a sermon based upon Mark 1:9-15
Mark’s Gospel was the first story of Jesus’ life to be written down, and it begins when Jesus is 30 years old. From the first sentence of his Gospel, Mark testifies that Jesus is "the Son of God."
The word "gospel" (in Greek: euangelion) simply means "Good News." According to Mark, this is the Good News that Jesus brought.
Three weeks ago we talked about Jesus’ "opening act" -- John the Baptist -- a peculiar, counter-cultural, colorful character in his own right. John’s style of preaching became a profound shaper of Christian "evangelism" for the whole 2,000 years since the two of them first appeared in Palestine’s Jordan River Valley (which I spoke about in great detail last Sunday).
John’s location -- in the wilderness, standing in the river, on the border between Judea/Israel and its Eastern neighbor Jordan… and his costume -- clothed in camel’s hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey -- set that first BAPTIST apart from the norm! John the Baptist had a considerable following during the lifetime of Jesus, and afterwards, such that the Apostle Paul ran into churches started by the Baptist’s disciples.
Mark tells us that people from the whole Judean countryside, and even the city-folk from Jerusalem, were going out to him… confessing their sins, and receiving from John baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus himself came to John, and was baptized in the Jordan River. That baptism ceremony -- as Tom Grubaugh read for us again this morning -- marked the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.
The occasion was highlighted by the Holy Spirit alighting on Jesus (like a descending dove), and the voice of God saying: "Thou art my Son, my Beloved: with thee I am well pleased."
Then, with that Holy Spirit in him and that affirmation ringing in his ears, Jesus went out for 40 days into the desert to be tested by Satan regarding his identity -- namely, what kind of Messiah was Jesus going to be? – and a place where angels served him. (We discussed that part of the story -- Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness -- two weeks ago.)
Time passed, and John the Baptist was arrested by King Herod. We discussed that situation last Sunday. It was because John the Baptist’s preaching began to meddle in politics! John had condemned King Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. (That whole scandalous affair is matter for another time.) For today, the point is: John’s "baptism" movement was abruptly without its leader! That fact seems to have put Jesus front-&-center.
Mark tells us Jesus returned from the wilderness of Judea, returned north into Galilee, and picked up where John had left off, proclaiming: "The time is fulfilled! The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe the Good News."
There you have it: Jesus’ first sermon. Three short sentences. (Oh, if only I could be so concise!) (1) The time is fulfilled. (2) The kingdom of God has come near. (3) Repent, and believe the good news. "Repent, and believe the Gospel." Repent.
John’s ministry was described by Mark as "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin". Repentance… What do we mean by that?
Because repentance leads to forgiveness, we are apt to think of something that’s gone wrong being made right again. Something that needs to be forgiven… given a new start… a clean slate. (Yes!) That’s exactly why repentance that leads to forgiveness is called "Good News!" That’s the bull’s-eye heart of the matter. (!) That’s the Jesus Gospel in a nutshell: repentance that leads to forgiveness is "Good News" indeed! To "repent" starts a process that leads to forgiveness of sin, and a second chance at right-living. That’s Gospel good news!
Now, I know from my seminary studies that the verb "to repent" is the English translation of the Greek word "metanoia" which means, simply, to change. To change one’s mind, to change direction, to change one’s behavior.
It is sometimes translated "to turn, or to "return." Metanoia (to repent) is to make a change for the better… to decide differently about something and to change course. Repentance is the corrective change that sets you on a new foundation with new intentions, perhaps even with a new goal to pursue.
In that regard, I can understand why "forgiveness" may be a necessary corollary.
If you’ve been doing something -- habitually, innocently -- which suddenly shows itself in a new light as being wrong -- perhaps hurtful, perhaps destructive -- how can you repair the damage? Yes, it is a big first step to see the error of your ways, and to decide to act differently in the future (that’s repentance), but how can you make amends for the past?
The First Letter of John (Chapter 1, verse 9) says: "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." That is the Good News Jesus Christ came to deliver! "If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (Can I hear a "Hallelujah!"?)
To "repent" is to make a change that sets you on a new foundation with new intentions to do better in the future, having seen the error of your ways. John the Baptist "sealed" that decision (of those who came to him) by pouring water on them… or dunking them in the river. Sealed by the water of baptism, they came away as a new person, with a clean slate, wiped free from the sin they confessed, & cleansed of all unrighteousness.
Now, these folks might (one day, from time to time) slip back into old habits – the past wants to replicate itself again and again (right?) – but John assured them that God had noted their change of heart (their change of direction, their public decision to change their behavior) and had forgiven their sin. (That was already done!) Now it was up to them to live into that new future… to fulfill their vow.
John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and people (from the whole countryside) were going out to him "confessing their sins." My, oh, my! How do we get folks to do that!?
I put ads in the newspaper, billboards on the highway into town. You and I tell our friends and neighbors to come to First Congregational… But I don’t see them flocking to hear my sermons! Maybe I need to simplify the message, like John did… like Jesus did.
The Gospel Good News is: "If we confess our sins – which is simply to cite the case, to name it – God will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." In other words, the case against us will be dismissed! God, who is a faithful & just judge, will issue us an acquittal & adjourn the court. (!) It has been said that "confession is good for the soul."
In olden days, especially in Roman Catholic tradition, a priest would stand in for God so that the "penitent" (as they used to be called) could have someone to hear their confession (an "intermediary" with God), somewhat like taking a defense attorney into court with you. Martin Luther, the Great Reformer of the 16th Century, proposed a "priesthood of all believers" so that each one of us in the privacy of our own prayers could confess to God. To repent is (first) to see what we’re doing, and (second) to admit that there’s something wrong about it, and (third) believe that our confession of that fact (in the privacy of our heart, no one else needs to know) opens fresh lines of communication with God… a second chance!
If you have not done so lately, think about the burdens you carry. The weight of knowing you’ve done someone wrong -- you’ve done someone (or something) harm, not because you meant to, it’s just the way things happened. It may be a silly, trivial matter or a deeply wounding betrayal; it may be criminal, or merely an expediency (a short-cut that went wrong). I have no idea what kinds of unspoken sins or repressed accusations you carry in your heart, but repentance and forgiveness is the way to clean them out for good.
Let me illustrate how the process works:
A lecturer, explaining "stress management" to an audience, raised a glass of water and asked: "How heavy is this water?" Americans in the audience called out everything from 8 ounces (half a pound) to a pound; the Canadians and Europeans guessed from 20 grams to 500 grams, which is half a kilo.
The lecturer replied: "The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long you try to hold it. If I hold this glass for a minute or two, that’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour or more, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I try to hold it all day long, you’ll have to call an ambulance! In each case, it’s the same weight, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes."
He continued: "And that’s the way it is with stress management. If we carry our burdens all the time, sooner or later, the burden becomes increasingly heavy. We won’t be able to carry on. (!) As with the glass of water, you have to put it down for a while and rest before holding it again. When we’re refreshed, we can carry on with the burden."
I like that illustration, because it reminds us that even a small thing can weigh us down if we try to carry it, day after day. Repentance says "I’ve seen the light; I recognize the problem; now I can put it down." Forgiveness says: "Things can be repaired."
The lecturer wanted to make the point that, before returning home at the end of the day, they should leave the burdens of their work behind. Put them down, don’t carry them home. You can always pick it up again tomorrow. So, let me suggest: "Whatever burdens you are carrying now, set them down for a moment, if you can. Put down anything that may be a burden for you right now. Don’t pick it up again until after you’ve rested awhile." That’s the basic principle of "Sabbath": take a break; take a day off.
Repentance takes it one step further. That error or shortcoming, that painful memory or problem in your relationship, that mistake or sin that weighs you down… note it, name it, admit it to yourself & to God, and then put it down permanently through repentance for the forgiveness of sin. That’s the Good News that Jesus brought… and gave his life for!
The Roman Catholic penitential system of "confessionals" also includes a second step. The priest could prescribe a suitable change of behavior to "make up for" the cited sin. It may be advice, such as… to go to the one you have wronged, and make restitution (if possible) -- pay them back double -- so that they might also forgive you for the wrong you had done to them; or their advice may propose an appropriate gift to the Church, or to perform a series of "Hail Marys" or other prayers.
This second step, which is called "doing penance" to absolve your guilt, was made "null and void" by the Protestant Reformers, who felt it was sufficient to ask for forgiveness in faith and to trust the mercy & grace of God to provide it. No giving of alms, no indulgences, no ritual needed. (!)
As a Protestant (myself), and as someone who knows the New Testament Greek word "metanoia" means "to turn around" -- to change directions, to change one’s mind or one’s behavior -- I never felt (in the notion of "repentance") any sense of "groveling in guilt" for admitting shameful behavior. So, when I met people who didn’t like the idea of "repentance" because it made them feel dirty or low, guilty & ashamed, I wondered where that common mis-understanding came from.
As I often do when I am in doubt, I consulted my trusty Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, and looked up the word "repent." I was surprised to learn that our English word does not derive from the Greek "metanoia" but rather from the Latin "repenten", which means "to be sorry."
Aha! When the Latin Church (the Romans) translated the Greek New Testament into their language, they chose a word about how one feels rather than what one does. To feel sorry… to feel regret and contrition… to cause to feel sorrow… that’s the Latin verb. (!) It’s definition includes: "to turn from sin and dedicate oneself to the amendment of one’s life" and 2(b): "to change one’s mind." That’s the words’ real denotation, but the undercurrent of meaning (the connotation) is feeling badly about oneself, feeling sorrow, feeling sorry, feeling regret or contrition. That, friends, is what the priests of old (and religious revival-preachers) have been underscoring: to repent is to feel guilt, to grovel.
I noticed that the word "repent" in Latin is not only a verb, but also an adjective! In Latin, "repens" (derived from "repere") does not mean to "repair" – it means to "creep." A repent animal is creeping… or prostrate. It is the word from which we derive "reptile"! So, it’s no wonder that the connotation of "repenting" (which means turning from one’s misdeeds or moral shortcomings) would appear to be a groveling, guilty feeling of remorse or regret like a creeping reptile doing the low-crawl. (You feel so low that "down" looks like "up" to you!) "Repent, you sinner! Change your ways, you slithering serpent! Get down, and crawl!"
I’m here this morning to reassure you that they are wrong! John the Baptist and Jesus alike see the process of "repentance," which leads to forgiveness, as thoroughly good news! John says he baptized with water, but the one coming after him would baptize them with the Holy Spirit! Now, there’s nothing groveling or creepy about that! Holy Spirit? Yes!
To turn from sin and to dedicate oneself to the amendment (the improvement) of one’s life should be the source of great joy, rejoicing in the Spirit, for the forgiveness of sin. Hallelujah! When it happened to Jesus, Mark tells us, it was like the heavens being torn apart as the Spirit descended like a dove on him, and a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son! My Beloved! With you I am well-pleased. I am so proud of you!"
With a story like that at the very start of Jesus’ Gospel, who could be afraid? The forgiveness that follows genuine repentance is a cleansing, like a rainstorm that washes the dust from the sky and leaves the daylight sparkling clear. It’s like a shower, washing the grit & oils (the blood, sweat and tears) from our brow, and giving us a fresh start, with renewed vigor and the deep assurance that (like Jesus) you are God’s child, you are beloved. God is fond of you, proud of you, ready to go with you into the next stage (the next step) on your journey.
In closing, let me remind you that the central principle in "repentance" is the willingness to change! To change one’s mind, to change direction, to change one’s behavior. Change is expected in the church; it’s the very business we are in… so long as the change is for the better. People prefer to say the church "transforms" lives, because that sounds better than to say that we have "changed." That’s because there are a great many people who fear "change." They fear it because "change" is unknown.
Jack Fitzgerald, the minister here in Alpena who ordained me 35 years ago, said (paraphrasing the old hymn): "Like a mighty turtle moves the church of God. Brothers, we are treading where we’ve always trod." Jack knew things were rapidly changing even then, and that new ministers (like me) would have to keep up with the times. He challenged me to stay a step or two ahead of the congregation, so that when new opportunities arose, we might have the strategy in place to come alongside the people most affected by those changes. But he also warned me not to go too many steps ahead of the congregation, if I wanted to keep my job.
Knowing that Jesus’ first sermon said simply: "The time is fulfilled! The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the Good News." -- I ask you: are we willing to make some changes? Are we willing to invest the effort (and take the risk) of renewal as a church for the sake of spiritual revival? Do we think that we can help save the world… for God?
If so, we have a glimpse of the first step in today’s reading: John the Baptist called people out of the City and down to the River where they confessed their sins and took the plunge – receiving the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. They were ready to change… They were yearning for a second chance, a change in direction… and because of that, the church was born.
Are we there yet? You know, it is hard to be immersed in God’s presence, and keep an eye on the clock. (Has my sermon gone over the allotted 20 minutes?) Does it matter?
Do we begin to shed tears as we recognize -- and confess -- where we’ve been stuck… and where we’ve gone astray… how we have hurt others… and how we’ve been hurt ourselves? In other words, are we ready to repent?
Even if it means losing some control, do we want so much to be clean from the inside out, that we are willing to get wet? That’s how Jesus got started, and he invites us: "Come on in, the water’s fine!"
Don’t be afraid! He’s been there before you. Jesus knows that God is welcoming, eager to forgive… by grace, through faith. Repent, and believe the good news!