Mark 1:1-20 New International Version (NIV)
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
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Sometimes I wonder about things that I have always believed. Sometimes I have doubts about what I am learning in seminary. Sometimes I think that much of what I’m expected to believe is hocus pocus, made up by old men who had too much time on their hands.
I’m not the first. I’m not the only one. If we don’t ask questions, we don’t learn much. No matter how many lectures you’ve had, the lessons you learn best are those that answer your questions. The toddler knows that. One of the first questions a child learns to ask is “Why?” “Don’t do that.” “Why”” If the child does not receive a satisfactory explanation, the child goes ahead and touches the hot stove or spills the glass of milk or hits a sibling. How many times is a “why” question impossible to answer? “Why do I have to wear clothes?” ” Why do I have to put my toys away?” “Why do I have to eat?” The answers to those questions are long and complicated, so often we parents resort to answering with “Because I said so.”
That is a never a satisfactory answer, but it is a somewhat effective, if veiled, threat.
What questions do you wish you would have asked in high school? I wish I would have asked why communism was evil. I don’t think I was ever told why. I was just told that it was evil. After teaching my own students lessons from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I know why it’s bad and I taught them so. The weird thing, is if communism worked like the dictionary definition, it would be a good thing. In fact, probably one of the best lessons you’ve had on the benefits of communism is in the book of Acts.
Acts 4:32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
How does communism fail? It morphs into something different, like totalitarianism, or a dictatorship or an oligarchy. In other words, tyranny, with a handful of people grabbing all the power and the other 99% doing without the means to pursue happiness.
And how does that metamorphosis happen? Sin. Sin. Sin and all its cousins: greed, selfishness, mistrust, jealousy, lust, pride, sloth.
Which brings me to the question raised by today’s gospel lesson: “Why did we need to have our sins forgiven?” I’m sure I’ve been told why my sins need to be forgiven, but it escapes me in these later year of my life.
John, known as John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, had one message: repent! You need to confess your sins.
John’s message didn’t stop there. Repentance was the only way to prepare for what was coming: Jesus Christ.
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I am going out on a limb today because I don’t have answers. Maybe by the time I’ve completed all sixteen classes at Wartburg Theological Seminary, I’ll know the “right” answer. In the meantime, I can’t let this question rest. It is important for me to understand why repentance is important, not only for myself, but for you. As your preacher and teacher, I am obligated to help you nurture your faith. Your faith does not exist in stasis. It is not unlike a plant that needs sustenance. It is not unlike a plant that continues to grow. Our faith is alive, and, like a plant, needs nourishment. Without nourishment, it can die. With nourishment, it grows. It doesn’t just sit there.
With that in mind, what part does repentance have in the nourishment of our faith?
John is not the tent revival or television preacher haranguing the crowd for their sins. My gut feeling is that his focus is not on particular sins. He is not a single-issue voter. We live in a culture where some sins are more newsworthy than others. Anything having to do with human sexuality is fair game. Murder is a popular topic on the evening news. Stealing can get headlines. John is not interested in the details. He is interested in the results. He expects results via one method: repentance.
Repentance in its English translation and in common usage has lost some of its power. Many of us think of repentance as an emotional reaction of feeling sorry. The founder of Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller, used to say, “For most people, repentance means feeling sorry for getting caught.” (John Petty, https://www.progressiveinvolvement.com/progressive_involvement/2018/12/advent-2-luke-3-1-6.html).
The original Greek word is metanoia. Metanoia is used to describe an action of “turning” and then “moving in a new direction.” It has very little to do with one’s emotions, and everything to do with a change in one’s actions. (Ibid.)
John’s call for repentance for the forgiveness of sins reflects a common practice of the time: cleansing oneself before entering the Temple. It was not unlike the practice in our family: we bathed once a week, on Saturday night, to get ready for church. We did’t bathe on Sunday night to get ready for another week of school. The purpose was to be clean for church. That sounds gross to a culture that bathes daily, but it suited us just fine.
This brings me back to my question: why do we need forgiveness? To be clean. But why do we need to be clean? That is, why should we want to be free of sin?
Sin can be a pretty comfortable state of being. After all, sinning seems to often be the easier alternative. It is easier to be angry with someone than to have patience with them. It is easier to steal something than to work for it. It is easier to swear than to hold our tongues. It is easier to slap and hit than to reason with someone. It is easier to repeat gossip than to ferret out the truth. It is easier to ignore someone than to help them.
So, if it’s easier, if we sin all the time, why is forgiveness important?
I’m trying to figure that out. Here is what I’ve come up with—so far.
Sin is like a barrier. God made us to be in community with each other—to love each other. Commandments four through ten are all about loving our neighbor, loving our family members. Sin puts up a barrier between us and prevents us from living in harmony.
Likewise, sin puts a barrier between us and God. Remember the story of Adam and Eve in the garden? Why do they hide from God? Because they had sinned.
In our culture, and every culture before us, we’ve been able to rationalize sin, even flaunted it. Simultaneously, that sin removes God from our operating systems. When we shut God out of our lives, via sinning, we live differently. We still have values, but they shift. We become loyal to power and money and pleasure. We spend more time and money grooming our own bodies than caring for the body of Christ. Our loyalty to God and our neighbor shrinks into a tokenism of going to church once in awhile and donating used clothing to the Salvation army.
Let’s visit that word metanoia again. Raj Nadella, Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary explains that metanoia
describes a process of stepping out of one’s existing mindset and adopting a characteristically different mindset. Metanoia has the connotation of having one’s perception of the world and of oneself transformed, adopting a radically different worldview and relating to the world in new ways. Metanoia can also mean making a U turn and changing course. (Raj Nadella, http://www.workingpreacher. org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4335)
What does this call to repentance mean for us? Karoline Lewis, Professor of Preaching at Luther Theological Seminary, puts repentance in a broader perspective.
For this week, we are being called to repentance not for our own individual sins which we know are many and perhaps easier to admit because we can keep them to ourselves. Who would even have to know? It’s just between Jesus and me. The harder truth this week is to admit our communal sin, our national sin, our global sin, in the presence of one another, that seems regularly to refuse repentance in favor of blame and ignorance. (Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3446)
Words from these wise professors shines a different light on forgiveness.
It is not about me in isolation. It is about me in relationship to all of God’s people and all of God’s creation. It is not to make me a better person. It is to make me a better neighbor.
Forgiveness of sins is not the end goal. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been confused. Forgiveness of sin is about goodness of action.Forgiveness of sins allows us to make that u-turn and move forward to participate in the Kingdom of God.
Think, for a minute, of a time when sin became a barrier between you and another person. Think, for a minute, of a time, when you let inexperience or ignorance dismiss an entire group of people as being bad. Think, for a minute, of a time, when sin separated you from someone you love. Think, for a time, when sin made you cross to the other side of the street, metaphorically, to avoid someone. Was it the other person’s sin? Or was it your sin?
That brings us to another perspective on sin: forgiving each other. Again, sin puts up a barrier. Have you ever waited for someone to ask for your forgiveness before you could forgive them? What if we offered forgiveness without being asked? What if I forgave you for hurting my feelings without you saying you’re sorry? What if husbands forgave wives and wives forgave husbands for hurting them—without pouting or getting even? What if parents forgave children and children forgave parents for disappointing them—without throwing shortcomings in each other’s faces? What if neighbors forgave neighbors for crossing boundaries—without calling in a lawyer? All without being asked to forgive. Just do it!
John preached repentance for forgiveness of sins. Why? Maybe it’s because we need to get rid of sin before we can be the good people God created us to be.
I think I have a better understanding of forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins is not for my personal benefit. It is for me to be the nourishment, the inspiration, the safety net, the chicken soup, the bouquet of flowers, the sunny sky for someone else. Forgiveness frees me to be the kind of person God created. Forgiveness sends me in the right direction, following in the footsteps of Jesus.
Thank you for listening to me try to figure this out. Thank you for walking this journey with me. May we always freely forgive, not waiting, not giving up, but freely forgiving each other so that we can walk together, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Mark 1:1-20 New International Version (NIV)