The Revd Margaret Legg
Where do you stand on the ‘Shall we bomb Syria debate?’ Should we, or shouldn’t we? Or: Is Paralympian Pistorius a murderer or not? On Thursday, the South African Supreme Court changed his sentence, on appeal, from ‘culpable homicide’ to murder. The view of the court was that when Pistorius shot 4 bullets through the locked toilet door, he shot to kill, he did kill and that is murder.
Reaching a decision which is just is often complex. Along with Death, Hell and Heaven, Judgement is one of the great Advent themes. Judgement not just on nations but on individuals too.
John the Baptist doesn’t beat about the bush. The Saviour is nigh. The crowds are not ready for him. The need for repentance is urgent. In the verse immediately after today’s Gospel, he warns that for those unprepared, the coming kingdom will seem like wrathful judgement. It will be fearsome because it will create a moment of truth: a moment when all the illusions and devices that help us keep up the pretence that all is well will be swept away. ‘You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’ he spits out with venom (not one to mince words!)
He offers a baptism of repentance, as a preparation for the reception of Christ’s life within. A symbol of our desire for the forgiveness of sins, of that which separates us from a good relationship with each other and with God.
Well, he’s got a point. None of us is perfect, we do and say and think things that we later regret, indeed repentance has its roots in (Latin *penitire "to regret). Forgiveness is about restoring broken relationships between two parties, broken through some offence.(“to forgive” in New Testament Greek is aphiemi, meaning “to let go, to set free,”)
Believe me, individual repentance can be just as complex a process as dispensing justice in a court of law.
A friend was beaming as she told me on Friday of her 2 stepsons who were finally speaking to each other again. Their relationship had broken down when one had told his newly married brother (on the very day of the wedding, just hours after the knot had been tied) that he had married the wrong lady! Of course, this was relayed to the new bride and the offending brother had been cold shouldered ever since. This had happened 18 years ago. No wonder my friend, their stepmother, was now beaming!
Advent is a time to take a look within ourselves, to identify the twists and turns that lead us away from each other and from God. Looking at the wilderness spots in our own lives can be a rough and crooked process, an uphill struggle at times. To look with discernment may help us to straighten our twists and turns. Paul realises this. He calls it knowledge and insight, in his prayer for the little band of Christians in Philippi, of whom he is clearly so fond, that they will take responsibility for their readiness to meet Jesus when he returns in glorious light.
How often do we make a personal judgement without bothering to learn more about their circumstances? How often do we make a judgement of others based purely on prejudice? Perhaps unwittingly we condemn another person just because their colour, their creed or their beliefs are different from ours. Michael Smith’s Biography ‘I am just going outside’ of Captain Oates. He was one of the 5 Polar Explorers who died back in 1912 on the return trip from that ill fated trek to the South Pole. He had an intense dislike of virtually all foreigners, bordering on xenophobia. Oates upbringing, writes Smith, had given him the superior English attitude towards other cultures and it spilled out on the Polar journey in his intense aversion to his fellow explorer, Norwegian Gran. This conflict was finally resolved only when the pair were in the close confines of their tent, in the snowy wilderness of the Beardmore Glacier, when Oates explained that ’With all his heart he hated foreigners’ the reason – because ‘all foreigners hated England. ‘Years later Gran recalled Oates going on to say: ’The rest of the world were just waiting to attack his Motherland and destroy it if they could.’ (This was just 2 years before the outbreak of WW1). It was when Gran exclaimed that of course he would be on England’s side if ever war broke out, that the air was cleared, they shook hands and became from then on the best of friends.
That conversation happened over 100 years ago, but it resonates today. It does rather beg the question: ‘How do we feel as we walk down the Edgware Rd? What judgements do we find we have made, subliminally perhaps, sub consciously?’ It doesn't seem to matter that Christianity teaches the sisterhood/brotherhood of human kind - that we are all equal as human beings irrespective of what we call 'the accident of birth'. The potential, the hopes and fears, the dignity of another person can be destroyed and ignored by the judgement that is based on prejudice.
In these days of Advent there is this strange mixture of looking forward to the first coming of Christ with all its hope and joy. But there is this other side to it - the judgement of the second coming – for which John the Baptist urges us to get ready. It is a judgement given in the penetrating light of God’s glory which reveals every crooked part and every rough way. We are well advised to take time to prepare. Advent is that time.