Texts: Ps. 29; Acts 19:1-7 Mark 1:4-11
The psalmist says, “The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl.” So we pray, oh God, let us hear your voice. Cause us to whirl; cause us to turn.
You can think of this as a New Year’s sermon or as a Lent sermon. In the church calendar Lent is the time when we look inward and prayerfully consider how well we are stewarding the life God has given us. It is annual spiritual maintenance. As it happens, our secular calendar has us doing the same thing at the start of each year. I sometimes wonder if this overlap gets in the way of celebrating Christmas. It’s hard to feast and relax when you know you’ve already committed to losing ten pounds and learning a new language.
Be that as it is, some things we should fight and some things we should lean into. I’m suggesting that we lean into this New Year/Lent confusion. However, let’s do so through our reading from the gospel of Mark. I think we will find this perspective helpful as we consider changing our habits or adopting new goals—whatever else we throw in the annual resolutions pot.
Mark is known for being a rather breathless storyteller. Things happen quickly in Mark’s messianic biography. His is the gospel written on a deadline with no minimum word count. You can almost hear an editor speaking into Mark’s ear saying, “Keep this story moving. Don’t lose your reader’s attention. Action, Action, Action!” And so Mark does away with the whole nativity story, skips everything having to do with Jesus’ childhood and jumps right into the beginning of his ministry.
Instead of a birth narrative, Mark uses John the Baptist to get the story going. I like how verse 4 reads in the NRSV: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness . . . .” It’s as though Mark’s characters hatch from eggs laid by aliens. “John appeared in the wilderness”—people don’t just appear, they have backstories. Yet Mark seems to think that all the backstory we need is a snippet from the prophet Isaiah. It’s what his characters do that matters, not where the come from.
So John appears in the wilderness, and a few verses later Jesus simply walks into the story from Nazareth. The virtue of Mark’s style is that it helps us focus on the action. And the action, in verse 4 at least, is that John is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
You might be thinking, “Hold on, I thought this was going to be a New Year’s sermon—resolutions, good intentions, becoming better people, goodwill to all of us pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Let’s not get mired in stuff about repentance and forgiveness and sins.”
Well, here’s my intent: I want us to reclaim the word and the idea of repentance.
What comes to mind for some of us when we hear the word “repentance” is a spittle-flinging preacher going on and on about the fires of hell. I don’t know if “repentir” has the same connotations in French, but when we hear the word in English it sounds like moralistic fearmongering.
Moralistic fearmongering—not only is it what often comes to mind with the word “repentence,” but it’s also a good term for kids to use against their parents. As in, “Yes mom, I’ll drive slow and watch for squirrels, but enough with the moralistic fearmongering.” It’s also a good term for aged parents to use against their adult kids: “Yes, son, I’ll be sure to wear a mask and social distance at the barn dance, but enough with your moralistic fearmongering.” You can take that as bonus content. My point is just that this is what we tend to associate with calls to repentance: someone trying to control us through fear.
But what if the call to repentance isn’t about moralistic fearmongering. Think about this: people went out of their way to listen to John. Mark tells us that people from the surrounding countryside as well as the big city trekked out to the Jordan River to see and hear John! In some crazy way his little riverside TED talks found an audience. Nobody had to make that trek. This was not like church in the old days, where you had to attend to show that you were an upstanding member of the community. John the Baptist was not a gatekeeper or a powerbroker. People went to hear him because they found something life-giving in his call to repentance.
Could that be true for us? Could the practice of repentance really be life-giving?
The Greek word is metanoia, and it refers to a change of mind or a life change. In some classical, non-biblical, sources metanoia was depicted as fickleness or inconsistency. These ancient sources looked down on metanoia. But the New Testament, beginning right here with the fellow who appeared in the wilderness metanoia is a characteristic of God being at work. To turn around, to change, to pick a new direction—when God is involved, that is a regular result.
This reminds me of the way lakes here in Ontario turn over twice a year. The science of how it happens is complicated, but the end result is that surface water, which is rich in oxygen, sinks to the bottom of the lake. Without this change, this turning, there would be very little life deep in our lakes. Deep flourishing requires metanoia.
What I’m suggesting is that we shouldn’t be afraid of repentance because repentance a prerequisite for renewed flourishing. It is a call to turn from death to life. It is a call to turn from destructive practices to ones that are life-giving. Just as our lakes need turnover, so do our lives.
I think this is why, even if we’ve given up on Lent, we end up doing the same kinds of things around New Years. What are New Year’s resolutions but the flipside of secular confession? There is something we want to be or some way we want to be and we realize we are falling short.
The other week one of my kids told me that I’d been repeating myself: “Dad,” he said, “you say the same thing all the time. You say, ‘Maybe you didn’t try to, but you didn’t try very hard not to.’”
Ouch, it’s true. It do say that. As in, “Maybe you didn’t try to spill ice cream on the carpet, but you didn’t try very hard not to. Maybe you didn’t try to whack your brother with that stick, but you didn’t try very hard not to.” I’m not a great parent, but I think the origin of this annoying phrase doesn’t come from me. I blame it on the Book of Common Prayer.
I’m thinking of an Anglican penitential rite. As it happens, I think this can help us see what we might want to repent from or what areas of our life might benefit from redirection. Here’s the prayer:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.
Things done and things left undone, a heart divided, not loving our neighbours, not loving ourselves, losing our sense of delight in God’s gifts. We fall short and so we make resolutions.
But New Year’s resolutions aren’t always very effective. Some of us have probably tried the resolution thing a few times and failed. Now we just resolve stop making resolutions. This is why I don’t think we should simply substitute New Year’s resolutions for Lenten practices. The problem, or one problem at least, is that without some guide our resolutions could send us further in the wrong direction. John’s invitation to repentance assumed that God have given guidance about the shape of a flourishing life.
Another shortcoming of resolutions shows up in the fact that John actually pointed his followers beyond his own call for repentance and baptism of confession. John recognized his limitation. His followers experienced it (Acts 19). What resolutions lack is the presence of God’s Spirit. John said that eventually his followers would need the “baptism” of the Spirit. Prayerful attentiveness to God’s Spirit is the key to lasting, difference-making change.
Let’s stick with Anglican voices for a moment. The Anglican priest and theologian Sarah Coakley describes the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives like this: “the Spirit is the vibrant point of contact and entry into the flow of . . . divine desire, the irreplaceable mode of invitation for the cracking open of the crooked human heart.” It’s this contact with the Spirit that guides us beyond libertinism and repression.
May our start to a new year begin with a turning (or a returning) in this direction.
I want to close with the liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer (specifically, the Canadian version of the BAS). I invite each of us to think of this as a New Year’s exercise. This is an opportunity for turning, for bringing the old water to the surface. It is an opportunity for the breath of God’s Spirit to stir new life deep within us. We begin here:
Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbour.
Now, we pray together:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent, for the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.
Almighty God have mercy upon us, pardon and deliver us from all our sins, confirm and strengthen us in all goodness, and keep us in eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.