Although I’ve lived about half my life in the East and Midwest, I am a native Southern Californian and I thought I was pretty familiar with the seasonal fires we experience here from time to time. I served as the vicar in Malibu in the 1980s, and during my years there we had three very serious fires, two of which almost took out St. Aidan’s Church. But I have to say that this week’s wildfires—here in nearby Ventura, but also in Sylmar, West Los Angeles, Santa Clarita, San Bernardino, and two in San Diego County--these fires seem to be different not in degree but in kind from what we have experienced before. Our very environment is changing before our eyes. The folly of our human exploitation of nature is finally catching up with us. The climate change we have brought about through our selfish activity turns out to have real consequences for real people and the real world in the here and now.
Today’s gospel passage [Mark 1: 1-8]—the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel—tells us of the preaching of John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus. The other gospels give us more details about John the Baptist, but all Mark tells us today is that he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. We’ll hear more details about John the Baptist from John’s Gospel next week, but today’s passage asks that we think about the core of his message: “a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. With fires and their attendant suffering raging all around us—with the natural world looking and feeling and even smelling apocalyptic everywhere we turn—it is not hard to think about repentance, forgiveness, and sin. Let’s explore what these ideas might mean for us individually and together on this Second Sunday of Advent.
The Gospel of Mark (the gospel we will be reading throughout this liturgical year) begins without any infancy narratives, thrusting us right into the adult life and ministry of Jesus through his baptism at the hands of John. Jesus hears John’s call, submits to his baptism, and immediately goes out into the wilderness to discern his vocation. Jesus then returns to spend his days teaching, preaching, healing, and challenging civic and ecclesiastical authority. Mark’s gospel enacts the implications of baptism in the lives of us, Jesus’s followers. And it even ends in the middle of an incomplete sentence, suggesting that you and I, Mark’s readers and hearers, are to go out and do likewise.
When we think about John the Baptist’s message and our own baptized lives--“a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”—we are naturally drawn to those two loaded words that church authorities have so misused over the centuries: “repentance” and “sin”. Many people I know—including my own parents—have been driven from the church because of the manipulation and abuse of the ideas of repentance and sin. As a consequence, progressive Christians like you and me are often tempted to say that repentance and sin are outmoded concepts and that contemporary Christianity is now so advanced as no longer to need them.
It doesn’t quite work that way. The writer Flannery O’Connor—herself a kind of Pre-Vatican II old style Roman Catholic—skewered this idea in her early novel Wise Blood. In this book we meet the radio preacher Onnie Jay Holy—host of the program Soulsease, “a quarter hour of mood, melody, and mentality”—who has founded the Holy Church of Christ without Christ. Reverend Holy is a popular evangelist, and he has tailored his gospel message so as to take all the hard things out of it. He tells people that they are not sinful but naturally sweet. As he says in his sermon,
“Every person that comes onto this earth . . . is born sweet and full of love. A little child loves ever'body, friends, and its nature is sweetness--until something happens. Something happens, friends, I don't need to tell people like you that can think for theirselves. As that little child gets bigger, its sweetness don't show so much, cares and troubles come to perplext it, and all its sweetness is driven inside it. Then it gets miserable and lonesome and sick, friends. It says, 'Where is all my sweetness gone? where are all the friends that loved me?' and all the time, that little beat-up rose of its sweetness is inside, not a petal dropped, and on the outside is just a mean lonesomeness.” [Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood, chapter 9]
O’Connor is of course skewering the kind of optimistic, liberal Christianity you and I might be drawn to—one that finds the ideas of sin and repentance uncomfortable and so wants surgically to extract them from our faith. As Onnie Jay Holy says, “If you want to get anywheres in religion
, you got to keep it sweet.”
As a progressive Christian, I know enough about my fellow travelers to understand this tendency. People have been abused by the idea of sin. Let’s take it out altogether. But sin is not really an abusive, hierarchical concept. Sin is the Bible’s diagnosis of the human problem. Sin is not something we “do”. Sin is something we are caught up in.
A good way to see how we can’t help being enmeshed in sin is to look at how our prayer book talks about sin in the service for Holy Baptism. When the candidates and sponsors are examined, they are asked to renounce sin in three modes: first the cosmic, then the social, and only third comes the personal:
Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces
of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them. (Cosmic)
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world
which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them. (Social)
Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you
from the love of God?
I renounce them. (Personal)
For both the Bible and the prayer book, individual sin is a consequence of social and cosmic evil. Try as we might to live righteous lives, we cannot help but find ourselves implicated in bad dealing and oppression. We can eat local and drive hybrid cars all we like; we still cannot extricate ourselves from the web of political and economic injustice. Many of the very clothes I wear are produced by child labor. None of us has clean hands.
As old-fashioned and frightening as it sounds, the word “sin” still has meaning for you and me today. The Bible’s idea of sin is less one of a fundamental sickness than it is a kind of wandering in the wrong direction. This is where John the Baptist’s message of “repentance” comes in. The Greek word—metanoia—we translate as “repent” literally means “turn around”. It’s like those red signs you see while passing freeway exits: “Wrong Way”. You and I, our nation and our world, are heading the wrong way. This autumn’s California fires, the devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean are nature’s big red “Wrong Way” signs telling us to turn around and head another way. As in nature, so in our personal lives: the relational disruptions we experience, the sense of aimlessness or despair, serve as signs not that we are unclean or unholy, but that we are often heedlessly, sometimes purposefully, heading in the wrong direction. Wrong way. Turn around. Walk together toward the light.
For John the Baptist as for Jesus, “repentance” does not mean feeling bad about something. For both of them, as for us, “repentance” means not “remorse” but changing our behavior. God doesn’t want us to feel bad about the selfish or hurtful things we’ve done. God wants us to stop doing them and start living in a new way.
Listen again to the words of the collect for today:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer . . .
Advent is a time when God calls us, in a phrase right out of the 1960s, to “clean up our act”. We walk together toward the good news of Christmas, the news of God’s unshakable love for us, of God’s abiding presence with us. We cannot take in that good news unless we first face in to the bad news. In fact, it is part of the good news that we get to hear the bad news at all. Our culture tells us that there is no problem that cannot be solved by buying something. Our Christian faith tells us another story.
I’m sorry to tell you: we are not naturally sweet. I’m happy to say: we are not hopelessly selfish. We are finite, fragile creatures who often get lost. Advent and Christmas proclaim that we are so precious to the one at the center of things that that one is coming to find us. We will miss God’s loving, generous, forgiving action if we persistently head in the wrong direction. We will also miss that one’s blessing if we obsessively dwell in our own guilt and shame.
Let’s listen to John the Baptist as he prepares us to meet Jesus. Wrong way! Turn around! God loves you and is coming to find you. Help God in that redemptive, liberating process by looking yourself full in the face. If you don’t like what you see there, take on a new way of living and acting toward yourself, toward others, toward the world. The blessing of Advent, and the promise of Christmas, is that God will walk with us as we turn around and travel together with Jesus toward the light. Amen.