THE LOST ART OF REPENTANCE
Mark 1:4-5 “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
After 400 distressing years of God’s silence among the people, the very last of the Old Testament style prophets, John the Baptist, appeared out in the remote wilderness of Judea, in the model of Elijah, preparing the way for the arriving Lord.
John was baptizing and calling on the swarming crowds to repent, but this wasn’t just any old ordinary message. No, John was crying out! This word translated from the Greek “boao” meaning to raise a cry (either of joy or of pain) was the same word used by Jesus himself as he hung dying on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
This word was also used by a vulnerable father about his demon-possessed boy and by a blind/disabled beggar desperate for help (both in Luke).
Within this background in mind, we can hear that John the Baptist’s call was indeed a prophetic cry of desperation for those teeming crowds to please pay attention and act: Get ready, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!
Nowadays, “repentance” isn’t a word that frequents our contemporary conversations, sadly even in many church settings. At a visceral level, our cringing modern sensibilities somehow recoil at the mention of this word, and yet John the Baptist and Jesus himself (along with the apostles and New Testament authors) knew that repentance was key to the new life of fullness in Christ, and they did not shrink back from using that word or the concept it represented.
Out there in that Judean wilderness, two distinct groups came out to observe this phenomenon named John the Baptist, but only one of those two groups ultimately complied with God’s command to repent.
While the one group, the downtrodden average people (the weak and powerless crowds) did indeed repent and undergo John’s preparatory baptism, the other group, those powerful religious leaders did not; instead they were incensed. In their self-righteous minds, they were irately asking themselves why this unqualified, inexperienced (within the church system/structure) preacher John the Baptist was summoning the Jewish rank-and-file to perform what was up to then a rite of purification required only for “lesser” Gentile converts to Judaism? This leveling of the playing field was infuriating to them.
So John the Baptist confronted these religious leaders, who came out en masse to investigate, by labeling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 3 and Luke 3). Very strong words!
Much like with Jesus (who used the same derogatory term to also accuse the self-righteous religious leaders in Matthew 12), and with Paul, Peter, John, and others later, we discover that the very softest words were most gently spoken to the struggling sinners who knew deep down that they urgently needed God (think prostitutes, tax-collectors, criminals, etc.), while the harshest words were reserved for the churchy people who look down on others who are not like them; those with differing customs, views, backgrounds than their own.
This was essential because those same religious church leaders were resting in their OWN self-righteousness and self-importance, and even in their religious ancestry, instead of relying on (and in) God. In a sense, they showed they didn’t completely “need” God at all, but instead were manipulating their clerical positions to gain prestige and power over the weak and downtrodden.
Two thoughts for consideration:
First, we all must repent. The text intricately links repentance and the forgiveness of sins and John the Baptist’s message wasn’t only for a select few. It was for all who came out to hear. Repentance is necessary because it prepares and cultivates the soul’s soil in order for the good seed of the gospel to take root and flourish by bearing good fruit. We who assume that we mostly have it all together compared to other people are way off track as we end up comparing ourselves to the wrong measuring standard (which really ought to be that of Christ’s perfection); so we end up fooling ourselves. Instead, when the Spirit of God is calling, our tender hearts must be opened and listening. We must always be in the continual act of repenting; always receiving the grace of Christ.
Second, if we hear the word “repent” and get stuck thinking about the big sins (murder, violence, greed, and sexual immorality), we too get off track as well. Of course we need to stop and repent if we’re involved in those obvious ways of falling short of God’s mark, but we must not miss the subtle more obscure sins that darken our souls; those that are found in subsequent layers as we dig deeper and deeper below the surface of our hearts.
In other words, we must go beyond repenting for the obvious bad and we must also repent for the non-obvious “good”, meaning those “good deeds” that are done (in society, family, and in church, etc) for the wrong reasons: Motivations of self-promotion, self-glorification, and self-centeredness are so less obvious and yet frequently so much more destructive.
Repent. The Kingdom of God is here in Christ.