Is Repentance Good News?

Back in late March, Boston native and actor John Krasinski debuted a Youtube news series titled, “Some Good News.” Shot entirely in his home during the COVID-19 shutdown, Krasinski wanted to only share good news stories with his viewers. The stories shared included a couple getting engaged in front of a chalk drawn Eiffel Tower — they had planned to go to Paris, of course, before flights were shut down—and a 15 year old girl who finished her last chemo infusion and was greeted by hundreds of friends socially distanced in their cars shouting their support. It was a much needed break for us as the numbers of Covid infections and deaths climbed. Back then the US was seeing about 20,000 infections each day and around 500 deaths. This week we’re seeing 175-200,000 infections each day and averaging over 1000 daily deaths. It still seems we need some good news.

A sermon based on Mark 1:1-8.

Mark’s gospel begins not with the Annunciation, birth or beginning narratives —like his fellow gospelers—but with a simple statement: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And Mark’s audience clearly needed good news too. Around 70 AD when his gospel was written, there was social unrest in Rome, and Jerusalem was under siege by Titus. His father, Vespasian, was emperor and had gained the position after three others all of whom had been killed in the 12 months following Nero’s death. Within  a year from Mark’s writing, the temple in Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed and the city completely sacked, and people would be living in extreme fear. So when small groups of people began hearing Mark’s first sentence read aloud as they gathered on the first day of the week, they couldn’t wait to hear what came next. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And that story for Mark begins with John the Baptizer.

“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,’” and out from the desert crawls John with his meager diet of honey and grasshoppers. And the message he brings—the good news he declares—is a proclamation about a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

And at this point you can almost hear the womp womp womp from a sad trombone, right? The good news about Jesus starts with repentance? About fessing up for the things we’ve done in our past that we’d rather not have the light of day expose? For those minor infractions and for those doozies that would make our parents question who we are? Imagine those first recipients of this gospel who had heard the stories about Jesus and his miracles. The way he healed a blind man, and how he fed the multitudes. Surely someone had mentioned his teaching like how the poor would inherit the kingdom of God. Maybe they had heard about Jesus’ miraculous birth, and the shepherds and the angels singing. But the first time they hear a written account about Jesus, they are greeted by John the Baptist and his call to repentance.

How is that good news?

An Ideal Husband” is a delightful film that debuted in 1999 based on Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name set at the turn of the last century. Sir Robert Chiltern is an up and coming British government minister with an adoring wife. He has, however, a misdeed in his past that the conniving Mrs. Cheveley knows about, and she seeks to use that knowledge to blackmail him. The comedy explores in a gentle way the twists and turns of wrongs done in the past that have been hidden for years, and the lengths people go to cover their tracks. What is clear as the main characters hide past indiscretions is the weight those deceptions inflict. Because they each worry about the wrongs becoming exposed and what that will mean to their standing, their lives,  and their relationships.

Their misdeeds—their sins—hinder them. And, as we know as well as Oscar Wilde, trying to hide those sins only entangles you more and more. If you try to cover some wrong with a fib, then you need to remember that fib in the first place. And then if you get asked about it, you might expand on that lie, and now you’re juggling more details that aren’t true. And it grows and grows and grows.

It led the writer of Hebrews to make this statement, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that so easily entangles us, and let us run with patience the race that is before us, fixing our eyes of Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We are called to lay aside the weight of sin.

Because carrying our sins is a tremendous burden that weighs us down. You notice it perhaps when you mention something to a friend and it seems like you hit a raw nerve, they break down in tears perhaps, or immediately change the subject, and you’re trying to figure out what you said in the first place. Because there are areas of our lives and places in our souls that we don’t want exposed to the world, and certainly not to God. We’re too ashamed. We’re too embarrassed.

So when John appears from the desert in his camel hair clothing and tells people how to get rid of the weight they’ve been carrying, well, instead of feeling like they got the short end of the stick, they realize it’s a chance at a new start. And they flock to him. They come to John and repent of their wrong doings, and find forgiveness as John covers them with water from the Jordan. In that instance, in that moment when water streams down their heads, they feel clean. The weight is gone, and they know that for the first time in years before a just, holy and righteous God they stand totally in the clear.

Which sounds like unbelievably good news to me. Maybe our gospeler isn’t too far off the mark after all. And perhaps the call to repentance is a good and needed thing as we prepare for the Nativity of Jesus.

I mean imagine what it might be like for you to confess the things you’ve been hiding to the God who has known you since you were born and have God take that weight off of you. Or imagine making amends with that person in your life that you’ve become disconnected from, admitting the ways you’ve let them down. What might the Christmas season be like then? Imagine not having to hide or avoid certain places in your life because it’s all been taken care of and you’ve found renewal?

Because, friends, that’s what John the Baptist was really after for those ones back at the River Jordan, and for us today: that the best way to prepare for Jesus’ arrival is to open ourselves up to the transforming forgiveness and love of God. “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.” Let’s prepare our hearts for Jesus’ arrival. Let us open our souls to the light of God’s love, and find restitution and reconciliation, because that is indeed the very beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 

Photo Credit: Steve Walser Flickr via Compfight cc

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