Many years ago, in the midst of an excruciating break-up with a man I had been involved with for a long time, he turned to me with a steely gaze and said, “Unless you admit how you wronged me, you are going to repeat the same mistakes again.”
It just so happens his birthday is June 24th, the Feast of St. John the Baptist. Like John, this man was giving me a message I didn’t really want to hear at the time: if you want to make a new beginning, you need to repent.
The call to repent is at the heart of John’s message. In Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia. It means to change, to turn around and go the other way.
Rev. Dr. John Fairless writes, “People have always been good at explaining failure and avoiding change. We fall back on a variety of excuses and reasons, all designed to protect things as they are. We avoid change, especially when the change God calls for will be painful for us personally. We are usually quite willing to ask others to change and equally unwilling to make changes in ourselves.”
From time to time in our personal and collective lives, we reach a moment when we long for a new beginning. It may be that we are in a relationship that has soured or in a job that has become overly burdensome or we recognize that our country has gone in the wrong direction. It may be when we realize that if we don’t make some changes, our planet will be uninhabitable for our children and grandchildren.
What new beginning do you long for?
Whenever we long for a fresh start, we ought to take seriously today’s Gospel message: to make way for Good News, we must first deal with the “Bad News.” In an apocalyptic time, when so much of what is wrong with the world has been unveiled, when our own brokenness has been unveiled, John reminds us that it’s not enough to point our fingers at what’s wrong “out there,” we must see what is our part of the problem, confess our sins and repent. We must change.
Most of us probably prefer the way the story of Jesus begins in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. In those stories we get hopeful shepherds, singing angels, and a guiding star that leads to the peaceable kingdom of the manger. Not so in the Gospel of Mark. His Gospel starts this way “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and then immediately shifts to John crying out in the wilderness “clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey.”
Last I checked, our Pageant Director, Terry, had not cast anyone to play John in this year’s pageant. John doesn’t exactly fit with the story we prefer to tell about Jesus’ beginnings. But, it is the story that Mark tells with Isaiah’s help and it is a story we need to hear to help us prepare spiritually for the coming of God at Christmas.
In John’s time, the people of Jerusalem have been in exile and have experienced captivity, economic devastation, and an upheaval of life as they knew it. In the wilderness, John cries out their pain. It’s no wonder the people were drawn to him. In John, they had someone who understood and articulated their struggles; someone who offered them spiritual renewal in the midst of their challenges. He did so in what seems like a surprising way: not only by naming the problems “out there,” but by calling his followers to confess what is wrong in their own hearts, with their own actions.
This is really quite remarkable. Yes, John pointed to the injustice of the economic, political, and religious systems of his time. But, he also recognized that to usher in God’s kingdom, it’s not enough call out what’s wrong with the world, we also need to recognize our part in it – to acknowledge how our struggles and our fears can lead us to speak and act (or not speak and not act) in ways that fall short of the good we are called to do, no matter our circumstances. (This is not to say that there are not true victims of tragic circumstances beyond their control; but it is to say that we ought not default to a victim mentality.)
John recognized that if we want to be ready for God to come to us in a new way, we have to deal with our broken, old ways. This is what Jesus did. This is what we are called to do.
Perhaps there is something about human nature that when we are in trouble, we can justify behaving in “less than” ways; we can make excuses for hurtful and destructive actions because of how challenged we feel. It’s much easier to point to those we think really have the power – such as political or corporate entities – as the ones who need to make a change, than it is to see and admit our part in the system. It’s much easier to point the finger and blame our challenges on circumstances that seem to be beyond our control. John does not let us off the hook that easily. Even though he was known to cry out against unjust rulers and unjust systems, he did not see a path to new beginnings that did not also pass through self-examination and repentance.
Proclaiming the “Good News of Jesus Christ,” Mark seems to be saying we have to understand the bad news – all that makes us cry out – to be able to see and embrace the good news. The good news does not circumvent, avoid, or ignore the bad news. It starts with it. It addresses it. It deals with it. And in doing so, it transforms the bad news and us in the process.
We have been watching in an up close way what happens when some of our leaders fail to deal with the bad news. When they try to pretend it’s not so bad. Or that it’s not really what we can see it is with our own eyes, ears, and hearts. When they tell a story about the bad news that’s simply not true, but merely self-serving. In not dealing with the reality of the very bad news of the Coronavirus, the story that is being written grows more deadly by the day. 252,000 people just in the U.S.
We’ve also seen what happens when a country tells a story about it’s origins that fails to include the truth of the bad news that it was for Native and Black peoples. It’s a story most of us have heard from our formative years: a story about our founders and our founding documents that has been deified; a story that many of us have held so close to our hearts that we can’t see that its been missing some crucial details; that from the beginning, our nation disrespected and destroyed Native people and enslaved Black people whose unpaid labor enabled wealth to accrue to landowners, helping to build the economic system that continues not to work for them to this day.
If we are to make a fresh start in our own lives, in our country, and in the world, we ought not turn away from those who cry out to us – like the epidemiologists quoted in yesterday’s Boston Globe, who “feel they are screaming into the void,” or Black people who march in our streets shouting “I Can’t Breathe,” or a young Greta Thurnberg, with voice raised at the United Nations. Like John, these voices may make us uncomfortable – something we don’t like being. But, if we don’t listen, we are complicit in a culture of death.
Yes, it can be uncomfortable, even scary, to slow down and pay attention to the voices that cry out. Yet, this is the very place that Mark tells us is where the Good News begins. It’s when the alcoholic finally admits that they are powerless and in need of a Higher Power’s help. It’s when the voice of a compassionate leader says, “I see your pain and I’m going to ask the whole country to wear a mask for my first 100 days.” It’s when the transgendered teenager says “I just can’t live this lie anymore; I need to be who I am.”
None of the problems we face as a whole – such as the coronavirus, racism, climate change – will ever be resolved if each of us is not part of the solution. We must be willing to deal with the truth of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in and the truth of our part in them. If we can acknowledge the consequences of our blinded vision, misinformed consciousness, and missteps (or lack of steps) made out of fear – in other words, our sins – then we can begin with the grace of God to write a new story. Admitting our sins allows us to wake up our minds and open up our hearts, to create a pathway for our God.
Where do you long for a new beginning in your own life? What’s not working for you? Can you see your own part in it?
Today Mark proclaims, “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” We can rejoice that Mark’s story of Jesus is truly just the beginning; it’s a story that we are invited to continue writing, to continue creating. If we don’t like the chapter we just read or wrote, we can do something about it. We can examine what’s not working – “out there” and “in here.” We can confess our part, and with the grace of God, turn things around.
We can start with the Bad News and become the Good News. Amen.