s peace will be triumphant in the end. And we know this because in the birth of Jesus, these eyes of ours have seen the savior, who is Christ the Lord, and he shall be called “Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.”
Things aren’t the way they are supposed to be. We know this because we already know God’s peace. Through a process of repentance we can align ourselves with God’s purposes, God’s peace, the way things are supposed to be. And we can do this in spirit of gratitude, joy and trust because we have been given a promise of the eventual triumph of God’s shalom in the birth of a baby who is the prince of peace.
That is Good News!
— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Parish in Annapolis, Md.