On this second Sunday of Advent, the Word of God turns our attention to the power of repentance and forgiveness, the great themes of the season. Buying and selling stuff doesn’t get a nod.
In the first reading, we encounter the passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, perhaps most familiar to us in the King James
version, which was so memorably set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah. What we hear these days is still powerful and definitely as relevant. Or more so.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her tribulation is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins [Isaiah 40: 2].” Jerusalem could use a few tender words today, from the looks of things. How strange that it has been the center of controversy from the days of King David, when he decided to conquer it and make it his capitol. In Jesus’ lifetime, it was conquered by the Romans, having been held at various times by Assyrians, Babylonians, and the forces of Alexander the Great. The Romans took it again by siege in the year 70 after a revolt, burning the temple to the ground. Again in 135, it was captured and this time, the Jews were expelled and the city renamed. It stayed that way till Constantine restored the ancient name and Jews began to return.
During the Islamic conquest and Crusades, Jerusalem passed back and forth between Persians, Muslims, and Christians, winding up as Muslim city then after World War II under British control until 1947 when partition began, placing it officially under UN jurisdiction. Eventually, Israeli forces took full control of Jerusalem during the Six-day War in 1967. It has been a center of sometimes violent religious and political controversy ever since, and the situation looks like it might get worse. Yes, Jerusalem needs some comfort.
Isaiah tells us that “her iniquity is pardoned.” The Hebrew word for “pardon” here is ratsah, which basically means to be pleased with someone, especially because they have satisfied a debt, that they are reconciled, and therefore favored. It also means “pardon” and “please” as when we beg someone’s forgiveness for an offense or even ask for help. Here, it is God who is pardoning, but who had earlier doubled the penalty for Israel’s rejection of the path of justice. Now all that is past, wiped out, the slate cleaned, the debt paid.
The financial metaphor involved in the preaching of forgiveness carried over into Christian times. Jesus uses it frequently. We still echo it when we speak of our debts to God and each other. Bankers, lawyers, and mortgage companies still use the vocabulary of forgiveness when a loan is written off – except, it seems, for student loan debt, which is arguably the cruelest of all and constantly increasing. Debt forgiveness may not be the happiest simile, but it is still relevant. When we injure one another by our sinfulness, we enter into debt, both to those we have hurt, and to God, who takes on the hurt of the world.
This has become terribly evident again in the first two weeks of Advent. School shootings, terrorist incidents, and assaults on citizens by carjackers and other thugs seem to be the daily bread of the news outlets. Walter Brueggermann, the great scripture scholar, reminded us years ago that the role of the prophet is public lamentation in the face of injustice. But when a family finds it possible to speak of forgiveness in the face of the death of their loved ones at the hands of the police or foreign terrorists, I hear an echo of the Lord’s Prayer. I hear Jesus preaching.
Turning back to God, finding our way again, the great Advent theme and great adventure of our lives, requires a settling of debts. On God’s part, it is remarkably simple: forgiveness is there to be taken, abundantly, and completely. The only hitch is the condition that we be as willing to forgive each other, so that God’s forgiveness can take possession of us. Jesus is clear that our unwillingness to forgive each other limits the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness in our case. Right after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, we hear:
“…if you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive yours” [Mat 6:14-15].
The second Letter of Peter seems to pass quickly over the theme of repentance and forgiveness in its enthusiasm for grand eschatological symbolism, but in fact, it lies at the heart of his message, too, where we read, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” [2 Peter 3:9].
The word we translate “repentance” here is metanoia, one of the most important words the New Testament. It has nothing to do with punishment, penance, or penalty. It means to change our way of thinking, to reverse a decision, to change direction. The richly metaphorical language of the Second Epistle of Peter evokes a certain feeling of dread anticipation, one not diminished by the imagery of the sneaky approach of a thief, a use so prevalent in New Testament texts that there is no reason to doubt that it came from Jesus himself. We have no time to waste. The need for a change of mind and heart is urgent now.
But it is the opening of the Gospel of Mark that returns us most forcefully to the theme of repentance and forgiveness, introducing the main character of the Advent readings, John the Baptizer, who came to prepare Christ’s way in the wilderness. John, too, preached metanoia, a change of heart that leads to forgiveness of sins. Jesus preached the same message, the urgent need for a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting grounded in love and expressed in mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. And for individuals and nations, that can be the greatest Christmas present of all.