In following Mark’s opening verses, verses I have called Mark’s Advent story, one should notice that the actions of the Gospel narrative do not begin with the active participation of humanity. Indeed, while we have seen that we are to wait on God and to listen to God, both of these actions are passive in that they are not initiated by us; they are responses to God.
But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after hearing a word from the Lord, whoever the messenger or whatever the message might be, we are confronted with the choice of ignoring or acting. If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God. To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.
Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary in our culture. Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin. But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.
Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel are the idea, the command, and the action of repenting. In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning. God’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, is a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people, and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God. Such preparation involves recognition that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God. This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God.
Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.
But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God, the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God. In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel.” Thus at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching was repentance. Central to the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God was repentance. And essential to Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near was a call to repent.
But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. From what are repenting and what does it mean to repent? Perhaps it is best to take the second question first. Of course, we can find assistance in answering this question by looking at the word “repent”, and better yet, at the Greek word behind this English rendering, to garner a definition of the word. Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.
We often think of repenting as our telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again. Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?
While we should continue to repent of those individual sins that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger. Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God. It is not a magic formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.
And this helps us answer our first question, from what are we repenting? We are repenting from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and oppressed. But we are also repenting toward the rule of God in the world, and in doing so we are embracing a new life of love, justice, and mercy.
The Season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people. May we “Prepare the Way of the Lord” in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions and repenting toward God’s rule.