The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:'Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight.'" John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
So, in the spirit of full disclosure I feel you should know that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a crazy street corner preacher who waves her Bible wildly while shouting red faced at passer-bys, "Repent!" This may come as a shock. And I’m not ruling it out as a possible career move in the future. But (for now) as an outsider to the crazy street corner preacher world, I must say I feel for those guys. Because what could their success rate possibly be? I mean, does shouting, "Repent!" at people actually work? Just speaking for myself, never once has my life changed because a crazy guy with a sign yelled at me from a street corner.
I mention this because it feels like maybe John the Baptist was the first and last successful crazy street corner preacher. And given the success he had, you know, with all of Judea and Jerusalem coming to partake in his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, I wonder what the guy said exactly? Why did so many people come to him for his baptism? Because bless their hearts, but our modern street corner preachers who hold signs that say “repent” don’t have near the same results at all.
Maybe you feel like I do, namely that when I hear a preacher shouting “repent” what I really hear is he or she saying, "Stop being bad. Start being good or else God’s gonna be real mad at you." Which feels like more of a threat than anything else. That just never works on me. Who wants their spiritual arm twisted until they cry Uncle?...it’s like...religious bullying.
And I just can’t imagine that it was religious bullying which brought all of Judea and Jerusalem to be baptized by John. I mean, fear and threat can create change in behavior. No question about it. But it doesn’t really change your thinking. Threats don’t change your heart.
For that kind of change - change in thinking and change of heart - it takes truth and promise. Namely, truth and promise that are external to us and that come only from God reaching into the graves we dig ourselves and bringing out new life. Because if repentance comes from something other than an external word of truth about who you are and who God is, it’s not repentance. It’s self-improvement.
And I’m pretty sure that what happened that day by the banks of the Jordon was more than just a massive wave of self-improvement.
So if John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins then maybe it wasn’t so much so that sinners would confess and stop being bad. Maybe it was so that all would hear the truth about this God who comes near to us in the person of Jesus Christ - not so that we might be good but that we might be new. John says to them, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for something new. Because there is one who is coming who will change everything."
And the way in which John the Baptist prepares the people for the Gospel is by making room for it through washing away their old ideas and expectations. The untruth and sin and shame and all competing identities float away in the Jordon because the real thing is finally here. Because in Jesus, God is doing a new thing, not to make us good but to make us new. See, I believe it was the truth and promise of this Gospel and not religious bullying that compelled repentance and new life from the people of Judea
For this reason I love that Mark’s gospel opens with: The beginning of the Gospel (that is, the Good news) of Jesus Christ Son of God. If it had been titled the beginning of the Good Short Story of Jesus Christ Son of God then it would not be news. What makes it news is that it is something new that is external to us that we have to be told. It is news because it is not anything we could or would ever come up with ourselves. Because any truth that I generate from within me simply doesn’t have the power to save me.
A couple years ago I had a conversation with a family member who is non-religious. “I just don’t really need anything outside of myself to give me meaning or comfort” she said. “Really?” I answered. “I desperately need something outside of myself because if this is all there is...well, I can’t think of anything more depressing.” I need an external interruption. and I need it a heck of a lot more than I need self-improvement. Because I can actually change my behavior on my own. It’s my thinking and my heart that only God can redeem.
So this week I began to wonder if maybe repentance is giving up on the idea that we can redeem ourselves. Maybe true repentance involves surrender more than it involves self-improvement. Kind of like how the practice of kneeling in church has military origins - namely, that it was a posture of surrender...as in, you can’t fight if you’re kneeling. And this kind of surrender, the kind we see in forgiven sinners in the waters of the Jordon, only comes from hearing the truth of who we are and the truth of who God is.
Repentance – in Greek it means something closer to “thinking differently afterwards” than it means change your cheating ways. Of course, repentance CAN look like a prostitute becoming a librarian but repentance can also look like a whore saying, "Ok I’m a sex worker and I have no idea how to get out but I can come here and receive bread and wine and maybe if only for a moment I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God." Repentance is a con artist being a real person for the first time ever, without knowing who that person is anymore but knowing he sees it in the eyes of those serving him communion, naming him a Child of God. Repentance is realizing there is more life to be had in being proved wrong than in continuing to think you’re right. Repentance is the adult child of an fundamentalist saying "I give up on waiting for my mom to love me for who I am so I’m gonna rely on God to help me love her for who she is because I know she’s not going to be around forever." Repentance is unexpected beauty after a failed suicide attempt. Repentance is a couple weeks ago when the clerk at the Adult bookstore on Colfax teared up and said “Your church brought me thanksgiving lunch?”. Repentance is what happened to me when at the age of 28 my first community college teacher told me I was smart and despite all my past experience of myself I believed her. See, repentance is what happens to us when the Good News, the truth of who we are and who God is, enters our lives and scatters the darkness of competing ideas.
For it is the external truth of God that liberates you from the bondage of self. This is what the daily return to baptism looks like. It is like the arm of God reaches in to rip out your own heart and replace it with God’s own. The Gospel is like your own emancipation proclamation. Every time you hear the absolution – that you are forgiven, every time you hear that Christ has come into the world to change everything, every time you hear that you are a child of God and that this is God’s very own body broken and poured out for you. Every time these external words of good news enter your ears they scatter the darkness of competing claims. And to be sure, all of it is the Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ Son of God. Amen.