Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Life of Repentance Is Life in Christ

Second Sunday in Advent
Commemoration of John of Damascus, Theologian and Hymnwriter
December 4, 2011
 Before there was Jesus there was John. At least, the way Mark is telling it, Jesus wasn’t around until John was around. Mark is being specific here about the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with John. We know, though, that before there was John there was Jesus. Mark is not telling us of the beginning of Jesus but of the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus. It begins with John. It was only when John the Baptist came on scene that Jesus came on the scene. John wasn’t around until he himself was born. Jesus has always existed, He’s God.

It’s remarkable, then, that Mark tells us here about this beginning of Jesus. Jesus, though God, is not afraid to have a beginning. This doesn’t mean He was created. He is the Creator, He’s God. But He entered into His creation. He had a beginning. We normally talk about that in terms of His birth. But Mark here is making a theological point. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begins here with John the Baptist paving the way; preparing; calling out; calling people to repentance. When Jesus comes on the scene it’s to begin ministry. For thirty odd years He had been faithfully serving in the vocation of son and carpenter. Faithfully carrying out His vocation as a member of society.

Now was the beginning. The beginning of the Gospel. Mark tells us John comes on the scene. John tells us of the one who will come on the scene next and He’s the one who will carry out His ministry. Mark doesn’t spend time with the thirty years that preceded this. He doesn’t tell us of the birth. He doesn’t tell us of the teenage years. He doesn’t tell us of the early adult years. He goes right to the ministry of Jesus. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Why is this? It’s because of the way God looks at things. Peter tells us in the Epistle reading that “the Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” So here you have it. Thousands of years had gone by before this day; before this day when John would come on the scene, carrying out the prophetic fulfillment of being the Forerunner, paving the way for Christ. Calling people to repentance. Preaching a Baptism of repentance. If the people of God had been waiting for thousands of years wondering if God was ever going to make good on His word, God Himself never gave a moment’s thought to slowness. For Him there is no time. But He makes good on His word in time. John the Baptist comes on the scene. Jesus comes on the scene. The Gospel is begun. Jesus enters His ministry.

You and I need to start thinking this way. Not thinking about God’s promises and blessings in terms of time while taking them in and enjoying them in time. God is spiritual and outside of time but saves us in time. God is spiritual and not bound by physical things and yet gives us His eternal blessings in physical means. John came baptizing. He came applying water to people and speaking words to them so that they would be forgiven their sins.

Most importantly, but really simply what flowed out of the Baptism he carried out, was telling them of the one to come. The one after him who was mightier than he, as he said, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is why John had come. To baptize, yes. To preach, yes. To pave the way, yes. All of these tasks were wrapped up in the one thing he was doing: making known the one to come. The one who was mightier than he. The one who would Baptize with the Holy Spirit.

John was taking his cue from Isaiah, where it was prophesied that he would be doing this work. In our Old Testament reading we heard it: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” Baptism is not a private thing. Salvation is not merely between you and God. The Gospel is not meant as something you keep to yourself. The Gospel Isaiah was prophesying, that Mark was telling about, and that John was proclaiming, was a public Gospel. It was a Gospel to be revealed. And that’s where Jesus belongs in all of this. He is in the flesh in which that glory that is revealed that Isaiah spoke of. He is the eternal Son of the Father who comes to Baptize in the Holy Spirit.

That day Mark was telling about wasn’t your ordinary day. People coming out into the desert to hear an itinerant preacher. People hearing of a message of repentance and confessing their sins. People stepping into the Jordan to be baptized. It certainly wasn’t ordinary when Jesus Himself showed up, the one John had been telling them about, the one who would Baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

How many of those people walked home that day never again to see the need for being in God’s House to hear that same message again, that Jesus is the one in whom is their salvation? How many of those people left that day having seen nothing more than an out of the ordinary event, but one that didn’t have relevance for the rest of their lives? How many people are there today who have been Baptized but never again see the need to hear the Gospel and regularly receive the Lord’s Supper? How many among us are here regularly but come here but don’t see anything out of the ordinary, as compared to something like what occurred out there in the Judean wilderness with a man clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey and baptizing people in a river and saying the Messiah would be there in their presence?

Too often being here is just that. We’re here because that’s what we do on Sunday mornings. Even when we understand the significance of it it can seem like we’re going through the motions. Too often we don’t see and take to heart that what occurred on that day in the Judean wilderness was what occurs every time we gather here in God’s House around the liturgy, the Baptismal font, the pulpit, the altar, and our brother and sister Christians. These things are not private and personal matters. The Gospel is not individualistic. These things are public. The Gospel is something that is revealed. It is made known. We are here because we need to be here. We get something here that we can’t get on our own.

What that is is what Isaiah, and then Mark, and then John the Baptist were pointing to. Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, the one who Baptizes with the Holy Spirit. What we get is God Himself in the flesh. We don’t see Him. We don’t see Him as the people on that day did. But He comes to us as He did on that day. John said Jesus would Baptize in the Holy Spirit. Why do we begin the worship service the way we do, with the Invocation? Because we are the Baptized children of God. We begin in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Mark said that what he was doing was the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; what we do when we gather in God’s House, is begin in the same way. Our beginning in the Gospel was in Baptism. That’s how we begin here.

What do the Baptized people of God do? They confess their sins. They repent, just as John was preaching. We confess our sins because we are always falling into sin. We are always wandering around in the desert of our lives not seeing Jesus there. We’re wandering around because we’re seeking fullness of life apart from things like confession and repentance. We make light of our sin rather than recoiling in horror at it. We don’t see the great need to be here rather than understanding that being here is the very sustenance of our life as children of God.

John the Baptist was in that awkward time where he was in the New Testament era but was an Old Testament prophet. He was the last in a long line of prophets who foretold the coming of Christ. But actually it wasn’t awkward at all. It actually was pretty much the same as what had been happening. And it was the same as what happens now. Preachers today don’t preach anything different. What Isaiah was doing, what Mark was speaking of, what John was proclaiming, is what Christian preachers of today do. They proclaim Christ and Him crucified. The fact that there are so many preachers that preach a message devoid of repentance and the need to confess our sins shows how it’s not just the average Christian that doesn’t see the need to be here. It shows that preachers themselves are not immune to the temptation of wanting to hear a message that skips the uncomfortable and deals mostly with the things we like to hear.

What exactly does it mean to be Baptized with the Holy Spirit? That’s what John said that Jesus would do, He would Baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit is God. God the Son is Baptizing us with God the Holy Spirit. What we need, my friends, is God. What we need is to be forgiven of our sin. That’s why God the Father sends God the Son and God the Son Baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, so that we can receive God. So that we can be forgiven of our sins.

It’s true that hearing this message over and over can make it seem like it’s not exciting or like we’re going through the motions in hearing it. But it’s what we need. It’s what God has given us. He doesn’t give us something new all the time. It’s what He’s given us for all of time and for eternity. Salvation is in the forgiveness of sins. Eternal life with God is through being forgiven. We need Baptism. We need Jesus. We need the forgiveness that God the Father gives us in His Son through the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a one-time event in our lives but we live it out daily. We daily die and rise in repentance and newness of life.

In the Epistle reading Peter has this take on it: “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.” This is a description of living as a Baptized child of God. We know this because Peter talks of living in repentance. The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance.

The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance not simply because it’s commanded. And not because he’s supposed to be feeling bad all the time. And not because he’s not supposed to enjoy life on this earth. The Baptized child of God lives a life of repentance because he sees his need. He sees that he needs Jesus. As Baptized children of God we see that what God offers us is so much more than we could ever attain, or even seek, on our own, or any other source. I mean, the Holy Spirit! What more could you want or need? When you see that what Peter is talking about, that the Judgment Day could be any day, that Christ is soon to come again in glory, that all we see here will be done away with, you see that you have far greater needs than what we and so many often seek. Living in repentance is not morbid and it doesn’t mean we have to live somberly. But it does mean we take seriously the Word of God. That we are without that Holy Spirit on our own. That we are unholy on our own. That we need God to forgive us and make us holy. That we need salvation from our continual disobedience of the Ten Commandments.

When we see this then we can see what the people in that desert wasteland saw on that day. A man who came along in fulfillment of the preaching of John the Baptist. A man who came to Baptize with the Holy Spirit. A man who came in the flesh, not as a Lord and Master who dispenses with us as He pleases. Yes, He was and always will be the Lord and Master. John, and we, are unworthy to stoop down to untie His sandals. But He nevertheless came to the Jordan on that day to show us who He is and exactly what kind of Lord and Master He is. The one who has stooped down to untie the bonds of our sin. The one who walked those dusty roads to the Jordan in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and John’s proclamation only to find Himself making His way on the dusty path to the hill of Calvary and the cross that stood there. The cross the Romans had planted there wasn’t meant specifically for Him, but He had known all along that He would be nailed to it.

A life of repentance is looking to this. It’s being sorry for your sins, yes. But even more and especially it is looking to the cross. That also is not a morbid thing. There’s solemnity in it, yes. But there is also the highest joy, God in the flesh suffering at the hand of God, the recipient of His wrath, all because of His eternal love for us. A life of repentance finds the comfort the Old Testament reading spoke of in the suffering and the cross of Christ. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ culminated in that. Being Baptized with the Holy Spirit is being Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. For you, that is the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, where you first received the Gospel and all that it entails—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, being a child of God forever, now and without end in heaven. Amen.


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