December 12, 2014

Settling Accounts


Text: Mark 1:5: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

The end is coming. It’s coming in exactly twenty-four days. You need to prepare for the end. We all need to prepare for the end.

The end of the semester is coming. If you haven’t been doing your homework or turning in your assignments, you will soon be sorry. When it comes to the exam, prayer will not help you. You need to get your work done now.

The end of the year is coming. December the 31st is what is twenty-four days away. If you haven’t paid enough taxes, if you haven’t quite given enough to fulfill your pledge to the church, you still have time—but not much time. You need to figure out how to do it now.

The end is coming. It’s an old joke, really. The New Yorker made a small business over the decades publishing cartoons featuring the hermit with the sign. My favorite is one in which two of them are arguing over who has the right to be on a particular corner. Or maybe it’s the one in which the hermit is carrying a sign that says “The Middle is Near.” He explains to a passerby: “I’m a centrist.” That must be the Episcopal version of doomsaying.

The end is near. It’s hard to get us to believe that, but when it finally sinks in—when the final exam, or the end of the tax year makes us confront the inevitable—we spring into action. And the thing we most want to do is to make certain we have settled accounts. We want to know that we have minimized our liabilities and maximized our assets.

That same sort of urgency that comes out of us around tax time or final examinations is what the people around John the Baptist feel. For them it’s a very different kind of ending; they’re expecting the end of time. Around them everything seems to be pointing toward a cataclysm. The Romans are in power but things are not going well with them.

The Jewish people are arguing among themselves about the best way to secure their own survival. Some want to get along with the Romans. After all, they have all the soldiers. Some want to fight them. Some believe that only greater and greater perfection in observing the Jewish laws will save them. Everyone, everyone desperately want to be delivered from an their unbearable circumstances. They are all looking for something. They just don’t agree about what they’re looking for.

This is the situation when John the Baptist comes on the scene. Spare a moment in your prayer this week to appreciate the remarkable example of John the Baptist. Such a person we cannot imagine in our own day. We are surrounded by people who are desperate to tweet, twerk, or tirade their way into celebrity. We are beset with people clamoring for a claim on our attention. John the Baptist has a following they would envy—not a Twitter following, not a social media following, a real following—hundreds of thousands of people following him around wherever he goes and paying attention to everything he says.

And with all that potential right in his grasp, with all of those people coming out with their urgent hopes to make things right before its too late, John does something we cannot imagine; he says that it’s not about him. They are all looking for something; he is not what they are looking for. What they are looking for, he says, they are going to find—but it isn’t him.

It is a magnificent act of true humility. John is at one and the same moment profoundly charismatic and profoundly humble. We don’t have many examples of that. It is worth a prayer of thanks that such a man once existed, and gave us an example of what truly humble leadership looks like.

But still they come. They come to settle accounts—their own accounts. They come out for a ritual that will both mark and encourage what they know they need to do— admit where they’ve fallen short of God’s hopes for them, make things right with the people they’ve hurt, and put it all behind them to move forward into the future—a better future.

They come to get baptized to both mark and motivate this change. What it means for them is to settle accounts with God. It means not just to wash away the past, but to change the contours of the possibilities of the future.

Part of the job you have when you are the rector of the parish is to create something like that sense of urgency within your community. It’s to get people to understand that these are not just sweet stories about the past; they are the things on which our very lives depend. I know I don’t do this as well as John the Baptist did. But it is what I’m trying to do—it is what anyone in this ministry is called to do. It’s to follow the example of John, to create that sense of both urgency and the possibility of hope, and to point beyond ourselves and our moment to the promise of what is coming. The good news is, it is coming.

So this week take some time to sit down, tally up both sides of the ledger, and settle accounts with God. That is the Advent opportunity. Amen.