"Godly Sorrow for Sin - What a Wild Idea!"
Get a Grip - against Backsliding
Winter brings with it a battle: the battle against the treacherous incline which is our driveway. It's got just enough slope to make it dangerous: if the conditions are just so, you can get in, but you can't get out again! When the temperature is just around freezing, the snow isn't hard yet, it tends to become pressed into ice. Recently the all-season tires on the back of the van locked in a 10-foot slide as I drove in towards our garage shelter, making me wonder if the van was about to keep right on going and take the garage with it off its moorings!
There are two tactics we can use in battling this treachery. One is to keep the snow cleared away, whether with the snowblower or the humble scoop. Less accumulation, less danger.
The other tactic in the battle is to get snow tires all around on both our vehicles. What a difference traction makes! Without snows, the power may be there, but you just sit and spin. With snow tires, you get a grip, the power of the engine is actually applied in the right direction.
That, folks, is a parable. There is a treacherous incline in our lives - we find our fallen fleshly selves 'tipped' in the direction of sin, we are 'inclined' to commit trespasses that drive us away from our Holy God. Fighting sin is a real battle, for which we need tactics. The Bible calls it 'preparing the way' for the Lord. Clearing away the snow - the hurdles - would be like confessing our sins and repenting, allowing the blood of Jesus to wash away the impediment. But we also need to 'get a grip' - or be gripped by God Himself. Snow tires then would be baptism or 'coating' with the Holy Spirit - letting God's power be applied where it matters, right in our lives, so we start to make tracks with Him - following the Master on the way.
Wild for God: A 'Spiritual Sasquatch'
For 400 years there was a silence of prophecy between the testaments. Malachi closed off the Old Testament looking for the coming judgment day of the Lord, preceded by a return of the prophet Elijah who would turn people's hearts around (Mal 4:1,5f). In the decades then centuries that followed, faithful Jews began anticipating the coming Messiah or "Servant" foretold by Isaiah.
"And so John came," Mark says (v4). John whose name means "the Lord is gracious". But John's appearance was unconventional, WILD in fact: clothed in a coarse shirt woven from cloth of camel-hair. He wore a leather belt or 'girdle' (AV): think about it - you're going to be standing in water up to your hips all day, wouldn't a leather equivalent of hip-waders make a lot of sense? Leather unlike cloth wouldn't get all soggy every time you went to baptize someone. So maybe it was more like a set of leather chaps or a kilt - dress for what you're going to be doing!
John's fashion was wild; he lived in the wild. NIV has 'desert', NLT 'wilderness': the Greek word means a place that's "solitary, lonely, desolate, uninhabited". Out in the wild. John lived off the land, his food strikes us as wild - locusts (ecch!) and wild honey (careful not to let the bees bite you when you're reaching in there...). This was one wild character. Commentator David McKenna notes John's appearance was 'fitting for a Biblical Bigfoot or a spiritual Sasquatch'!
But John's message was just as wild and unconventional as his location, appearance, and habits. V4 says he came "baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Up to that time, baptism was reserved for Gentile proselytes who were converting to Judaism. Why would a Jew need to be baptized? They were God's chosen people! But John insisted they needed to be washed clean too - all part of this 'preparing the way for the Lord' Isaiah talked about, 'making straight paths for him'. Those who thought they were good enough needed to think again. Robertson comments, "John is treating the Jewish nation as pagans who need to repent, to confess their sins, and to come back to the Kingdom of God." Well! What nerve! "Who's he think he is, telling us WE need to change and get right with God?!"
John's message is just as wild and 'edgy' today, in our affluent, genteel, self-authenticating 21st-century culture. Consider how imperious and out-of-touch this language is today. "Preaching a baptism..." Nobody DARES 'preach' to anybody anymore. Preaching is judgmental. To preach implies wagging the finger, presuming you know better than the next person and are trying to shove your values down their throat. What gives you the right to tell ME what to do? How un-cool!
V4 says John came "preaching a baptism of repentance." Repentance sounds like a word from some former time, back in the age of superstition, before the age of enlightenment. Man is the measure of all there is, isn't he? Rationalism, individualism - that's where it's at; everybody has the right to decide for themselves and make up their own mind. Repentance is so not-hip.
Robert Webber describes how radically un-God-oriented our world is: "The Western world lives out a secular story that goes like this: The world came into existence by chance. It's a huge machine capable of being understood through rational inquiry and investigation. Human beings must create the world's future. The meaning of life must emerge out of the choices we humans make. It was the voices of the Enlightenment that proclaimed this world could be understood by the human mind. Darwin introduced the notion of evolution, an idea soon applied to the chance origin of the world and of the human species. Then Freud argued that religion was the invention of the human imagination, born out of the weakness of humans who needed a supernatural crutch to survive life. Finally, Karl Marx, the third influential figure of the 19th century, said human beings must take history into their own hands. They must shape their own future by eliminating the competition between the rich and the poor and create a new communal society where all people will live in harmony under a loving government." Doesn't that sum up our 'secular story' pretty well? Is that what the general public are taught these days? "Repentance" in this context is a truly wild idea - it doesn't fit in at all.
But cracks are appearing in the work of Darwin, Freud, and Marx. Postmoderns are questioning what Boomers swallowed. The mechanistic worldview of the Enlightenment is breaking down. The 'new science' is much more open to complexity, mystery, interrelatedness. Throw in our fascination with technology: meet the age of media, the internet, Xbox, iPod, and virtual chat. We're awash in a sea of images and messages that groom us to be good consumers even as we satisfy our desires in new and luxurious ways. I'm grooving along pretty good - why ever would I need to change my heart, attitude, or conduct? Look at the movie stars!
What else archaic was John talking about? "A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." What is 'SIN'? Whoever heard of that?! That assumes some moral yardstick or absolute standard of right and wrong, some obligation to a Supreme Being outside myself who for some obscure reason thinks they have some claim on my behaviour, goals, and attractions. Go figure. I think I'll stick with evolution, random chance generation from some primeval slime, so I can remain the pilot of my own destiny.
St Augustine wrote: "Sin is believing the lie that you are self-created, self-dependent, and self-sustained."
Paul writes about the godlessness and wickedness of those who choose to buy into that secular story and suppress the truth - a truth that ought to be plain to any observant person: "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities-- his eternal power and divine nature-- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened." (Rom 1:20-21)
A Wave of Yearning for God's Cleansing
John's preaching may have seemed wild to the Jews of his time - calling them to be baptized as if they weren't already acceptable to God - but something about his appeal twigged inside them. They responded in droves, heading out into the wilderness until it was solitary no longer. V5, "The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." Scholars estimate that as many as 300,000 converts were baptized by John. McKenna comments, "Put those numbers into a contemporary perspective. Without advertising, stadiums, amplifiers or satellites, John the Baptist has to be recognized as one of the most successful preachers of all time."
What created this massive pull in people that drew them to heed the wild man's message? As unconventional as John's approach was, it resonated with something deep inside folks. God has hard-wired people to acknowledge that some things are right and wrong; he's outfitted each one of us with a moral compass. It's called a conscience. Romans 2:15, even those who don't have the (Jewish) law "show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them."
Recently I received an email from someone who calls themselves an agnostic. It contained a Powerpoint presentation about the Holocaust called "It seems impossible." The photos taken when Allied troops liberated concentration camps in World War II are graphic and disturbing; there is something so 'evil' or abominable about them that even someone who doesn't claim to believe in God still finds moral outrage welling up inside them, seeing the atrocities. (The bulldozer photo is the one that gets me the most.) One doesn't have to come from a particular faith tradition to look at these scenes and feel that something was terribly wrong.
Another email refers to a man and woman in London England convicted of causing or allowing a baby to die; jurors were told the baby was 'used as a punching bag', and had more than 50 injuries, including eight fractured ribs, a broken back, a large number of bruises, cuts on his head and ears; and the tops of his fingers were missing, along with a toenail. How sadistic! The very thought is revolting.
It's easy to denounce 'sin' when it's so obvious. But wait...Here's a mailing from a Christian aid agency describing the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo as 'the worst humanitarian tragedy since the Holocaust'. According to the UN, the crisis has displaced 1.5 million people and caused the deaths of more than 5.4 million, mostly through starvation and disease. 5.4 million - that's a lot of people, nearly 6 million as in the Jewish Holocaust. Less than a thousand miles from where we lived for 2 years and our son was born, a civil war has been voted by humanitarian experts as the world's 'most under-reported emergency'. The mailing says, "Food is scarce. Killing, disabling diseases - like cholera and malaria - are threatening to spread like wildfire across overflowing refugee camps."
Sounds bad - but do I really care? It's all too easy just to set the appeal letter to one side and go on about my daily business. Is it compassion fatigue? Is it prejudice (since they're not 'white like me')? What is it in me that resists responding - is that sin, too? We don't think too highly of Germans who suspected something bad was happening in the concentration camps but looked the other way; how am I different if I ignore a modern holocaust? What is it in me that reads a news item about the breakdown of the hospital system in Zambia and cholera spreading even into the river that borders South Africa, and just shrugs it off? I am no different than Ebenezer Scrooge wishing the poor would die more speedily and 'decrease the surplus population.' I too need to repent.
Prepare the Way, Make Straight the Path
What is God's remedy for our human failure? The prophets talk about "Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him" - how do we do that? John made a start by inviting people to be baptised in "repentance for the forgiveness of sins." To 'repent' doesn't mean just to be 'sorry', but to have a change in your person, to turn around and head in a different direction. Isaiah 55(7), "Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon." Leave the old way behind - forsake it; turn to God. Ezekiel 33(11), "As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?" It's as if the Lord sees us heading in a speeding car towards a cliff and pleads with us to turn the steering wheel before it's too late.
Repentance is agreeing with God about the seriousness of my actual spiritual condition - seeing my need as He sees it. I come to see how truly objectionable my sin is, compared to the only standard - His holiness. JC Ryle writes: "The very animals whose smell is most offensive to us have no idea that they are offensive, and are not offensive to one another. And man, fallen man, has just no idea what a vile thing sin is in the sight of God."
Repentance also involves starting to appreciate how powerful, great, and worthy the Son of God is. Mark quotes John saying one very significant thing about the coming Messiah, v7: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie." John was emphasizing how great Jesus was, and how small he himself was by comparison. Repentance then helps us see how truly wonderful and transformative Christ is.
John's whole ministry was wrapped up in pointing to Jesus. John 1(29,36), "...John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, 'Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'" Later he talked about how the friend of the bridegroom is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice; "He must become greater, I must become less." (Jn 3:29f) Coming to know God through repentance gets our ego off the throne. It's OK to let God be God; I'm just me, not the centre of the show. In repentance we become amazed at Jesus' love and self-sacrificing action to save such a miserable sinner as myself.
And a third aspect of repentance is that I begin to hanker or long for God's objective takeover and filling of my life with His Spirit, for His reform - so I'm not dragged down by that old sinfulness any more. John contrasted his own ministry with that of the Saviour in v8, "I baptize you with water, but he will baptize (immerse, drench, soak) you with the Holy Spirit."
If you look closely at John's message, it's very much like the apostle Peter's first sermon in Acts 2:38: there Peter told the crowds, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Repentance - forgiveness of sins - Holy Spirit: same process!
The actual word "repent" may sound sort of old-fashioned and negative, but really it's the key that opens the door to all sorts of great gifts from our Heavenly Father when we turn to Him and seek to get right with Him. The apostle Paul had rebuked the church at Corinth rather sternly in one of his letters for the immorality that they had allowed to go on in their midst. The rebuke had the desired effect: they were alarmed and took steps to remedy the situation. Then in another letter we see the benefits that repentance brought about. 2Corinthians 7:9-11: "yet now I am happy, not because you were made sorry, but because your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter." See all the good effects repenting brought about? It's not just a regretful sort of 'feeling sorry for yourself'; it's GODLY sorrow that by the Holy Spirit's convicting walks us into positive change - a readiness to respond as the Lord leads.
The Master's Grace Overcomes Our Mistakes
A poor German girl announced that she was going to give a piano concert. In order to attract people to come, she mentioned in the advertisements that she was the student of the famous Hungarian professor, Franz Liszt. But it was a lie. To her dismay, she learned the professor was going to visit her town on the day before the concert. What should she do now? She went to meet him, confessed her guilt, and asked him to forgive her. The professor answered, "You made a mistake. All of us make mistakes. The only thing that you can do now is to repent; and I believe that you have already repented. Sit down and play." At the beginning, she played with much fear. The professor corrected a few of her mistakes and said, "Now truly you can say that I taught you. Go ahead and play at your concert tomorrow evening, and the last piece will not be played by you, but by your teacher."
How much we are like that girl. We have sinned. And we've been 'caught out' - we know we're guilty. There is nothing else we can do but repent. Then, as we let the Holy Spirit start to guide us, we find ourselves playing our lives under the supervision of Christ Himself. The last and the best piece will be played by Him! Let's pray.