Repentance is about changing your mind, and accepting the freedom which this new perspective brings. (Listen.)
Once upon a time, long long ago, I had a great-uncle who was slightly mad. He used to parade up and down a major traffic bridge wearing a sandwich board; on it, large letters proclaimed, ‘Repent!’ I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing makes me twitchy. It’s like the time I was sitting in a tram quietly minding my own business, when a bloke I knew to be an intermittently violent psychiatric patient loomed over me and aggressively demanded, ‘Have you been saved?’ To which I replied, ‘Yes, of course,’ and immediately scrambled past him and shot off the tram.
If you’re like me, the moment you hear words like ‘repentance’ or ‘sin’, you tend to shut down. For many of us, words like these are so connected with institutional condemnation, fear and shame, or, quite frankly, crazy people who intrude on our personal space, that we can barely use them. They can feel suffocating, words not of life, but of death.
Yet we are entering into Lent, a season with a particular focus on repentance. It’s a time when followers of Jesus reflect deeply upon their lives, their priorities, and the direction in which they are heading. It’s a time of serious questioning, as we wonder whether our words and actions proclaim death or life as a dominant force. And it’s a time of repenting, and of confronting our peculiar temptations.
So, can we understand repentance and the Lenten journey in ways which aren’t life-diminishing, but life-enhancing? To help us, let’s turn to tonight’s story.
As we heard, Jesus enters into John’s baptism: a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. The word ‘repentance’ shouldn’t scare us. It’s become jargon, and it’s been used as a weapon against people: but it shouldn’t be. It simply means to ‘turn around’ or ‘change one’s mind.’ What John was offering was a washing of changed minds, a turning around for forgiving people their sin.
In doing this, John was announcing that, despite all evidence to the contrary, sin, or the disruption of shalom, or the way of death: whatever you call it, it does not have the last word. It is not the dominant force in life: it is forgiven, and we can move on.
When people hear this, it can change their thinking; it can help them get unstuck. All around us, we can see the forces of sin and death, and we can how they bubble up in our own lives. It can be hard to believe that life, not death, can be dominant. Yet when we change our minds about the power of sin, and when we accept forgiveness and integrate it into our lives, we are no longer immobilized by fear or shame. Instead, we are free to get on with the work of turning the world right side up.
This, then, is the baptism, the washing, which Jesus entered into: a preparation to turn the world right side up. A preparation to do the work of Messiah, that is, the anointed one: the Christ.
But baptism is only the first step. Because as Jesus comes up from the water, he sees the heavens tear open and the spirit—God’s breath, the breath that gives life—descends like a dove into him. And a voice thunders from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s a peak moment, with resounding echoes of Isaiah’s Messiah who will usher in God’s kingdom and work for justice and bring shalom—and yet immediately Jesus is driven into the wilderness and tempted by the Accuser.
Because we are united with Christ, this story is our story; and it tells us some important things. It tells us that at baptism we, too, are claimed as God’s precious children. It tells us that, just as John the Baptizer promised, we, too, are filled with God’s life-giving breath. And it tells us that we, too, are commissioned to participate in the work of the Messiah, or Christ: which in Mark’s account is to heal the sick, cast out the demonic, and bring about God’s culture here and now.
But it also tells us that baptism is just the starting point and that, at peak moments, we can be thrown into the wilderness. For it is precisely when Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved, with all the overtones of Messiah, that he is thrown into temptation, accusation, doubt.
Jesus didn’t choose to go into the wilderness. He was thrown there, and I wonder why.
Was he afraid of abusing his power? Was he afraid of being a fraud? Was he afraid of being mocked, persecuted, even killed? Was he longing to appear like everyone else, totally normal, not one to rock the boat? Or was he driven by an unhealthy desire to be seen as special, right, good? Was he attracted by the possibilities of wealth, power, even violence? Or was he simply reluctant to hand over his whole life, every last bit of it, to God?
From Mark’s account, we don’t know what his peculiar temptations were: but he was tempted, and he was with the wild beasts. But he didn’t endure alone: angels, that is, God’s messengers, ministered to him. And it was only after this long period of sitting with himself and the temptations peculiar to him, and only after this long period of being ministered to, that he was ready to proclaim the good news, to call others to change their hearts and minds, to invite others to faith: and this is all true of us, too.
So Lent is not about berating ourselves, or hating ourselves, or obsessing over sin, nor is it about simply giving up coffee and chocolate. Instead, Lent is an opportunity to repent, that is, to turn our lives around, to shift our focus, to get unstuck. It’s an invitation to identify the ways we believe and live as if sin and death are dominant; and it’s an invitation to change our thinking, to accept forgiveness, and to live as if the God of life has the last word.
It’s a chance, also, to sit with ourselves and our peculiar temptations, to receive God’s ministrations, and, when it is time, to get involved in God’s great project of turning the world right side up. In doing so, we risk mockery and persecution, but with Jesus at our side we are promised that we will enter into fullness of life.
So I may not have a sandwich board, and I have no intention of positioning myself on a busy traffic bridge. But this Lent, I find myself standing with my slightly crazy great-uncle, and we call on you to repent!
That is, change your mind about sin: it does not have the last word in your life. Turn from the ways of death, turn towards God, and place your faith in the good news. In the name of Christ, in whose footsteps we follow: Amen. Ω
A reflection on Mark 1:9-15 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 21 February 2021 (Year B Lent 1) © Sanctuary 2021.
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