There’s a pivotal scene in the Clint Eastwood Western, “Unforgiven,” where two hired guns talk about the killing they just pulled off. One of them, a newbie, feels pangs of guilt and contrition. Then he tries to justify what the two of them just did, telling his grizzled partner, “I guess they had it comin’.” The burned-out gunman played by Eastwood responds, “We all have it comin’, kid.”

When it comes to what’s coming to us, sometimes we think in terms of privilege. If we think we deserve preferential treatment for something we’ve done, we might say, “I want what’s coming to me!” Kind of like the Pharisees of the ancient Middle East, who, like Eastwood’s two sinners of the Old West, attempted justification so they could be forgiven. The Pharisees believed their justification was rooted in their Abrahamic bloodline. Jesus often criticized them and the Sadducees over this (“You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.” (LK 16:15).)

As we continue our Advent journey, this Sunday’s first reading from Isaiah (IS 40:1-5, 9-11) prophecies John the Baptist’s entry on the scene as “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” The gospel reading from Mark (MK 1:1-8) shows us John living up to that prophecy. As an instrument of God’s forgiveness, he became familiar with humanity’s two extremes of dealing with what we have coming to us: self-justification and sincere contrition. As Matthew’s gospel shows (MT 3:7), John’s assessment of the unjustified self-regard he saw among those approaching him mirrored Jesus’ harsh rebuke described in that passage from Luke:

When [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’”

But in Mark’s gospel, the contrite throngs coming to John knew they didn’t deserve justification—only the judgment they had coming to them.

“People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”

What CAN we have coming to us? In Sunday’s second reading (2 PT 3:8-14), Peter answers that one: Forgiveness.

“According to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

That peace starts as we come to the River and acknowledge our own guilt. But it isn’t complete unless we also work the land through which that river runs–making the rugged terrain surrounding it into a plain so it’s easier for others to make the same spiritual journey to forgiveness we did. That way, as we become instruments of Isaiah’s prophecy, all people will see forgiveness coming to them—as long as they’re asking for it.

–Tom Andel