2nd Sunday Advent B - Homily 2

Homily 2 – 2008 

In today’s Gospel Mark shows John the Baptist striding onto the world scene, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John was the last of an impressive line of Hebrew prophets who looked to the future with hope.  He did more than that – he lived to see, to baptise and to introduce the one who would fulfil the world’s hope – another prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth.  John’s concern was forgiveness of sins.  As a prerequisite for that, he called for conversion – repentance.  Conversion, of course, requires an openness to self-criticism, and an ability to recognise and to admit to sin, to being wrong, to doing wrong.

As a group, the distinctive thing about the Hebrew prophets was their persistent insistence that the nation, and individuals, face up to their wrong-doing.  Prophets were never popular at court.  Nations, and their leaders, prefer to claim how wonderful they are.  When things go wrong, they prefer to blame everyone else.  Look at our national leaders.  Look at the world’s national leaders.  …. Well, perhaps, it is enough to look at ourselves – that’s harder.

To admit to our own wrong-doing, we need a reasonably clear grasp of right and wrong.  With a bit of luck, we get taught this as children.  Our task, at this stage, is to choose to do the right thing.  That’s hard.  Unchecked, our selfish desires run riot.  And they’re powerful.  We need to work to strengthen our will-power, and to keep our selfish drives under control.  The part of us that does that is our ego - and our superego.  The ego needs clear rules.  It needs strong boundaries.  That, roughly, is what John the Baptist was on about.

But that is not the Gospel.  Mark clearly distinguishes John the Baptist from Jesus.  Jesus would be the one to preach the Gospel – but, to get hold of the Gospel, requires an enormous somersault, a wholly different kind of repentance.  The duty of the first part of our lives is that our ego become strong enough to establish control over our self-centred desires and appetites.  The task of the second part of our lives is that our ego learn to let go of its need to control.  The ego much learn to die to itself.  We must learn to move beyond control - to trust, beyond will-power - to willingness.

For the change to happen, we usually need to face some moral crisis.  We need to be confronted, painfully, with our own inability to establish complete control, or our confusion, or our uncertainty about things that before looked so black and white.  As the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, once wrote: We need to sin, or we never discover the mercy of God.  Either that, or, sometimes, another, whom we love deeply, sins – perhaps a child, or a friend, or a mentor – and how do we make sense of all that?

How do we react? Well, we can refuse to grow, and, instead, go back to the familiar certainties, try harder, become ever more rigid, ever more judgmental, and, possibly, move into denial of some kind.  Or, we can choose to live with the uncertainties (that’s what having faith means).  We can begin to explore, and perhaps even believe, the mercy of God – the unconditional love of God.  We don’t give up trying, but we learn to live with ambiguity.  We surrender the need to be in control, and to know everything, clearly, and we take the punt of God’s mercy.

That’s the Gospel!  That’s the Good News!  That’s discovering the God who rejoices more over the one sinner who learns to see things differently, (that is, who repents),  than over the ninety-nine self-styled right ones who see no need to change.  We can leave the first half of our lives to John the Baptist.  When we were at that stage, I don’t think we could really understand the message of Jesus.

Jesus is for the second half of life, when we have grown a bit, when we have faced the complexities of the world, and of our selves, and when we have learnt, honestly, painfully, humbly… no longer to keep on kidding ourselves but to trust in God’s mercy and love.