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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
I have to believe that one of the strangest things the church does is baptize people. I don’t mean the actual sprinkling of water, or pouring, or immersion, depending on what tradition you’ve come from. I mean the fact that the pastor stands there with the person to be baptized, be it a child or an adult, and the first thing I ask is not, what is your name, or do you love Jesus, or why do you want to be baptized, but in our liturgy, we ask this question: on behalf of the whole church, I ask you: do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
It’s the first thing we ask. And it just seems sort of heavy, you know? Like, you know, hi, welcome to church, we’re glad you’re here, do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?
It seems pretty heavy, but as we enter the season of Lent, the 40 days plus Sundays before the celebration of Easter, I have to say, it also feels appropriate. This is a season of repentance, of refiguring, of refocusing your relationship upon God. And I appreciate that it comes around every year because no matter how much refocusing I do during the 40 days of Lent, no matter how much giving up and taking on I do, I always seem to need to do it again by the time Lent rolls around. I don’t know if that says more about me or the world we live in, but I constantly feel like I could be going deeper in faith, constantly feel like I’m being called deeper towards the heart of God, so I sort of like Lent, in a sick and twisted way, not because it’s all cupcakes and unicorns or whatever, but just because it is a chance. It’s another chance. It’s another opportunity to rededicate my life. So while this is pretty heavy stuff, and while we have more heavy stuff to plow through before we get to Easter, it seems somehow appropriate.
And in a way, it does seem appropriate to begin with this stuff as we start talking about baptism. We’re going to be talking these next few weeks of Lent about baptism, which is the initiation into Christian life, because it is the case that the scripture readings appointed for the days of Lent are helpful in understanding the vows we take when we are baptized. Whether you were baptized long ago, or especially if you haven’t been baptized yet, I hope you’ll be here the next few weeks as we talk about this, because baptism is important. It is an outward sign of an inward grace, a gift of grace from God to you. We believe God is actually present in the moment and action of baptism. And if your children have not been baptized, I hope you’ll also pay special attention, because we are people who believe that baptism is not, at its core, about what I agree to, or about what the pastor does. It is about God at work, and it is the case that before we can even understand what God’s grace means—and who understands it, really—even before we can speak God’s name, God is with us, God claims us, God loves us. And so we believe in baptizing children, and initiating them into the family of God.
And our understanding about the nature of baptism being primarily about the work of God as opposed to the work of humans comes from scripture, of course. In fact, in the Gospel of Mark which was read today, it is our introduction to Jesus. Mark’s story of Jesus doesn’t start with a birth. It starts with a baptism, and I think that works, as baptism is the entrance into the Christian life. It is a form of rebirth. One of the reasons I am excited about this series of sermons culminating on Easter is that Easter is traditionally the day on which people were baptized. We don’t do it this way anymore, thank goodness, but in the ancient church they’d make people spend months and months fasting and praying and learning, and then once the priest decided you were ready, he’d let you be among those who were baptized in the Easter vigil, and so on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, you’d be there with the other catechumenates, and they’d light candles and say prayers and at first light, just as the light of dawn on Easter morning prepared to dart across the sky, you would line up in front of the baptismal pool that had been built into the floor of the church, and you’d stand there on the cold stone floor preparing for your baptism, and the last thing you would do is that you would get totally naked. I’m not making this up. You’d get totally naked and you would be submerged in that freezing cold water, and it symbolized death. I have to think that if the water were cold enough, it would probably feel like it too. But then you come up out of the water, sealed by God and claimed by Christ, and they would put a white robe on to symbolize the new light of Christ that was in you, and sandals on your feet and you would be welcomed into the family of God.
We forget some of this symbolism nowadays, and I suspect it is because we baptize infants. We don’t like to think about baptism being a sign of our death and resurrection in Christ when there are babies involved, but it is part of the deal. So when our introduction to Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is a baptism rather than a birth, understand that it is a birth, a kind of birth.
And so there Jesus is, walking into the waters of the Jordan River, and he is baptized there by John, and no sooner does Jesus emerge from the water, he is sent into the wilderness to be tempted, for forty days.
You start to understand Lent a little better, I hope, when you look at the story of Jesus. This is where we get the idea that we ought to spend 40 days in preparation, in repentance, in a little bit of the wilderness, searching for God among the rocks and the brush of life. We do this because Jesus did it, because every year when we do it, it seems well-timed because we’ve got enough clutter in our lives that it’s time for some more spring cleaning.
I have to admit that while not much in the life of faith comes naturally to me, this part does. My parents still laugh at me because, they say that when I was growing up, every two years or so I would throw everything away and start over. One day my room would be full of stuff and my dad would come home from work the next day and I’d be living like a Spartan, three sets of clothes, the rest of them in the attic or the pile to go to Goodwill. I just don’t like being covered up with stuff. It comes naturally to me, and it makes sense, this idea that you have to make room before you can take on something new. In fact, this is what Jesus tells us in this very scripture passage. After the forty days, after the temptation and the wilderness and everything else, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent, and believe the Gospel.
Here’s the thing. He didn’t say believe the Gospel and repent. He said it the other way around. Repentance comes first. You can’t believe the Gospel until you have repented. You can’t make room for the new things God is going to do in your life until you make God some room in your heart. And of course that makes sense. Of course it does. But, oh, it is not so easy.
I mean, think about how we talk about things in church. All warm and fuzzy. You’re welcome here. There’s a place for you. Everybody loves you. These are great things, and I’m all for them, but without repentance, we might as well just blare the theme from Barney the Dinosaur every Sunday morning, and believe me, with a two year old, I am more familiar with this song than I would like to be. There’s more to church than I love you and you love me. There’s more to life than that. And yet when we start talking about repentance, people start getting defensive. You know, the preacher can talk all day long about love and justice and the like, but don’t start telling me I need to repent from who I already am. It’s a natural instinct. It’s why the church sign so often says “You are welcome here” rather than “You really ought to consider repenting.” And then, you know, it’s fine as long as you’re talking about everybody else repenting, but when you start to talk about me, well, it starts to sting a little.
And I want to acknowledge that the church hasn’t done so well with this over the years. There’s a danger when we talk about repentance, because you can’t lead with it. You’ve got to love first, like God first loved us, so that people understand that this Gospel stuff is worth giving your life to. When it’s you and your relationship with God we’re talking about, the repentance has to come first, but when it is about inviting other people into relationship with Jesus Christ, you can’t lead that way—they won’t understand. Why repent from something I’m not even sure I need to give up? When we don’t lead with love, it isn’t a far jump before we end up like those bigots from Westboro Baptist Church. That’s not Christian. That’s not love. It’s simply judgment.
But then, you can’t force repentance, and certainly you can’t force it on someone else, because what you are actually doing is saying you should conform to my standards, my beliefs, and that’s not loving at all. Just because somebody else thinks it is a sin doesn’t mean it is. You have to love people and trust that God will do the work, for repentance starts here. It starts in the heart. It starts when you say, you know, I can’t save myself, not that I really even want to. And so it is time for me to let some things go, to do the soul-work I need to do to clean out some room. It starts when we say, not everything I do is great.
Now this part—the not everything I do is great part—this part is hard for me, because I come from the generation that got trophies for everything. You look at those trophies, you’d think I was a star athlete instead of the doughy kid who literally got stuck out in left field.
I’ve got to let those go. I’ve got to say, not everything I do is great. Not every decision I make is helpful. Not every habit I have is healthy. Not every store I shop in is good to its workers. Not every vote I place is in the interest of all of God’s children rather than just my own. You see how difficult this can be—it’s not like you just make the intellectual decision to repent, and there, you’ve done it. It’s a constant battle, a constant process, because there are so many ways in which we act contrary to the will of God, which, of course, is that every person should have enough. Every person should experience the love we find here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. Every person should have clean water and food and every child should be cared for. Not just the people in my family, but everybody. This is what repentance is: saying this is how I am, this is how the way that I am keeps me from following Jesus, and so this is how I am going to change.
To repent is to say, “I am a child of God, beloved in God’s sight. And to claim that heritage, that birthright, that baptism, is to admit that I don’t have it all together, that, at least once a year, I ought to take stock of everything that has piled up in the room of my heart since the last time I cut down, and recognize that some things have no business taking up so much room: room that could be filled by the God who loves me, by people who love me, maybe even by people I haven’t met yet, because you can’t allow someone new into the chambers of your heart until there is enough room.
This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. This is where we start. It is the beginning of the journey. And if it sounds like a strange question to ask somebody coming for baptism for the first time, so be it. For in order to claim the great gift of salvation that comes from God and is offered directly to you—directly to you!—you’ve got to make room. You’ve got to make room.