I was once asked by a stranger in the street if I was a sinner (I was wearing a dog collar at the time) and wasn’t quite sure how to respond. Whilst I was recovering from the shock of his question he moved on and asked me if I was saved. I think I smiled weakly muttered something about being in a hurry and rushed off to get away from this awkward encounter. It was only afterwards that I thought of all the clever and witty responses I could have given but sadly none of them are suitable to be repeated in a sermon.
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about sin and holiness.
When I mention the word sin how do you feel? What is your instant emotional response? I suspect that most of us instantly feel guilty as we call to mind our grubby failings and recall our numerous misdemeanours. Shame is one of the most powerful emotions we can feel, shame can wound us, diminish us and hold us back from being fully human. At times in our lives we allow others to shame us when we open ourselves up to negative feedback, condemnation and judgement. When I was a teenager I was very badly bullied over a period of years. I was called names, I was isolated and I was made to feel shame because I was a victim. I never told a soul, I never asked for help and I didn’t even tell my parents. Shame became a huge part of my day to day experience and I think it probably has shaped the adult I have become.
But feelings of shame are a long way from knowing that we have made mistakes, from realising that we have fallen into sin and accepting that we need to ask God to forgive us. You and I are sinners. Whenever we behave in a way that separates us from God we fall into sin. Our sins are, in the main, rather unspectacular. We are greedy, we are competitive, we fail to love, we reject the weak, we are proud, we exploit others for our own gain and we fail to treasure the planet. If you don’t think you are a sinner, you really don’t need to be here. I know that I really need to be here.
Today’s Gospel is a reminder that we can be set free from sin when we turn our gaze to Jesus. We are told that the future can be different from the past. John the Baptist speaks harsh words to the people who come to him, he admonishes and challenges them but he invites them to enter more deeply into the life of the baptised. It is in the waters of Baptism that we are invited to be holy, we are asked to say sorry and we are forgiven.
I’m tempted to say stand up if you think you are holy.
But actually, we are all invited to be holy. Holy does not mean being churchy, it does not even mean being virtuous but being holy is to be filled with a desire to know and love God and a desire to know and love each other. If I asked who wants to know and love God I think there would be a lot more people standing up. Do you want to know and love God, do you want to know and love your neighbour? If we cannot be a church where we long to love God and each other then we are nothing.
Holiness is not something from the past. Holiness is not reserved for saints and martyrs. Holiness is real; it is an invitation to live in the light and to burst with love. God longs for you and I to be holy.
Everyday holiness is life changing and life enriching. In my last parish there was a young boy who went to our parish school. At the end of the Eucharist every week he looked at me, he smiled and he said thank you Reverend Chris. He was bursting with love and he is holy. In one of the churches I visited recently there was a little girl at the altar, no more than four years old. She knelt with her parents; she closed her eyes, held her hands together and was stock still. As I blessed her in God’s name she opened her eyes and smiled, she was beaming because she is holy, she longs to know and love God. Every time you make a donation of a tin of beans to a food bank you are committing an act of love, it is a holy thing that you are doing. Everyday holiness is all around us and you are God’s holy people.
We do not become holy by an effort of the will. You and I cannot decide to be holy people. It is out of our weakness and our fragility that we become holy. When we are out of our depth, when life is out of control, when we can hardly look at ourselves in the mirror, that is when we know our need of God, that is when we know that we need to be forgiven, when we long for God to break into our hard and brittle hearts and welcome us back into the light and to leave the shadows behind. Holiness is a gift from God,
This Advent as you journey to the star in Bethlehem dare to be holy, burst with love, leave sin behind, ask God to forgive you and hear God’s call to be his holy people.