Genesis 3: 1-7; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Mark 1: 4-11
As musical countdowns, self-assessments, and poetry ended one year and started another, I became aware of how much of life is expressed through regret and how much is felt through shame. I was reminded how words matter. Regrets have been expressed in songs by the Beatles like John’s “I’m a Loser,” and Paul’s “Yesterday;” in Elton John’s classic, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word; in Brenda Lee’s “I’m sorry” where she sang: “I’m sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool; I didn’t know love could be so cruel. You tell me mistakes are a part of being young, but that don’t make right the wrong that’s been done.” Adele, Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift and countless others have sung songs of regret. They’ve been recorded through the ages. Regret motivates the soul to strum the strings of one’s heart. And at a time like this, early in a new year, it causes hearts to bare the anguish of one’s pain, either by dealing with it in confession or counseling, or by trying to bury it in the year before, with a gravestone freshly placed on top that says 2020. The trouble is, those issues won’t stay buried; they rise up in addictive behaviors: in too much drink, too much food, too much work, too much screen time, too many drugs or too many violent reactions instead of measured ones. Those are manifestations of unresolved issues. Writer Brene Brown has captured the struggle of the human spirit in her works like “I Thought it was Just Me, But it isn’t-Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power;” in her 12 session curriculum on “Shame-Resilience;” and in “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think you’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You are.” I have felt shame since an early age. Perhaps that’s captured in the original stories of the human race in Genesis, chapter 3. When visiting my grandparents one summer, I hit my sister and my grandmother said to me, “Oh Jeffrey! Aren’t you ashamed for doing that?” I was ashamed that day, and I apologized, but my grandmother’s words have played in my head regularly, even though I was a boy when that happened. Do you too find yourself having words of shame or regret play in your head? Do your needs to avoid fears and failures guide many of your life choices? Not all of those voices are bad. Such persons are bestowed with moral compasses; they honor boundaries well, though they can barely tolerate boundary-breakers. Such persons can be very loyal, though they can be exceptionally unforgiving on betrayers. The world has plenty of those persons, while there are others who seem to throw caution to the wind, drinking in the marrow of life with daily abandon. All members of our human race, we believe, had their creation in a Garden: on the breath of God who spoke us into existence. In reading the Bible from beginning to end, it seems to me that God learned over the ages and adapted different holy ways to deal with the human race. For example, at the time when the first man and first woman discovered they were naked, they clothed themselves with fig leaves. That was the beginning of shame. And God scolded. Rule makers have tried to reign in human sinfulness since that time in the books of the Torah as God’s people turned to false gods. The consequence, God decided, was the exile of the Jews from their land. Ever since the serpent tempted the first humans into doing the one thing God said not to do, I imagine, as Don McLean said in his song “American Pie,” that “Satan’s laughing with delight.” We’ve lived through Puritanical struggles over decency. Is there too much shame and too many people feeling repressed? Or by contrast, is there too little shame, as we witness hedonists and anarchists and autocrats in our country embracing sins? Is shame rooted in the continued whispering of the serpent in our ears like the serpent did in Genesis 3? If so, why has the church, in the name of our Savior amplified people’s feelings of shame over the years?
Starting with the Genesis story in chapter 3, choice was freely giving to humans—that is, moral freewill—something not bestowed on other creatures in God’s creation. It was both a blessing and a curse. There was just one tree from which God asked for the humans not to eat—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a lot of finger-pointing in that story- did they eat of that fruit because of the woman, or the serpent, or the man? The blame game of the human race began and continues even now, as grown people still refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Over the years in the Old Testament, God made covenants with the chosen people; covenants with Abraham, and Moses, and others. But covenants were made, and they were broken. That produced guilt and shame. Then covenants were revised, and words of sorrow and forgiveness were offered. God watched, and God dealt with the fickle chosen people. At one point, the Northern Kingdom of Israel had so betrayed God that, in their moral weakness, an aggressive country called Assyria was allowed to invade and take over. Later, even the Southern Kingdom of Judah became compromised, not listening to words of doom from prophets like Zephaniah. Long before Zephaniah described God’s joy, he described God’s displeasure, declaring God would “Utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth.” [1:1] “Come together and hold assembly, O shameless nation,” Zephaniah roared, “before you are driven away like the drifting chaff.” [2:1] There were few feelings of shame and guilt. But then Zephaniah described the Day of the Lord, and a day of change, declaring: “I will change the speech of the peoples to pure speech, that all of them may call on the name of the Lord.” [3:9] And finally, finally, the people were invited to sing and shout to God! It was a new day! Jerusalem was described as “God’s daughter.” An absolution was declared, as what people get from a priest in a confessional. These glorious words were declared: The Lord “will rejoice over you with gladness; he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival!” [ 3:17] What a stark contrast: do things that we know that are wrong and face psychological, theological, and physical consequences. Or, apologize for those past choices and do what is right in the eyes of the Lord; then there is forgiveness and joy! As I, and probably you, have loved to hear words of approval from parents or grandparents, we long to hear words of approval from our Creator! Judah had felt the corrections from wrong choices, and then the blessings from right choices! What a difference between the two!
Finally, in the New Testament, we find God carrying on some possible learned behavior: instead of instituting covenants that could easily be broken, ones that were hard to hold up, the Lord gave us one who would be called “Son of God,” and gave him to the world. God made a glad announcement, surrounded by those who had gathered at the Jordan River to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. It was a rite of purification; it was a sign of new beginnings. What a perfect event to remember today! So with all of those people coming to John, Jesus too asked John to baptize him. Many theologians have concluded that he did that as an example rather than a need to have sins forgiven. But it’s also true that it was finally time to start his ministry, the one his Heavenly Father had planned for him. As Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens open, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. At the same time, a voice came from heaven, presumed to be from his Heavenly Father: “You are my Son. I love you. With you, I am well pleased.” What a jubilant day for God! What an announcement! Perhaps you have not heard such words from a parent or grandparent. Today, imagine God saying those words to you, as you repent of actions done or words said in the past. As you are starting this year, turn the page in your book of life! This could be a year of new beginnings; of new devotion to God and others; of a willingness to humbly admit sins, turning away from hurtful actions or words. This is our time! I invite you to join me in tuning out the old shame voices, and tuning in to words from our God, from our Savior, and from our Bibles. They are the lamp unto our feet, and the light unto our path.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 10, 2021