Sermon preached 7 January 2024, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Buderim, Qld, Australia.
Watch the sermon here:
‘And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, 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.’ (Mark 1:4–5).
Have you made any New Year’s resolutions? Often at the start of a new year, we desire the new year to go “better” than the previous one. If life were a journey, then New Year’s resolutions would be a map to a better place. We might say, “If I lose weight, if I read 20 books this year not 10, if I start this or stop that, then I’ll be in a better place,” and we draw a little map for how our journey through the new year might unfold. Where’s your map for 2024 taking you?
In our gospel reading from Mark 1:1–8, John is preparing the people for the arrival of Jesus. The people say, “Right. What’s the plan? Show us the map. How do we get ready for Jesus?” And the answer is, “Repent.” The word “repentance” is a motion word. Repentance means to “turn around,” to “change direction,” or “turn away from present things.” So instead of giving the people a map with a destination, John says, “Stop! You’re going the wrong way. You need to chuck a u-ey. You need to go back to the start.” John prepares people for the coming of Christ by telling them that continuing on the current trajectory is hopeless — left to ourselves, we go the wrong way!
Let me tell you a story: Two years ago when I first arrived on the Sunny Coast, I didn’t know where anything was, so I’d always put my destination into the Satnav. But gradually, as I got to know the roads better, I stopped using it. One day I was trying to get somewhere without the Satnav, but things didn’t feel right — I was lost. So I pushed the button on the car, “Okay Google, navigate to [address].” It calculated, and lo and behold, I was driving along the Bruce Highway in the wrong direction! And you know, if you ever get on the highway in the wrong direction, there’s not much you can do until the next off ramp. So the Satnav kept saying to me, “Turn around when possible. Turn around when possible.” This is the message that John speaks to prepare for Jesus’ coming: “You’re going the wrong way! Turn around when possible.”
Have a think about this question: “Are you the person you want to be?” If you’re anything like me, then your answer is a resounding “No!” If I’m honest with myself: I’m short tempered. I make too many assumptions. I avoid conflict. I can be demanding. Sometimes I’m not clear but long-winded and wishy washy. I can focus too much on the negatives. I’m not the person I want to be. I want to do better, be better. I think I need about 100,000 New Year’s resolutions to become the person I should be! Do you feel the same?
This yearning to be “better” is the work of “the Law.” The Law makes demands (“Stop this and start this…”), tells you what you must do (“You must…”), it’s conditional (“If you do this, then you’ll get hurt”), it threatens (“You’ll regret it if you don’t do this right now”), and — worse of all — the Law never offers any help for you to change! God’s Law tells you that you aren’t the person you’re supposed to be. It holds up a mirror to you to show your true ugly self. God’s Law says, “Become different. Do otherwise.”
The Law is the start of repentance. Repentance has two parts: it’s firstly sorrow for sin, but secondly the intention to amend your life. The first part, sorrow, is the work of God’s Law. It leads to despair. It makes you say, “Hang on, I need to change! I’m not who I should be.” But this is only part one of a two part act. The Law prepares you for the message of salvation, the message of the Gospel.
The second part of repentance is the good intention to live a new life. If the first part was God’s work, it’s tempting to think this second part of having good intentions is our part. But that’s not true. This second part is still the work of God, but this time he works through his Gospel and Spirit. In contrast to the Law, God’s Gospel makes no demands, it tells you what God does for you, it’s unconditional, it makes sure promises, and — best of all — the Gospel gives you the help to do what needs doing. So straight after the Law says, “Become different. Do otherwise,” the Gospel says, “I love you. Your sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. Believe my promise that you are a new person in Christ.”
Jesus himself sums up these two parts of repentance. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). “Repent” is the Law, and “believe” is the Gospel.
How do we live repentant lives day to day, week to week? Repentance is connected with baptism. Rather than being a destination, repentance turns you around, and puts you back at the start of your journey with Jesus: at your baptism. Aside: Just to be clear, the baptism that John preached is not Christian baptism, but a “baptism of repentance.” John’s baptism was only the first part, the preaching of the Law in preparation for the Gospel. Jesus would later come and complete the picture with the second part: the Gospel in its fullness. (See Acts 19:1–7). Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.
Repentance is like putting on new clothes. Each day your clothes get dirty or torn. But at the start of the day, after washing in the shower or bath, you put on a fresh garb and are renewed, ready for the new day. Likewise, after being washed in water and having the Spirit poured out in baptism, you are given the robe of Jesus’ righteousness to wear. Yet sin, like dirt, soils your robe each day. You say something that hurts, like spilling sauce down your front. The devil seeks to tear your robe, tempts you to take it off and be found naked before God. But each day you are invited to return to your baptismal waters to be spirituality refreshed and renewed. As you hear God’s word echo, “You are washed clean. You are my child. Start again,” you put off your old self, and put on your new self. As St Paul writes, ‘You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.’ (Ephesians 4:22–24). So baptism is both a once-for-all action, together with daily repentance that returns to the waters to put off the old self and put on the new self like clothes.
Or, to use another picture, repentance is like climbing back into a boat from which you’d fallen out. In baptism, you are placed on the Ark (i.e. the holy Christian church), a safe boat floating through chaotic waters. But the sin corrupting this flesh wants to go own way. So we jump off the boat. The boat is still there, for nothing can destroy it. But we can choose to forsake this gift, to “jump ship.” Likewise the gift of salvation through Christ is always there for you, nothing can ever destroy it. But through sin we forsake the gift. Repentance is firstly to feel sorrow for forsaking God and his gift of grace. It’s to be in those cold waters, fighting the waves, and to realise, “Hang on, this sucks! I don’t want to be here,” and turning around to look at the boat. Repentance is secondly the Holy Spirit picking you up again, and putting you back on the Ark, safe and sound.
Repentance is not just an inner working, but an outward change also. Through repentance our actions change, our habits are renewed. It’s a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly task to throw off sin into the dirty clothes basket, and put on righteousness. Like getting dressed every morning, repentance is never finished until our flesh dies and baptism is completed in bodily death. Our entire lives are a life of repentance.
One way to live a life of repentance is to follow a “Rule of life.” Beginning in the early church and into the middle ages, monks would follow a particular rule or habit. For example, Jesuits have the rule: “perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience.” Unfortunately, at times, some believed following their rule earned favour before God — but that’s a lie. We receive forgiveness of sin and become right with God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith alone, and by no other means. So, following a rule won’t curry favour with God. But a “Rule of life” can be that daily, weekly, yearly u-turn. The rule captures habits that put off the old self, and put on the new self. They are practices through which the Holy Spirit works to pick you up and put you back on the Ark.
So here at Immanuel Church, we want 2024 to be “The Intentional Year.” We’re not the people, we’re not the church, we want to be. The first part is to confess to God that we are sorry for our sin. But the second part is the good intention to live a new life, to be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Your challenge, should you choose to accept, is to devise a “Rule of life.” We’ve chosen three areas of life, rows running horizontally: prayer, relationships, community. I hope these are fairly self explanatory. (“Community” perhaps more means people “out there,” not just family or church). There are three time frames, columns running vertically: daily, weekly, quarterly. In each square write one thing you will do or one thing you will stop as an act of repentance. You don’t have to fill in all the squares (I’ve filled in 8 which is probably too many). Use the “KISS” principle: “keep it simple, stupid.” It’s not “pie in the sky” stuff, but something achievable, realistic. It might be things you’re already doing, but formalising it. Write in pencil, because over the coming weeks we’re going to unpack these three areas in more detail, and you might want to change or rework your “Rule.” Try it for January, then revise it for February and beyond. Put it on your fridge, take a photo and star it on your camera roll.
Daily prayer: pray the Lord’s prayer when you wake up, thank God for one thing before sleep, read one scripture verse each morning and look for how it connects with your day.
Daily relationships: tell someone you forgive and love them, set aside 1 hr of phone free time, one meal with family, take a breath before responding.
Daily community: bless someone in Jesus’ name, go for a walk and say hello to someone, pick up rubbish whenever you see it.
Weekly prayer: pray for a non-Christian friend, pray for our congregation.
Weekly relationships: have a meal with someone outside your family, have coffee with someone, call a friend on the phone.
Weekly community: create something and share it, be generous, random act of kindness.
Here’s mine first attempt:
The “Rule of life” is your map for the year, your map that turns you around and takes you back to your baptism. You will fail. So start again the next day. Put off the old self, put on the new self, like getting dressed in the morning. Let the Holy Spirit lift you back into the boat. The kingdom of God is so very near to you. Repent and believe. Go in peace. Amen.