The season of Lent begins in a few day, on Ash Wednesday. The Lenten season is, for many Christians, a time of journey – a journey which should be of Christ-focused reflection and self-reflection. How can I do better in my life journey with the Savior?
And for Cathlics, our journey with Christ toward the Celestial City begins at our baptism in similar fashion to when the Lord Jesus began His ministry at His baptism in the Jordan. That’s why John the Baptizer proclaimed to those on the shore, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” That’s why the apostles, in deciding who would take Judas’ place, said: “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22)
And so, our journey toward God's kingdom begins with our baptism. But that journey is a long one and a sometimes arduous one, fraught with many hazardous cliffs and jungles and pits. The highway to our heavenly home also has many side roads and exits along the way that can distract us and lead us astray. THAT is why God places road signs along our journey’s highway road – signs that point the way in which we should go. Signs that help us prepare ourselves for the journey AND for our sustenance on that journey.
So, let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism and pay attention to that first of road signs. Scripture then tells us John “came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make His paths straight . . . And the crowds were questioning him, saying, “Then what shall we do?” (Luke 3)
In other words, the crowd on the shore asked John how they could prepare the way of the Lord in their hearts. And it is that preparation which is the focus of today’s message.
John answered their questions, and I urge you to read his response, but his response is not a complete response if we take the entire Bible – specifically now the New Testament – if we take the whole of scripture in context.
How do we prepare the way of the Lord into our lives? John the baptizer gave a rather short list to those at the Jordan. But those are not the only ways to prepare for the Lord. Romans 12 is another list of signposts. As I read this infallible and inerrant word of God, may the Holy Spirit awaken us to where we fall short – so we might seek Him to change us:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)
I know we are all doing many of these things as best we can in our human frailties, but as Paul also wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica: “But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:10)
Yes, the New Testament is replete with lists – signposts, if you like – commandments, all demanding our attention and obedience if we hope to arrive safely at the Celestial City.
But speaking of signposts, I suppose the best place to find the more complete answer to the question the crowd asked of John – “What shall we do to prepare the way of the Lord?” we should look at what the Lord Jesus Himself said to a different crowd during His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. And one of the many signposts in those three chapters is captured in the Lord’s Prayer. I know we are all familiar with it, but please focus your attention on these words in chapter six:
"Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. 10 Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power and the glory for ever. Amen. 14 For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
It is to this point – our forgiveness of others – that we all need to hear again and again on our journey. We fool only ourselves to think we can find our way Home without obedience to this signpost.
Let me repeat the Lord’s most clear and somber warning so we don’t miss it: Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. A few verses later, He adds – “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
On our journey through life people will offend us. People will terribly hurt us. I will say it again, people will terribly hurt us. And that is ALL THE MORE REASON for this infallible and unmistakable signpost: We must forgive them – even if they do not ask for forgiveness. Please be mindful of this. Our forgiveness of others is NOT an option. It is a REQUIREMENT if we hope to be obedient to Christ in all things.
Many of you know the name, Corrie ten Boom.
Corrie ten Boom and her family lived in Holland during the Second World War. They hid Jews from the Gestapo in a small room they’d constructed in one of their apartment bedrooms. Corrie and her family were eventually arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis. Her father died in one of the concentration camps. Corrie and her sister were sent to Ravensbruck, where her sister died. Just before all the women in her cell block were to be gassed, Corrie was released due to an administrative error. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, talks about the work of her family in saving Jews from slaughter. In 1947, a few years after the war, Corrie was speaking in a church about God's forgiveness. Guideposts magazine retold the story in 1983. Here are some excerpts:
“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.
It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.
It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.
“When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”
The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.
And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.
It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!
Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.
Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”
And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?
But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.
“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.
“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”
And I [just] stood there . . . Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience . . . Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.
And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.
“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”
And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.
“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”
For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.”
Forgiveness. God's signpost reads in bold letters so no one can miss it: Forgive others as your Father has forgiven you.
And now, one more story about forgiveness, and I will close this short message:
When St. Maria Goretti was nine years old, her father died, leaving the family of six siblings in worsening poverty than they’d known prior to his death. Though so young, it fell to her to raise her five brothers and sisters while her mother worked the surrounding fields to pay the rent and feed themselves.
Besides caring for her siblings, Maria also cooked and cleaned for two neighbors – one of whom had a 20-year-old son, Allesandro. Three years later, when Maria was eleven, Allesandro forced himself on her and tried to rape her. She fought against him, but Allesandro repeatedly stabbed her. Maria died the next day, but not before she said to those around her: “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli … and I want him with me in heaven forever.”
The story doesn’t end there. Several years into his prison sentence, Allesandro remained unrepentant. But one night Maria appeared to him in a dream and told the angry and bitter man once again that she forgave him.
Maria’s forgiveness was a turning point for him. He converted to Christs and from that moment lived a life of holiness, eventually becoming a Franciscan lay brother. Allesandro died a child of God in 1970, some 60 years after his brutal murder of 11-year-old Maria.
So, what is the point of today’s message? You and I are on a journey toward Christ’s kingdom, a journey that began with our baptism and will end only when we close our eyes in death and see Christ’s beautiful face.
The Holy Spirit moved upon John the Baptizer to proclaim to the crowds at Jordan’s shore: Prepare the way of the Lord. Prepare your hearts for the coming King.
How do we prepare our hearts for Him? Scripture makes it abundantly clear, from one end of the Book to the other, prophet after prophet, apostle after apostle that there are many ways in which we must prepare our hearts for our Savior. But one form of preparation Jesus focused on was our forgiveness of others.
The season of Lent is fast approaching. Let’s begin that season doing as Jesus told us to do, and as Corrrie ten Boom and St. Maria Gorretti exemplified: Forgive those who have offended us, who have hurt us – even if they do not ask our forgiveness. You will remember, Jesus forgave His unrepentant killers. Are we not to follow in the Master’s steps?