John the Baptist comes striding out at us from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a wild man, clothed in camel’s hair, with wild words that called people to change, uncompromising words that confront them with themselves. If he went around like this today he would probably be sectioned, or at least swiftly moved along by the authorities. “Nothing to see here, just a man who’s had a bit too much of the desert sun…” I expect there were those in the first Century who felt just the same way – going out to see him simply to gawp at the latest local excitement.
But they got more than they bargained for. Somehow what he said touched a chord in them which they hadn’t expected. They found themselves confessing their sins and being baptised, moved to respond to his strange call. That’s a bit surprising, because what he had to offer doesn’t really seem attractive at all. There are no miracles on offer, just that tough call to repentance.
In his description of John the Baptist, Mark echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah, “a voice crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,” “Get ready for God to come among you” both these men say, “but don’t kid yourself that it is going to be easy or painless. Valleys will need to be filled up, mountains laid low, for that straight road to be built.”
We know about road building in Seal at the moment. We’ve been practically marooned up here at the church while emergency work has been going on to repair a collapsed sewer on Childsbridge Lane. It would have helped if the diversion signs had made any sense, but frankly, even if they had, there was never going to be an easy or convenient way to do the work that needed to be done. It was bound to cause severe disruption. If that’s true of roadworks now, it was even more true in ancient times, when there was no machinery to speed the job along. Building roads, let alone levelling mountains and valleys, was hard graft – you wouldn’t do it unless you really had to.
But John the Baptist believed and preached that this was the only way. There would need to be radical change if God’s kingdom was going to take root in people’s lives. And that radical change started with repentance. You can’t set things right if you don’t admit first that they are wrong.
The trouble is that most of us really hate doing that. We don’t like to feel guilty or ashamed – feelings that almost always go with owning up to sin and failure. In fact we’ll often do almost anything to avoid those feelings.
The Leveson inquiry into the phone hacking scandal is an illustration of this. I guess we have all been horrified at the suffering caused to entirely innocent people by the cheap and nasty tactics of some sections of the tabloid press. “How could they do these things?” we ask. It seems so obviously wrong. But the journalists and newspaper proprietors called to account for this seem determined to try to wriggle out of their responsibility somehow – first trying to conceal what they’d done, then blaming each other or justifying their actions as just part of their job.
We’ve been shocked, I expect, by their refusal to admit their fault in all this. But what about our fault in it? If we buy the papers which print this stuff we create a market for it. And even if we don’t buy them I don’t think we are off the hook. My guess is that we all engage in unkind and unfounded gossip about others from time to time, and by doing that we encourage the unhealthy appetites which the tabloid press feeds with its scandalmongering. We pass snap judgements on people whose lives and circumstances we can’t really know about, and so we make it seem acceptable for others to do the same. It might not be in the same league as aggressively door-stepping the families of victims of crime, but we all, in some sense, create the climate in which that can happen. It is easy for us to tut in horror at the journalists involved, but what does all this have to say to us about our own behaviour? Have we changed as a result? Are we making a greater effort to show restraint and generosity in what we say about others, respecting their privacy rather than feeling we have licence to spread our own, usually ill-informed opinions about them? “Repent, repent” calls John the Baptist. “Make a straight pathway for God”.
Well, all this is rather depressing, isn’t it? This is tough stuff. And it hardly seems to square with the opening words of today’s Gospel reading, words, in fact, which open Mark’s whole Gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Where is the good news in all of this grim talk of repentance?
Christians are often stereotyped as people who are addicted to misery, inclined to beat themselves up all the time. Historically there is some justification for that. Guilt and shame have far too often been used to scare people into obedience, though far less now than was once the case. Of course, we need to be careful that we don’t end up carrying guilt and shame that isn’t rightly ours, but we mustn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater either. A right awareness of sin still matters, and that is evident in the place we still give in our services to confession.
Traditionally the Church of England hasn’t insisted on individual confession to a priest on a regular basis, as the Roman Catholic Church has, but a corporate act of penitence is part of almost all our services, and there are good reasons for that.
Firstly, the fact that we begin with confession reminds us that we need to come out of hiding when we come to worship. If our relationship with God isn’t based on honesty then it is not going to get very far.
But secondly the regular practice of confession tells us that it is safe to come out of hiding, safe to be ourselves, safe to present ourselves to God, warts and all, and that’s where all this gloomy talk of repentance becomes a message of good news.
The first letter of John tells us that “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” Let’s hear those crucial words again. “He who is faithful and just will forgive us.” That’s not a maybe or perhaps; it’s a definite. “He who is faithful and just will forgive us. “ Often we find it hard to repent, hard even to acknowledge there is anything to repent of, because deep down we think there is nothing that can be done about it anyway. We think that it’s unforgiveable, irreparable. No wonder we want to hide it. We are afraid it would overwhelm us if it came up into the light. We claim to believe in God, but actually we don’t. We only believe in us, in our own ability to set ourselves straight. If we can’t think of a way to deal with our sin, we assume that God won’t be able to either, so it is best to keep it all firmly under wraps and hope it stays that way.
Mark tells us, though, that this is not the case. There is good news. That good news isn’t that we are just fine and dandy as we are, though. It is that God is not defeated by our sin – not even by the sins of those who nail Jesus to the cross. The love and forgiveness that seem quite beyond us – to give or to receive - are not out of God’s reach at all. “I have baptised you with water, but Jesus will baptise you with the Holy Spirit,” says John. Our efforts to wash away the things that seem to stain our lives may be watery, but God’s are not. That doesn’t mean that there’s an easy answer or a magic wand, but it does tell us that the change we need can happen.
To help it happen we need to be prepared to do some work, and I’d like to suggest two things that might be useful. There’s an ancient practice called the Examen of Consciousness, originally devised by Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, which I would commend to you. The handout I have given you today contains a guide to it, but it is really just enlightened common sense. It is a method of looking back over our day and asking God to help us see ourselves and him within it. By doing day by day we will gradually grow into the honesty and the trust we need to enable God to heal and change us.
The second suggestion I would make is that it really helps if we can find someone to share the ups and downs of our spiritual lives with, someone we trust not to reject us but who can be straight with us when we need it. You might already have someone who can do that, but if not have a think about who that spiritual travelling companion might be. I’m around of course, and always willing to listen, but there are plenty of other people, in this church or elsewhere who could do this too. It doesn’t matter who it is, so long as it is someone you trust.
“Repent! Repent!” These are not words of condemnation. They are words of release, words that point us towards the freedom God wants for us. Practicing repentance – and it does take practice – may not seem like the most attractive aspect of Christian faith, but it is probably the one that will make most difference to us. The growth it leads to won’t be complete on this side of the grave but it will help us move towards that time when “righteousness will be at home” in us as the epistle puts it. And that won’t just make our lives richer and better, it will also bring freedom and joy to those around us as well, because ass we make straight the pathway for God into our own lives, others will find him closer at hand as well.