“John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4)
Who are your favorite characters in the Christmas story? Shepherds, wise men, the holy family, maybe even Elizabeth or Zechariah?
I bet you didn’t name John the Baptist. Yet John is a central character in the opening chapters of the three synoptic Gospels. Mark has none of the best-loved characters, skips over the nativity altogether, and begins his Gospel with the Baptizer.
In last week’s devotional, I stated, “Advent is known as a time to prepare for the coming of the Lord, his first coming in Bethlehem two millennia ago and his second coming at the consummation of history.”
Mark begins his Gospel with Isaiah’s words about the messenger crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Then reveals that the prophecy has been fulfilled in John.
And what is the preparation that John requires? It’s very simple: Repent.
Nothing about shopping, sending holiday cards, baking, attending parties, or traveling to visit family. Just one activity: Repent.
In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner says:
“To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!'”
I love Buechner’s writing and at one level I completely agree with him. You can’t change the past. You can only change the future.
But at another level, I disagree with that sentiment. You have to examine the past in order to know what you need to repent of.
Let me give you a personal example. For quite some time, I have been doing some serious soul-searching on the topic of race. For most of my life, as a white, male Southerner, I have considered myself one of the good guys. I abhorred slavery, supported civil rights, and tried to treat all people equally. But then I learned that in spite of my good intentions, I have benefitted from a system of white supremacy. I have enjoyed advantages over people of other races that I didn’t even know I had. Most of these insights have occurred at the psychological and social levels.
This year, that journey of discovery has continued as I have read The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone and White Too Long by Robert Jones. From these teachers, I’m learning that racism is not only a social ill, but theological one. The stream of Christianity that formed and shaped me has “missed the mark” for centuries and in many ways, both overt and covert, perpetuated systemic racism.
I’m still sorting through what my repentance needs to entail. I don’t yet fully have a satisfactory response but it will not let me go. Unlike Paul’s immediate and instantaneous repentance on the road to Damascus, mine is taking much longer and proceeds with faltering, wandering steps. My journey of repentance is just that – a journey – with no end in sight.
-O God, forgive me of my sin and help me to discover and follow the true path of repentance.