I have preached on this text at least 4 times. I looked back this week, though, and was convicted, because in each sermon I did the same thing: I breezed right by John’s message at the beginning, moving into a conversation about baptism. Now, it’s the Sunday in which we mark the Baptism of the Lord, which makes that a reasonable thing to do.
But as I read the text, the people didn’t come out only for baptism, which was likely thought of as a Hebrew ritual cleansing at the time. Some of it had to do with the link between John and Elijah. "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist," is the way Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8."1 But after Mark lays the foundation in verses 1-3, he tells us John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness. Mark doesn’t tell us about his clothing or that he’s like Elijah or what he’s doing – Mark first tells us John’s message. It’s this part that is really important, and I have avoided because it makes me uncomfortable. It starts with that first word. Repentance.
Repent. It’s a word that brings to mind Christian brothers and sisters that harangue with fire and brimstone, that brings fear if not terror, that recalls early Puritan preacher Jonathan Edward’s famous (or infamous) sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." Edwards preached in 1741: "The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire;"2 That will scare you to death. It has scared many right out of the church.
But it’s in the text, and is at the heart of not only the message of John but the message of Jesus, which means we are called to wrestle with it. The word Mark uses for "repent" here is ‘Metanoeite.’ Greek scholars tell us that this verb is plural in number, present in tense, active in voice, imperative in mood.3 Repent. Change. Literally, to turn around. There is a sense of urgency here, a call to change, combined with the promise of forgiveness and the act of baptism, that draws people out. Mark is clear in verse 5 that people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, stepping in the waters of the Jordan, confessing their sins. It is here, after Mark has shared this central message, that we learn of the crowds, or the parallels to Elijah. Then John speaks with humility, that he is not worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals. It’s only then that Jesus walks up, is baptized by John in the river, and the heavens part, God’s mighty claim uttered, for Jesus, for all.
There are a couple of reasons why I think repentance isn’t something we like to talk about. Part of it has to do with the way the church has used this word. Some of our brothers and sisters, feeling a deep sense of urgency to proclaim the gospel and convert others, have gotten a little too zealous in pursuing that goal. We are surely called to proclaim our faith in word and in deed, to invite others to try to follow Jesus, just as we try to follow Jesus. But we have seen the fear that this language has inspired do damage, and we want to be careful. I can appreciate that.
But underneath that, I suspect a deeper reason we are uncomfortable is because repenting, truly repenting, means we have to change. It begins with the reality that we are sinful. All of us. Up here, out there, everyone who is not here, too. While we have great potential and have been given many gifts, all of us stand in deep need of God’s grace. All of us do the wrong thing sometimes, make the wrong decision. All of us are rude sometimes, petty, miss the bigger picture because we are tied up in one small thing we are convinced that civilization depends upon.
We also, by and large, have pretty good lives. Not that we all haven’t encountered some pretty tough stuff. A relationship crumbles. A horrible accident; a tragic diagnosis. We’ve all got our lists. But, by and large, we are a privileged people. We have backup plans, community. Someone we love may get horribly ill, or die, but we won’t lose our home because of it. Our neighborhoods aren’t perfectly secure but we don’t have the instability of parts of Africa or the Middle East. Though life can be exhausting and full, things are okay. The system, the world, this present age works pretty well for us.
But Metanoia, the root here, remember, means to turn around. In order to turn to turn to God in Christ Jesus, that necessarily involves turning away from some things. We have to turn away from our desire for the comfort of material things. We have to turn away from our pride. I don’t know about you, but I tend to think I’m right most of the time. Maybe you do, too. I have a hard time being a part of something and not being in charge. Maybe that happens to you. We have to turn away from ALL of the things that are ours. And that’s hard, because the world wants us to think, at least, we can have things anytime we want them. I just stared a fascinating book by Paul Roberts called "The Impulse Society." In the introduction he argues:
In North America and the United Kingdom it is now completely normal to demand a personally customized life. We fine-tune our moods with pharmaceuticals and classic rock; craft our meals around our allergies and ideologies; customize our bodies with cross training, with ink and metal, with surgery and wearable technologies. We choose a vehicle to express our social values, find a news outlet that mirrors our politics, create a social network that "likes" everything we say or post. With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.
But it’s not OUR world. It belongs to God. And we have to turn away from this stuff that we think is OURS – from our desires for power, or the illusion of it, from our desire to control, or the illusion of it. Away from us.
While this is a fairly terrifying prospect, the metanoeite we meet in Mark is GOOD NEWS. Pastor/scholar Gary Charles writes, "After his baptism, and having survived the temptations in the desert, Jesus arrives in Galilee to announce that God’s reign is within breathing distance: "Metanoiete. Believe the gospel!" In other words, turn around to take hold of something better that what you have now…Without question, Metanoeite carries with it the notion that we have some changing to do, some new directions to move; its primary orientation, though, is toward God’s future rather than our past." Ultimately, it is an invitation "to trust in a future made possible by the grace of God. It is an invitation that means we are not stuck forever living [the ways we have lived.]"4 That we do not have to be bound by who we have been. That God has something in store for us. Repent, then, means we can be free!
Author and poet Kathleen Norris, in her wonderful book, "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith," has section after section on different words, church words, words the church has smashed the life out of. In her section on Repentance, she writes first of the joy of the emotion of the psalms, and of inviting her students to write their own:
… Once a little boy wrote a poem called "The Monster Who Was Sorry." He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and then to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes: "Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’" "My messy house" says it all: with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy made a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out. If that boy had been a novice in the fourth-century monastic desert, his elders might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell?5
That sounds like a pretty good invitation to me – to turn away from the things that bind, to let loose just a little bit. And to let God shape you, breathe in you, move through you, clean up a little bit. So we might follow in these days.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. This note come from the Rev. Andrew Foster Conner’s paper at The Well, 2010, Austin, Texas.
2. "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
3. Brian Blount and Gary Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2002), page 37
4. Blount and Charles, 37-38.
5. Kathleen Norris, "Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith," (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), p 69-70.