Can We Go Back?

[audio]What does it mean to turn back? We are spending this season of Advent, this time of waiting and preparation for the Christmas celebration, imagining these weeks as a journey toward Bethlehem, that we are making our way to the manger where the Savior of the world was born. Last week we talked about getting ready for the journey, that before we even set out, we need to make sure we’ve packed what we need for what lies ahead.

But this week, our trip meets a bump in the road, and so we need to consider whether or not we need to go back. It’s not an easy question. We have made it this far. Surely anything else we need for the journey we can pick up along the way. There’s bound to be a Wal-Mart somewhere, right?

Maybe you’ve had that moment before, where you’ve had to decide how much this thing that you’ve forgotten – your toothbrush, your medicine, your wallet – is important enough to lose the time back-tracking, or if there’s another way to keep going?

When Elizabeth and I first returned to the States from our three years in Palestine, we spent six months traveling the U.S., speaking in churches, talking about our ministry and the plight of the Christians of the Holy Land. For the most part, the travel went extraordinarily well. There was the one flat tire in the rain in Alabama, which lost us a few hours on a tight time schedule, but otherwise, things went swimmingly…

…except when we left Atlanta. It’s the town where I grew up. I knew it like the back of my hand. No matter that I hadn’t lived there in more than ten years and that the city had doubled in size since then. We finished up a program in Roswell and were headed to Asheville next.

So without consulting the map (because, after all, this is my hometown…who needs a map in their hometown?), I made my way over to I-75 North.

Now, you wouldn’t necessarily think that getting the road wrong by only one digit would be that big a deal. But it happens that I-85 goes in a completely different (and, it turns out, correct) direction. But by the time the gnawing uncertainty in my gut grew to the point that I decided to revisit my decision, we were at the Georgia border and entering Tennessee.

We pulled over, consulted the map (which turned out to be rather helpful, by the way; I highly recommend them), and, after some quick calculations, realized that backtracking to 285 would take just as much time as cutting through the Smoky Mountains. In other words, we could’ve turned back, but it wouldn’t have made any difference. We were going to be late no matter what we did. And yet, there was something so disheartening about back-tracking that made it became the less pleasant of the two options. So we stayed on 75 and, somewhere around Cleveland, Tennessee, we turned East.

What does it mean to turn back? Does it feel like defeat? Is it a nagging proof of our imperfection, our utter inability to get it right?

Maybe it’s not a literal journey that brings this into contrast for you. Maybe it’s a friendship, where an absolute refusal to admit any kind of wrongdoing has meant that the relationship is irreversibly broken. Or perhaps it’s a decision made with absolute certainty and boldness, and now self-doubt is gnawing; but turning back would mean showing weakness, the very thing that will bring it all crashing to the ground.

There is something within us – perhaps it’s a peculiar cultural notion of “damn the torpedoes”, or maybe it’s some basic human need to be “right” all the time and at all costs – but there is something within us that makes it hard, if not impossible, to turn back. And yet, in our lesson, here comes John the Baptist, telling us to do just that.

John is the ultimate Biblical character. If I had my pick, he would be my first choice for a Bible action figure. Everything about him is wild: his clothes, his food. Even in religious paintings, which tend to smooth out the rough edges of Biblical heroes, he is shown with matted hair and piercing eyes.

All of this amplifies his wild preaching: calling out the religious leaders of the day for their hypocrisy, telling them that stones can become children of Abraham, and using threatening imagery of the axe lying at the root of the tree and of fire, unquenchable fire.

And at the heart of everything that wild John says and does is this one word: “repentance.” It appears three times in the verses we read this morning. It’s the very focus of John’s ministry, preaching to anyone who will listen, that it is time to repent. Now. The Messiah is coming. The kingdom of God is at hand. Prepare the way of the Lord: repent.

In Greek, the language of the New Testament, the word for repentance is metanoia – literally, to change one’s mind; something that might strike some of us as a near impossibility. How many Presbyterians does it take to change a mind? I’ll let you write your own punchline. In the Semitic languages of Hebrew and Aramaic though, ones that John and Jesus and others would have spoken and would have influenced their thinking far more than Greek, the nuance is different: to repent is to return, to come home, to face again, to go back.

So this second station on our Advent journey is repentance, which means that the thing that is supposed to help us get further down the road is the very thing that turns our backs on our destination. This travel metaphor is beginning to be a little on the unhelpful side…

…but that’s where an important distinction comes in: repentance, turning back, doesn’t equal “retreat”. It doesn’t mean going back in the sense of giving up, throwing in the towel, and going home. What it means is returning, going back to the source of it all, turning to face the same God who gave us life and gives us hope. It does mean listening to that little gnawing voice of self-doubt, yes, but just enough to pause our journey, pull over for a minute, get out the atlas, and see what it is that we need to revisit.

Perhaps that severed friendship needs an “I’m sorry”, a time of true regret – not a miraculous moment of restoration, but the first step on the sometimes bumpy path toward reconciliation. Or maybe that decision that seemed so certain at the time needs to be tweaked, or even scrapped, in light of new evidence or in the face of a new realities.

Whatever it might be, that moment of stopping, of giving our full attention to God, of turning again to face our creator, is a moment of pure reflection, where we are invited to hold up what we do to the bright light of God’s perfect grace. And when we do, even when we come to realize that we’ve gone off track, we know that such an admission is made to the one who has already offered us forgiveness and who promises us new life, new direction, in Christ.

Then again, it could be that the path is right after all, and that the thing to do is to keep going. If so, then the simple act of stopping to check our spiritual maps gives us time to gain confidence in our decision; or to realize that that internal voice screaming “you’re wrong!” needs to be silenced and is in need of being in the presence of God for the sake of healing and peace.

Look: none of this is easy. There is no panacea to cure imperfect decisions. But it’s even harder if we try to figure it out alone.

And so, my friends: in this Advent season, on this Advent journey, my prayer is that we will all find ourselves on surer footing as we take those steps on the road that lies ahead. And may we do so together: with one another, yes; and also with the God who creates us, the Christ who calls us, and the Spirit that strengthens us.