Preached at All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 6 December, 2020.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
What is the good news in Mark? It is stated at the very beginning: “the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1).
Who tells us this good news? It is John the Baptizer, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Mk 1.3). John is as we can see from our first lesson the one promised by the prophet Isaiah, so we know that John fits into God’s plan. John is thus a sign of grace, proof of the faithfulness of God.
Where do we hear the good news? We hear it “in the wilderness”, as do the throngs of others, including those who come from the city of Jerusalem (1.4). To hear the good news, we must go to John, trading the security and comfort of our usual surroundings for a place that seems dangerous and inhospitable, only to learn that the wilderness is where we find out true selves.
We have this opportunity to find out true selves because John comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1.4). Repentance means honest self-examination, the admission that we have done things we are not proud of, things we might not want to come to light. It means that we like ourselves less than we might want to. It means a desire that in forgiveness we might be changed, made better, receive a fresh start
How would this opportunity not be good news to our society? Lots of people want to improve themselves – just go on a website like Amazon, search for “self help”, and you’ll find a mountain of books. The problem is that not many of them address the idea of sin, or even seem to dwell much on a secular understanding of imperfection, hence the many books with titles such as Good Vibes, Good Life: How Self-Love is the Key to Unlocking Your Greatness. To admit that we are sinful is to say something more profound than to simply say we could be improved by some new habits or lifestyle choices. To say that we are sinful is to admit that we are deeply flawed and profoundly in need of help.
While we as a culture aren’t much inclined to dwell on our own flaws or to call them sins, we are quite willing to recognize that sin exists in others, as “cancel culture” attests. We’ve developed rituals to shame and disgrace adulterous politicians and fallen celebrity pastors, who hang their heads and confess their “serious errors in judgement”, and yet we don’t really forgive them. We shake our heads at actors and producers whose sordid pasts are exposed and whose careers are ruined. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, these head-wagging and tongue clucking rituals are useful because they bond us together in a smirking disapproval of others. Once we cast someone out of group, once a celebrity topples from their pedestal, we aren’t generally willing to rehabilitate them.
Jesus isn’t interested in our disapproval of others. He often says things like why does that speck in your brother’s eye bother you when you’ve got a plank in your own? Jesus’ point is that focusing on the flaws of others is hypocrisy, because we never look inside and realize that we too are flawed. Our disapproval of others keeps us from ever being honest with ourselves.
If we were more honest with ourselves, we would be less likely to ignore our flaws while feasting on the imperfections of others. This honesty is what the Book of Common Prayer gets at when it says that penitence, the act of being sorry for our wrongdoings, begins with “self-examination” (BCP 612). The fact that repentance is built on honesty may explain why John preaches and baptizes in the wilderness, a place where we are exposed and vulnerable, where the props of our old and familiar lives can’t sustain us and where we are dependent on another for help.
Honesty is thus a pre-condition for spiritual growth and transformation, which is the goal of the Christian life, what St. Paul calls our life in Christ or sharing in the mind of Christ. This idea of attaining a whole new identity is much bigger than the idea of sin and repentance often taught by much of Protestantism, which focuses on feeling sorry for individual misdemeanours. Repentance is thus far bigger than feeling sorry for specific bad things that we may have done. Repentance leads to a more Christ-like place where we can look charitably on others and want the best for them, pray for them, see ourselves in them, which is far better than wanting others cancelled for their crimes.
Finally, John’s baptism involves the confession of sins (1.5) but does John have the power to forgive these sins? Whatever power John has comes from another, as he admits. John’s good news is that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism may be a sacrament, a sign of God’s grace, but Jesus’ baptism IS God’s grace, God’s plan and God’s power to remake us into the beloved children God always wanted us to be.
That’s the good news of Christ, that even though we are called into the wilderness, even though we are called to look deeply and honestly into ourselves, when we look back at Jesus we see only the transforming love of God.