Preached at All Saints, King City, Ontario, Anglican
Diocese of Toronto, 6 December, 2020.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40.1-11, Psalm 85:1-2,8-13; 2 Peter
3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
4 John the baptizer appeared[e] in
the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of
What is the good news in Mark? It is stated at the very beginning: “the
good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1).
Who tells us this good news? It is John the Baptizer, “the voice of one
crying out in the wilderness” (Mk 1.3). John
is as we can see from our first lesson the one promised by the prophet Isaiah,
so we know that John fits into God’s plan.
John is thus a sign of grace, proof of the faithfulness of God.
Where do we hear the good news? We hear it “in the wilderness”, as do the
throngs of others, including those who come from the city of Jerusalem
(1.4). To hear the good news, we must
go to John, trading the security and comfort of our usual surroundings for a
place that seems dangerous and inhospitable, only to learn that the wilderness
is where we find out true selves.
We have this opportunity to find out true selves
because John comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of
sins” (1.4). Repentance means honest
self-examination, the admission that we
have done things we are not proud of, things we might not want to come to
light. It means that we like ourselves
less than we might want to. It means a
desire that in forgiveness we might be changed, made better, receive a fresh
How would this opportunity not be good news to our
society? Lots of people want to improve themselves – just go on a website like
Amazon, search for “self help”, and you’ll find a mountain of books. The problem is that not many of them address
the idea of sin, or even seem to dwell much on a secular understanding of imperfection,
hence the many books with titles such as Good Vibes, Good Life: How Self-Love
is the Key to Unlocking Your Greatness. To admit that we are sinful is to say something
more profound than to simply say we could be improved by some new habits or
lifestyle choices. To say that we are
sinful is to admit that we are deeply flawed and profoundly in need of help.
While we as a culture aren’t much inclined to dwell on
our own flaws or to call them sins, we
are quite willing to recognize that sin exists in others, as “cancel culture” attests. We’ve developed rituals to shame and
disgrace adulterous politicians and fallen celebrity pastors, who hang their
heads and confess their “serious errors in judgement”, and yet we don’t really forgive
them. We shake our heads at actors and
producers whose sordid pasts are exposed and whose careers are ruined. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt notes, these head-wagging and
tongue clucking rituals are useful because they bond us together in a smirking
disapproval of others. Once we cast someone out of group, once a
celebrity topples from their pedestal, we aren’t generally willing to
Jesus isn’t interested in our disapproval of
others. He often says things like why does
that speck in your brother’s eye bother you when you’ve got a plank in your
own? Jesus’ point is that focusing on
the flaws of others is hypocrisy, because we never look inside and realize that
we too are flawed. Our disapproval of
others keeps us from ever being honest with ourselves.
If we were more honest with ourselves, we would be
less likely to ignore our flaws while feasting on the imperfections of
others. This honesty is what the Book
of Common Prayer gets at when it says that penitence, the act of being sorry
for our wrongdoings, begins with “self-examination” (BCP 612). The fact that repentance is built on honesty
may explain why John preaches and baptizes in the wilderness, a place where we
are exposed and vulnerable, where the props of our old and familiar lives can’t
sustain us and where we are dependent on another for help.
Honesty is thus a pre-condition for spiritual growth
and transformation, which is the goal of the Christian life, what St. Paul
calls our life in Christ or sharing in the mind of Christ. This idea of attaining a whole new identity
is much bigger than the idea of sin and repentance often taught by much of
Protestantism, which focuses on feeling sorry for individual misdemeanours. Repentance is thus far bigger than feeling
sorry for specific bad things that we may have done. Repentance leads to a more Christ-like place
where we can look charitably on others and want the best for them, pray for
them, see ourselves in them, which is far better than wanting others cancelled
for their crimes.
baptism involves the confession of sins (1.5) but does John have the power to
forgive these sins? Whatever power John
has comes from another, as he admits.
John’s good news is that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism may be a sacrament, a sign of God’s
grace, but Jesus’ baptism IS God’s grace, God’s plan and God’s power to remake
us into the beloved children God always wanted us to be.
That’s the good news of Christ, that even though we
are called into the wilderness, even though we are called to look deeply and
honestly into ourselves, when we look back at Jesus we see only the transforming
love of God.