I told Bruce on Friday night that I was struggling with my sermon for this weekend and when he asked me what I was preaching on and I said, “repentance,” he replied, “eeeek.”
So here’s the deal: It’s Advent. Everyone is getting ready for Christmas. Homes are being decorated, Advent calendars have started, holiday cards have been ordered and Christmas music fills the aisles of stores bustling with shoppers crossing things off of their lists.
No one wants to go to church during this magical season and hear the preacher drone on about repentance.
The Gospel of Mark says:
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4, NRSV)
Bruce’s suggestion? Change the scripture.
There is something very magical about the Christmas story. Baby Jesus is born and placed lovingly in a manger and all is calm, all is bright and then we light some candles and sing, Joy to the World!
But this morning’s reading from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark does not put us in the manger with the baby Jesus; it puts us in the wilderness with John the Baptist.
And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John the Baptist], and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:5, NRSV)
There are four Gospels in the bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Two of these gospels – Matthew and Luke – begin with the birth narrative, with the Christmas story where Jesus is born.
But that is not where the Gospel of Mark starts. Mark is the shortest of the four Gospels. It jumps right into Jesus’ adult ministry; it begins with John the Baptist entering the scene in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance. There is no baby Jesus; no star for the wise men to follow; no animals milling around; no angels singing, Glory to the Newborn King!
Just a man preaching repentance, calling people to confess their sins.
John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘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.’ (Mark 1:6-8)
Now what in the world does this have to do with Christmas?
Mark stands in stark contrast to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where angels appear, babies are born and shepherds rejoice. Mark begins the story of Jesus by calling followers of Christ to repent and to be baptized as they confess their sins.
This is not the Christmas story many of us are used to. And yet, maybe this is exactly what we need this Christmas season.
It is easy to get caught up in the magic of Christmas. I do it all the time (the fact that I have two Christmas trees is proof of this fact). We deck the halls and sing Christmas carols and fill our homes with beautiful lights. Everything is so festive that sometimes we forget that, at the very beginning of it all, Jesus was born into a very broken world, a world that needed Christmas.
I do not know about the rest of you, but right now I feel like the world we are living in is also very much broken; it, too, needs Christmas.
And, as a pastor preaching her way through the season of Advent, I cannot help but think this whole repentance thing was the whole reason for the Christmas story in the first place. Jesus came into this world because the world needed to repent; the world needed to be redeemed. It was through our brokenness as human beings that God’s hope, peace, joy and love appeared in a manger 2,000 years ago and, I have to believe, that the same thing will happen again today.
I think the way Mark’s gospel begins reminds us that living into our call as Christians does not necessarily start with the magic of a manger; but with the hard work that is required to confess our sins and admit our own brokenness. The way this Gospel tells the narrative of Jesus’ life teaches us that part of the magic of Christmas is remembering why Jesus came into this world to begin with.
Which means that every time we celebrate Christmas, perhaps we should start by remembering why we need it in the first place.
And this is where repentance comes in.
Bruce joked with me yesterday that he would be happy to get up and repent for the, what I thought was a, questionable decorating decision he made at our house on Friday night when we were decorating for Christmas.
And I totally would have let him, but then I would have had to repent for the fact that, when I saw what he did, I immediately said, “Oh so this is the tacky side of the room, isn’t it?”
I think we all have moments in our lives that we wish we could take back.
And that is the point of repenting, is it not? That we look in the mirror, see the whole of the person that we are – including our faults and our imperfections and the things that we have said that we did not necessarily mean to – admit where we have fallen short and ask for forgiveness?
This is not easy. I know I am making light of it by talking about marital squabbles over Christmas décor, but true repentance – the kind that comes when we really dig deep and confess the things we have done wrong – is hard. It is not easy to hold ourselves accountable for the things we have done while we seek to also be the people God is calling us to be.
But we do this stepping out on faith, knowing we are forgiven, knowing we are loved and knowing we are made whole by God.
The cool thing about the Advent season is that it reminds us that Jesus’ work is not done yet. As we “prepare the way of the Lord,” we remember that it is always possible to prepare our hearts and our lives for the hope, peace, joy and love of God through Jesus Christ; we bear witness to the truth that redemption is not a one-time thing.
I believe in the power of the Christmas story. And I believe that when we start with repentance, we do so not out of guilt or shame, but out of trust in God and hope that we will be transformed this Christmas season.
So, as we continue journeying our way through the Advent season, I invite you to repent. Do not be scared of it; be freed by it. Allow yourself to be transformed as you look honestly at who you are and open yourself up and see how God’s hope, peace, joy and love can come into your life today.