This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022. The gospel reading was Matthew 3:1-12.
To view this sermon on YouTube, click here for the whole service (the gospel begins at 20:29, followed by the sermon).
Before we talk about today’s gospel reading, I want to talk about myself for a little bit, about my ongoing struggles with depression. I’m a little nervous about doing that today. When I talk about that in a sermon, I often get self-conscious, and wonder if it bothers people, or if I’m being too self-indulgent. But I’m taking that risk today, and I hope it’s the right choice.
I want to talk a little about the podcasts I’ve been on lately.
Some of you might not know what podcasts are. They’re kind of like the internet version of radio talk shows. Many podcasts are done in an interview style, where the host of the podcast records an interview with a different guest for each episode, and then releases those episodes online once a week or so. And then people listen to those podcasts on their phone, or on a computer or some other way. There are over 2 million podcasts in the world right now, on every topic imaginable, with over 100 million active podcast listeners in the US alone.
So I’ve been a guest on a bunch of podcasts lately as a way to market my book, Darkwater: A Pastor’s Memoir of Depression and Faith. It’s been nerve-racking to sit and talk to these hosts – I’m always scared that I’m going to be boring or annoying, that my story isn’t interesting or helpful to anyone. But I always, every time, feel good when the interview is over. Like, really good.
There was one interview in particular. The host was Molly, a licensed counselor who interviews people about how they cope with things in their lives that are “not good,” like mental illness. She was happy to meet with me to hear my story. But something happened in that interview. I don’t know exactly how it happened.
But there was something about the way I shared my story of depression and hope. Something about the way Molly shared her own struggles with mental illness, and her own experience of faith. Something beyond both of us. Somewhere in the conversation we both encountered something holy. At the end of the interview, she asked me to pray. And I did. Neither of us expected that.
I left that interview feeling inspired, empowered, more alive. I felt as though I was lit by a light from God, like the late afternoon sun in November, that special angle of the sun that transforms ordinary trees into golden beacons. I felt that light on me.
That was the most vivid example. But at the end of all of the interviews, I have felt somehow filled.
And I think I know why. One of the things I often talk about in the interviews is what helps me manage my depression. I’ll talk a bit about medication, prayer, exercise, journaling, meditation, and so forth. But the biggest answer is always this: opening up and talking to people. I have learned over the years that the most important element of managing my mental health is opening up and telling people what’s going on, how I’m feeling.
That’s not always easy. It’s very tempting to keep my mouth shut. It’s very tempting to isolate and just pretend everything’s fine. My depression tells me that it’s not worth it to share, that I’m not worth it. To curl up and hide away and focus inward. But when I can get the energy and the courage to open up, there is hope there. When I speak with my counselor and my spiritual director. When I speak with a friend or with my wife. When I speak with podcast hosts. When I speak with you. I often share on podcasts the story of the first time I mentioned my depression in a sermon here over nine years ago. How I explained to you what depression was, and shared that I have it. How I invited you to share your own struggles aloud, and how I was floored by how many of you did so.
And how healing it has been for both me and this congregation to be able to talk openly here about the struggles we face.
So the reason I feel better after each interview is, I think, because I use that time to openly share my story, my struggles, and my hope. And simply by doing that, I find God to be there in the conversation, waiting there for us, shining light into the hidden places.
It’s always a risk to talk like this. I never know how the other person will respond. But so often, when I have taken that risk, I have found that God is waiting there. I wonder if this is true for all of us.
So much for podcasts. Let’s talk about today’s gospel. John the Baptist.
John the Baptist, the wild-eyed, bug-eating prophet in the wilderness, is proclaiming that the Lord is coming. And all the people of Jerusalem and Judea must get ready, and prepare for that coming. John calls them to prepare in this way: he calls them to come to the Jordan River, to confessing their sins, to repent, and to be baptized. He proclaims that the one coming after him is so much more powerful, and will baptize them not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
Something about that has never sat right with me. And here’s what it is:
We usually think about sins as particular things we do wrong, bad actions. Selfish or immoral things. And we think of repentance as apologizing for those sins, and promising not to do them again. And if that’s the way we view sin and repentance, than repenting to get ready for Jesus sounds like this to me:
Jesus is coming, so we’d better make sure we’re perfect. Jesus is coming, so we’d better make sure we’ve apologized for everything. Jesus is coming, so we’d better make sure that we’ve made amends, that we’re clean inside and out. And that’s just not the Jesus I see in the gospels. That’s not the Jesus whom Isaiah prophesied. That’s not the Jesus Paul proclaims in his letters.
It sounds like a Jesus with a clipboard and a red marker, checking off whether we’ve been naughty or nice. Deciding whether to welcome us into the kingdom, or fill our stocking with coal. To me, that sounds like a Jesus who is adding to our anxiety and our worry, not taking it away. Jesus himself scolded the Pharisees for acting like that!
So there’s got to be another way to look at it. And I wonder if it’s more like this:
Sin can be defined as anything that is against God’s will. And we know that God’s will is for us to rest in God’s presence, to trust in God, and to follow Christ. So sin is anything that takes us away from God’s presence. Anything that takes us away from God’s good plan for us.
So instead of focusing on sins as individual acts, what if we focus on sin as a state of being. Instead of talking about committing sins, we can view ourselves as caught up in sin. Caught up in putting our trust in things that aren’t God – trusting in money, or in power, trusting in ourselves.
Martin Luther used a vivid image to describe this: he said that sin is being “curved in on yourself.” Imagine someone curled up, staring at their own navel, being curled and twisted up and closed, so that you can’t see beyond yourself. Not looking at others, not looking at God, but just at your own self. Isolated. Maybe it’s like the isolation that depression can lead me into.
So if sin is being curved in on yourself and closed, then what is repentance? What does it mean to turn away from your sin? Maybe it would mean opening up. Unclenching the fist. Becoming vulnerable and open, ready to receive. Maybe that is what John the Baptist is calling us to do. To open up. Let go. Let other people in. Let yourself out. Be honest about what you’re struggling with, whatever that is.
So I wonder if John the Baptist is saying something like this:
“The one coming after me is mighty, and he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire! So get ready for him! And here’s how to get ready: open up. Look outside yourself.”
Get ready for the coming of Jesus, because he isn’t coming with a clipboard and red marker to judge us, but he is coming with arms open, with a light ready to shine in the hidden places, with a love so deep and so vast that it will fill all your empty places, heal your broken cracks, and overflow into the whole world. Baptizing you with the Holy Spirit and with fire, not a fire of pain and destruction, but a golden fire of life and warmth and energy. So open yourself up, and get ready to receive what’s coming.
That sounds more like the Jesus I see in scripture, the Jesus whose coming the angels proclaimed to the shepherds, the Jesus the magi followed a star to visit.
I invite you today like John the Baptist did before me: Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for the coming of Christ, by looking at how you are closed up. Look at where you are hiding. And take the chance of opening up. Take the chance of looking out beyond yourself. Take the chance of being honest about who you are. Honest with yourself, with other people, and with God. I invite you to confess who you really are, confess to God and to one another, and then watch: Christ will be there waiting.
One thought on “On Podcasts and Repentance (Sermon)”
Unclenched fists, open hands. Reminds me of the wonderful little book, With Open Hands, by Henri Nouwen.