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I was watching a TED Talk the other day by Kathryn Schulz: On Being Wrong. Shulz is also the author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, which also reminded me of the time Snoopy was writing a book and Charlie Brown says that he hopes he has a good title, to which Snoopy replies, “I have the perfect title: ‘Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?’” — rabbit trail — back to the TED Talk.
At the beginning of the talk, Shulz asked the audience, “How does it feel to be wrong?” As she pointed out, and as we are all very much aware, it doesn’t ever really feel good at all, but she notes, in our own minds, feeling/being wrong, can sometimes also feel right, because we don’t realize we are erring. The example she uses is that classic cartoon, Roadrunner. There is the scene where Wile E. Coyote is chasing the roadrunner, the roadrunner ducks off the path, and coyote just keeps running, eventually running off the edge of a cliff. He was wrong, but in that moment, he still believed he was right.
The next question Shulz asked the audience was, “How does it feel to realize you are wrong?” You might be wrong, but unaware? How does it feel when you become aware? The answer for coyote arrives when he looks down. He is running across the thin air, then he looks down, and realizes he is wrong. He was wrong, he realizes is wrong, and he falls. What happens in the next episode? The exact same thing.
Today in our Gospel reading, John the Baptist comes on the scene, “Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why? Because the Israelites have once again run off the cliff. They believed they were right, even though they were wrong. It was only when John called out to them to repent, that some of them realized they were wrong.
One interesting point about John’s message, is that many, if not most, of the Old Testament prophets called all the people, the entire nation of Israel to repentance, but John had a tendency to speak to the individual, it’s how he got himself into trouble when he called out Herod for his marriage to his brother’s ex-wife. When the crowds came to be baptized by him, they asked, “What should we do?” The same with the tax collectors and the soldiers, each group, realizing they were wrong, wanted to know how they were to live rightly. The fact that John would baptize them after they repented points to the seriousness of their transgressions.
We often believe that baptism is strictly a Christian practice, but the Jewish people used this practice of spiritual washing as well. One reason for them to be baptized was for touching something that was dead. There were several steps to becoming clean from such an act, but full immersion baptism was part of it. In addition, the new convert to Judaism had to be baptized, in a sense, making them like a new born child. Perhaps John, through the baptism of repentance, was saying to the people: you are like someone who has touched death, or you are like someone who is outside the Covenant that God made with His people; therefore, repent of your sin and be baptized, for the Lord your God is coming.
The Israelites had forgotten how God had called them out of Egypt to be for him a holy people, so now John was calling them to repentance, one more time, because now God was coming, and He was coming to make a personal invitation to that life of holiness.
So… How does it feel for you to be wrong? How does it feel for you to realize you’re wrong? What is it like to suddenly realize you’ve run off the side of the cliff? Why did you run off in the first place?
Nine-year-old Braun lived in a little village not far from London. Braun’s parents were agnostics, but they felt that at least once in his life, he ought to go to church. So they dressed him up in his little black suit and black bow tie and asked the governess to take him.
That Sunday, the parson preached about the crucifixion of a Man. He described the nails driven through the Man’s hands, the crown of thorns jammed upon His head, the blood that ran down His face, and the spear that ripped into His side. He described the agony in His eyes and the sorrow in His voice when He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Halfway through the sermon, little Braun was crying. Wouldn’t somebody do something? Wouldn’t the congregation rise up together and take the Man down from the cross? But as he looked around in astonished surprise, he saw that the people were complacent. “What’s the matter with these people, Nanny?” he asked. “Why doesn’t somebody do something about that Man on the cross?”
Patting Braun on the shoulder, his nanny nervously whispered in reply, “Braun, Braun, be quiet. It’s just a story. Don’t let it trouble you. Just listen quietly. You’ll soon forget about this old story when we go home.”
What is it like to realize that your wrong, that you’ve just run off the side of the cliff? Why did we do it in the first place? We do it because we have forgotten about that old story. We forgot about how God saved us, so we became like someone who has touched death, or like someone who is outside the New Covenant that God made with His people. We forgot that God called us to a life of righteousness.
It is tough being wrong and like the Israelites, we sometimes need someone to point out the error or our ways, so imagine standing out in the wilderness with the Israelites. John has been calling out everyone, but so far, you’ve managed to dodge his wrath. You begin to think that maybe you are one of the few that hasn’t been wrong. You look around at the crowd and say to yourself, “I sure am glad I’m not like the rest of these poor schmucks!” But then you look back up and John is staring directly at you. He points at you and he begins to speak. What does he say? What does he call you out on?
The Apostle John writes, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” The Psalmist writes, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, and as we said last week, “advent” means coming, and “coming” implies waiting. During this time of waiting, repent of your sins and be forgiven, cleansed, washed, be made whiter than snow in the sight of our God, so that on the day he returns, you will be made to stand with him and all the other sons and daughters of our God.
Let us pray: Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.