A reflection on Mark 1:1-8 by the Rev. Dr. Kate Hennessy-Keimig As these Advent days fly by, I’ve been thinking how challenging it can be to observe this season of waiting and “not yet” in a culture that begins to celebrate Christmas in October. Sometimes it makes me feel kind of out of step to be saying, “No, wait, it is NOT Christmas yet, we are in another season entirely! And clearly we are—the readings in these four Sundays give a lot to think about.
Last week it was apocalypse and fig trees as we were reminded to be awake and alert. This week we encounter John, this wild prophet who appears in the wilderness preaching a message of repentance for forgiveness of sins. Repentance. Now there is one of those words. A word that might have some juice! Perhaps it was thundered at us from the pulpits of our past; [mis]used to remind us of just how far off the mark we were, how badly we were behaving. “Repent! Repent or else!” Just hearing it might scare or shame us. Now if this was John’s approach to repentance, you’d think that his followers would have been fleeing into the wilderness. But they did not. In fact they flocked to accept his baptism. What did they hear in John’s invitation to repentance that sounded like an opportunity rather than a threat? John quotes Isaiah to them: “Prepare the way of the lord, make his paths straight.” Prepare. Create a way for something to happen. This kind of repentance is sounding more like like an opportunity than a threat.
And maybe that was what John was talking about on behalf of God--for his people in his time, and us in ours, the chance to come to grips with and change the things that stand in the way of loving relationship with God, with others, with ourselves by clearing away those things that hold us in bondage and keep us from being our God-created, beautiful, unique and authentic selves. It is about cleaning out the clutter in our lives and making room for love. Yes, the repentance message is about love. God’s amazing love for us was/is manifested incarnationally in God coming among God’s people in the person of Jesus to transform us, and to bring about God’s Kin-dom in this world.
We know this is true. When we are reminded, we nod, we agree. Yes, of course. But still, we hesitate and stumble and get confused and mixed up, because we keep forgetting this one crucial thing about the Gospel message. The repentance we are called to is not so God will forgive us. That has already happened! WE ARE ALREADY FORGIVEN. God’s love does not rest on what we earn or deserve, not, as John says, “that we have loved God, but that God has loved us…” (1 John 4:10). God’s love for us does not depend on us but on God. And because of this tremendous love there are three gifts that we get for Christmas that cannot be found in any Mall or catalog! These gifts are freedom, authenticity and security.
When we understand how we are loved and forgiven by God, we are given true freedom. There is no need to hide anything, not from ourselves, and not from God. We can present ourselves to God just as we are. We can admit to all those silly, shortsighted, human, mean-spirited, unthinking, selfish, things we do every day as a result of our human brokenness. And we can do it without fear! We can repent of them, clear them away and allow ourselves to be forgiven.
The second gift we can claim is the gift of authenticity. When we see ourselves through the lens God’s love, we can do so with compassion and honesty. If there is no need to earn God’s love, and in fact we cannot do so, we can look at ourselves just as we are. We don’t need to better (or worse) than we are. It won’t make God love us more. We can look at the self God loves, the self God created. We can remember that we are loveable because of the whole of us -- the light and the shadow! We can risk being authentic because it really cannot ultimately harm us to do so--God’s love for us will not change. And we can risk repenting, doing the process of change and transformation again and again knowing that God is there, loving us through it.
The other gift that comes if we believe the message of the incarnation is the gift of being able to have the ultimate security that comes from knowing ourselves as truly loved.. “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). If we really let this message that we are loved this much by the God who is the creator of the universe, the God who has been in continuous and covenanted relationship with humankind since time began begin to sink in to the depths of us, we will begin a process of coming to see ourselves as truly beloved of God.
If we claim these gifts, really allow them to penetrate us, the idea of repentance takes on new meaning. It really can be seen as a way of clearing away the obstacles or interference to our connection with this Ultimate Gift. As we are more heist with ourselves about being by turns weak and foolish and amazing and beautiful, we may begin to find more compassion towards others as well. As we treat ourselves with love, dignity and respect, we are more likely to do the same for others. As we realize that if we are God’s beloved, they must be also, we inevitably will begin to deal differently with others and with the world.
Of course, even if we try our best to hold these truths, we will forget who and whose we are. We will fall back into old patterns, and hurt people and make big human messes that we need to make amends for and clean up! We will need to go back and repent again, and again be forgiven. But hear the good news in this, too. In our repentance, God’s love and forgiveness is always there for us. There will never be a time to wonder, “Is this time too much?” “Can I be forgiven again or did I really do it this time.” No. Never. Through God in Jesus we are loved and forgiven and there is nothing on our part that is deserved or earned about it! It is pure love, pure gift. So we can risk being honest; risk being authentically all of who God created us to be. We can rest secure in God’s unchanging love.
And from there, we can go out and change the world, being God’s voice and hands and feet in the world, being in our own way the messengers to prepare the way to God’s Kin-dom among us here and now.