From the Book of Psalms: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
It was “good news” that John the Baptist preached to the multitudes. That at least is St. Luke’s opinion. At the end of the section of the Gospel we heard this morning the evangelist tells us, “So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.”
I have to admit to you that at first glance it doesn’t sound to me like “good news”, and as you’ve heard me say before, John the Baptist is one character from the Gospels that I find – well – scary. John would have had little use for me, I fear, and if I learned that he were in the neighborhood, I’d move on. But that apparently is not what happened. In fact it was just the opposite: John was in the wilderness, and the people left the cities, left their homes and went out to hear him preach. And when they got there what did they hear? Just this: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire?”
Again, I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’d dash out into the wilderness to hear that kind of thing. And yet they did. High and low, rich and poor, it seems; tax collectors and soldiers. They journeyed out to hear John tell them that they were sinners and they asked him what to do to change their lives.
I’ve always wondered about this. Is it just an exaggeration on the part of Luke to make the story sound better? Or is it perhaps what really happened: John drawing crowds with his fearful message of judgment, retribution, and repentance? That kind of thing doesn’t immediately appeal to me, but it does, I know, appeal to some. I remember from my childhood in the South the tent revivals and the itinerant preachers. People flocked to these things day after day and the message was uniquely . . . sin, repentance, fire and brimstone. I often wondered why they went. Why should this be? What was it that drew the crowds? Then and now?
The beginning of an answer to such questions came to me once some years ago in a conversation with a woman who was a nun in a convent not far from where I lived. She was very wise and a kind of advisor to me, and we often talked. She was also a nurse and some years before had been given leave from her order for a time to assist the Medical Corps in Korea during the conflict there. And since she was both medic and religious, she assisted the chaplain as well as the doctors.
Now, I have to tell you that she didn’t have much to say for the chaplain – he was an ineffectual fellow, brimming with artificial cheerfulness in the midst of misery, proclaiming everything to be OK. But, of course, it wasn’t OK, and perhaps it was the action of God’s mercy that sister – tough and truthful and compassionate – was there to say that things were not OK. What I mean is this: it was a war, and the men to whom sister ministered had done horrible things and had seen horrible things which they hated and had had horrible things done or threatened to be done to them. And even if you believe the war is just – and most of them did – if you are decent at all, you are bothered, even anguished when you kill another human being. Even if it is his life or yours, to pull the trigger or plunge the bayonet and put an end to another is not OK and it does no good to gloss over it or to be told that it is, in fact, OK. And it was to men with such experience that sister ministered.
“Why do I feel this way”, they asked her? “Why can’t I sleep? Why do I keep seeing that man’s face when I close my eyes?”
“Because’ she told them, “to do what you did was a sin. Justified it may have been. You may have had no choice, but it was still a sin. You feel the way you do because it was a sin, and it is against your nature, as God created you, to take another’s life. It is against your nature, as God created you, to sin. You were made for something better than that. You have been forced by circumstances to do a deed that contradicts your very nature, and it troubles you.”
And what this very wise woman told me – and I believe it – was that the men without exception received her words with overwhelming relief . They were relieved to hear that they were sinners, for sister had named the beast that tormented them. It did no good for the bungling padre to call it OK; it was not. Sister called a spade a spade, a sin a sin, and opened up for those to whom she spoke the possibility of forgiveness. “Where there is no sin, there is no forgiveness/’ says St. Paul and so her word of truth, of compassionate judgment was therefore good news.
Perhaps, then, this is why those crowds flocked out to John to hear him preach: because John named the beast. For, you see, there is, I think, within us all – those multitudes of long ago and you and me today – a certain moral disquiet. We know what is right and just; and we know as well that we fail to live up to that standard. Few of us are so depraved or so mad as not to realize that we are not everything that we ought to be, that we do the things we ought not, and do not do the things we ought.
And that is what sin means in the language of the New Testament. Hamartia is the word in Greek. It means to fall short of the mark, as when an arrow misses the bull’s eye on a target. And as long as this is vague and unspecific, our lives are plagued with anxiety, disquietude, the sense that something is not right. And often, even in spite of ourselves, we yearn for the sharp pang of truth when the beast is named and the sin uncovered. Then, at least, we suppose that we can deal with it. Again, can it not be that this was the reason those crowds flocked out to John? That John was full of truth, and he told them what was right and he told them what was wrong?
* * * *
“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
One of the thinkers of the Protestant Reformation tells us: the beginning of salvation is despair. And he means by this that is it only when we are convinced of our sinfulness and our complete inability to make the mark that we are ready to receive the grace of Christ! I agree, but perhaps this is too strongly put – or wrongly put – for modern ears, let me explain.
As we heard in the Gospel, the people went out to John and they were convinced by him of their sins. And they asked him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And John said to them:
“He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.”
“Collect no more than is appointed you.”
“Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
John is the preacher of repentance and of reformation of life according to the precepts of the law. Turn from your sins, change your life, and obey the law. And he interprets the law in its spirit and its strictest sense: share what you have with the poor, do what is just, eschew violence, be honest and straightforward with those around you. But notice for John the mark to be missed in sin is the law, and in this, John, as noble as he may have been, remains the Forerunner, the best example – perhaps – of the Old Dispensation, but still of the Old Dispensation.
Because you see, for the New Dispensation, for Christianity, our moral disquiet, our sense of not doing what we ought and doing what we ought not, is only a symptom – a symptom of something fundamentally out of kilter. The mark we miss is – yes – the law, but we miss that mark, we fall short of it again and again, because we are all “off target” in a much more profound and disastrous way.
Remember this: “Thou hast made us for thyself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” It’s from St. Augustine and it’s my favorite line in all of Christian writing. It finds its way into my sermons over and over again. We have been made for God – for nothing less than God Himself . And the restlessness of our hearts, our anxiety, even our guilt reveals to us our utter need for Him to be our completion, our fulfillment, and our wholeness. We are not completed by the law, but only by God. Without Him we are ever outside ourselves, unfinished, restless, for the mark we miss is God Himself.
“What then can we do ?” the people asked John. He answered them, as we heard, but John’s answer – as correct as it is – is incomplete. The real answer, as yet unrevealed, is this: nothing. You can do nothing.
“Change your lives”, John told them. But what if the power to make the change is never there and the mark not-to-be-missed is beyond you? What then? Despair. Despair and tears and also a yearning for God. John is the Forerunner, the Herald, because his call to repentance makes manifest our helplessness, our restlessness, our utter and undeniable need of God. A need which only God can answer. An answer which can be given only when God comes to us, to give to us Himself . . . for God Himself is the answer!
“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
And that joy is the name of God’s longed-for answer – Emmanuel, God-with-us, who comes to us, and lives within us – our Savior Jesus Christ.