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Mark 1, 1-8 advent 2

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TITLE:  Sin as a Waste of Time                     SCRIPTURE:    Mark 1:1-8


The Canadian writer Margaret Visser believes that North American society is slipping from a belief in freedom to a belief in fate. For some, this belief in fate appears in fortune telling or astrology or use of a lucky number to play the lottery. For others, it is manifest in the belief that our DNA determines everything about us, that we are doomed by our genetic inheritance.

Visser reminds us that Christianity overcame the belief in fate that hung like a dark shadow over the ancient Mediterranean world. She recognizes that Christianity smashes fate, but she also sees that a belief in fate can reappear at any time. She claims that this is happening now.

I would claim that Christianity also smashes the belief that salvation comes by acquisition, that whoever dies with the most toys wins. Sharing with others and serving others has characterized Christianity from the first, and casts suspicion on every form of selfishness. What's more important than possessions are those things that cannot be divided up like so many pies -- those things that make us who are -- things such as love, hope, faith, mercy, and fortitude.

We are not saved by what we acquire. Yet our society challenges this view every day, especially during the holiday shopping season. Messages come at us that if we get or give this or that, then the deepest longings of the heart will be satisfied. Salvation by acquisition is a popular religion.

The passage read a few minutes ago is the opening of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark's Gospel, perhaps the first one written, says nothing about the birth or early days of Jesus. It does not begin with a babe in the manger, but with a word of prophecy, one that addresses both fate and salvation by acquisition.

Consider the scene. Prophecy has been silent in Israel for centuries. Now there steps on the stage a figure who dresses and eats like a prophet, who dwells in the desert like a prophet, and most importantly, speaks like a prophet. What he does is proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark reports this to us as the start of the good news about Jesus Christ. Good news? The opportunity for repentance is good news for us, because it strikes out against two misleading beliefs.  The first misleading belief is that our lives are controlled by fate.  The second is that salvation occurs through acquisition.

A call to repentance implies that we can repent, that we can take a path different from our present one. Thus fate does not determine our lives. We enjoy a certain degree of freedom, and this is good news.

A call to repentance implies that we are saved, not by acquiring stuff, but by emptying ourselves of whatever crowds out God. What matters is opening ourselves to God. God wants to be in our lives, and this is good news.


Is repentance really important?  Does it really have power?  Does it matter how we repent?  Can failure to repent lead to disaster?  You bet!

Several years ago a Varig Airlines pilot, Captain Cezar Garcez, was preparing to take off from Brazil's Maraba Airport to Belem -- a flight of less than an hour.  When he programmed the electronics in his plane to guide him to his destination, he made a mistake.  As a result, after takeoff he started flying west instead of northeast -- toward the great Amazon wilderness instead of toward Belem.

At some point, he realized that something was wrong and turned -- but still not in the right direction.  As nearly as I can determine, he was trying to keep his mistake a secret.  At any rate, he refused advice from flight controllers and flew the plane blindly until he ran out of fuel and crashed into the wilderness.  Thirteen passengers were killed.

There is a sense in which Captain Garcez repented of his error -- he did change the direction of his flight.  However, his flawed repentance was deadly, because his new direction was no better than his old one.

When we repent, we must not only change the direction of our lives, but must also change it in a positive direction.  Like Captain Garcez, who could have gotten help from flight controllers, we have someone to whom we can turn -- someone who will help us to find the right direction.  That someone is the Holy Spirit.  When we repent we need to seek the Spirit's guidance.  We also need to seek the strength that only the Spirit provides.  With the Spirit's help, we can not only change the direction of our lives, but we can change the direction in a positive way -- the way that leads to life -- not the way that leads to death.

Mark's announcement is part of the world view that the Bible reveals, a world view that says change can happen. We are not doomed to repeat the old cycles.

Time is not simply circular, it is also linear, because God does new and wonderful things. He creates the world, calls Abraham away from home, delivers Israel from Egypt, and promises that someone special is on the way. God keeps doing new and wonderful things. For each of them, there is a before and an after, and each one brings God's purposes that much closer to fulfillment.

It is from the biblical account of divine intervention that Western society derives much of its notion of hope, of progress, of learning and enlightenment and discovery. When we expect progress in human rights, or look for the next generation to have it better than we do, or imagine that some day a cure for AIDS or cancer will be found, then we participate in this stubborn belief, rooted in Scripture and spread by Western culture to places throughout the world, that real change can and does occur.

Centuries after the last prophet has fallen silent, who then comes announcing to Israel once again that change can happen, that repentance is possible, that God is doing something new and unexpected? This herald is John the Baptist.

John is one of the New Testament figures about whom we know the most. Today let us concentrate simply on this fact about him: he is a wilderness man. The son of a priestly family, he is not content to remain in villages or towns or the holy city Jerusalem, and speak to people there.

Instead, he moves out into the desert, engaging traditions in Israel older than the temple. He's an updated version of the prophet Elijah who made the wilderness his home. Once the people of Israel traveled through the wilderness: God led them for years with a cloudy column by day and a fiery column by night. The wilderness is wondrously free of all that complicates life in village, town, or city; it is the place for new beginnings. These are desert traditions that John brings back to life.

Most importantly, this John the wilderness man announces that change can happen, that repentance is possible, that God is doing something new, something unexpected.

John's message invites us to become wilderness people in our time. We do not have to imitate his diet, his clothing, or his place of residence. We become wilderness people like him when we live outside the destructive myths of our society, when we recognize we are not controlled by fate, when we no longer seek salvation by acquisition. All this makes us wilderness people, wild men and wild women and wild children, beyond the comprehension of a sad-eyed and captive culture.

    John announces repentance is possible.
        We are disarmed of our dismal excuses.

    John asserts that change can happen.
        Our tired certainties turn obsolete.

    John shouts that God does the unexpected.
        We wait with fresh and eager vision.

John announces the possibility of repentance. Repentance. That's our word in English. It carries a sense of sorrow about the past. Repentance is what we do to acknowledge the mess we've made, with perhaps the recognition that we may make this mess again.

Repentance, our English word, needs to give way to the original Greek of the Gospel. There the word feels different. It is metanoia. This word metanoia means changing your mind, seeing the scene differently. More than our word repentance, this Bible term metanoia is a wild word, one suited for wilderness people.

The contemporary poet Scott Cairns has produced a poem about metanoia in the New Testament which concludes with these lines:

    "The heart's METANOIA,
    on the other hand, turns
    without regret, turns not
    so much AWAY, as TOWARD,

    as if the slow pilgrim
    has been surprised to find
    that sin is not so BAD
    as it is a waste of time."

We know we've entered the desert, that we have become wild people, when what happens inside us is a turn without regret, a movement toward. Then we recognize sin as simply a waste of time, complicating a life where the dead ends of fate and acquisition are not the only directions we can take. What the open wilderness spreads before us promises instead a heart-pounding freedom as we run home to God's embrace.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel UMH #211 MH #354

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