Lent 1 – Mark 19-15: Repent
It was the festival of St Valentine Day on Wednesday, but also Ash Wednesday. St. Valentinus appears to have had no special connection to romantic love, but Chaucer connected his saint’s day on 14th February with birds mating in Spring, and it all seems to have gone from there. Having Valentine’s Day coincide with the start of Lent is fortunately rare (the last time was 1945), given the incongruity between lavishing chocolate and flowers on your partner and giving things up to enter a season of penance. It will probably not surprise you to hear that I am going to be talking more about repentance than romance. (It certainly will not surprise Rachel.)
In our gospel reading today in Mark, we have Jesus baptised by John, his temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his ministry; all in seven terse verses. But these stories also appear in the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke, so we have quite a bit more detail. In Matthew, John tries not to baptise Jesus, saying that Jesus should baptise him. Matthew and Luke both describe the tempter’s attempts to lead Jesus astray: turning stones into bread, throwing himself of the temple, worshipping the devil. John’s gospel has Jesus coming to John, and the Spirit descending on him, but does not mention the baptism, or the temptation. But John’s gospel is different.
Note, in passing, the reference to the Trinity after the baptism. The Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove, the Father speaks to Jesus as his Son.
John the Baptist’s reservations over baptising Jesus seem entirely reasonable. John had told the crowds After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit (17-8). John’s ministry was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (14). The church has always understood that Jesus was without sin (see Heb. 4, 2 Cor. 521, 1 Pet. 222), tempted as we are, but without giving in. So why did Jesus need to be baptised?
It is firstly a public anointing for his ministry. This is what John the Baptist was for. From his miraculous conception, to the events around his birth, his austere lifestyle, and his ministry of baptism all led up to this moment. Prepare the way of the Lord. After this, Jesus took over. A little later, Jesus quotes Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me (Lk 418). The Spirit descending in the form of a dove signifies Jesus gentleness, purity, innocence.
It is secondly a sign, to John, to those who would be his followers (there were no disciples yet, that came later), and to the world generally, that Jesus was chosen by God. And an encouragement for Jesus too? We do not know whether Jesus was so sure of his calling, so sure of his relationship with the Father, that he did not need encouragement. But if he shared our humanity, with its doubts and uncertainties, you would think he might. I think of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus clearly did need support. The last time I gave a sermon here it was about the Transfiguration, and I thought then that part of the purpose of that event was to strengthen Jesus as he prepared for the cross. So perhaps the voice from heaven was for Jesus too.
Thirdly, in accepting this ceremony, Jesus identified with man’s sin and failure. Without sin, but knowing what it was to be tempted, to have weakness, to live in a society with sin around him. Baptism was for cleansing, a declaration of purity, resolve to be better. Jesus emerged clean, and pure, and ready to deal with sin.
Lent is a season of reflection, of penance, of preparation for Easter. What does penance make you think of?   We were in Canterbury last week, hearing again the story of Thomas à Becket. Childhood friend and close ally of Henry II, made Chancellor of England, he was appointed by Henry Archbishop of Canterbury to subdue the church. But he changed, saying he was no longer the king’s man, but God’s. He would wear a horse-hair shirt to mortify the flesh and bring himself closer to God. It is a sort of penance we are not familiar with, nor do we generally think it a healthy sort of spirituality. People do give things up for Lent, take on extra prayer or meditation or study.
Repentance has always been fundamental to Christian faith. In the Book of Common prayer, you would start a service with the General Confession: …We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. More evangelical churches still introduce people to faith with the ABC: Admit your sin, Believe in Jesus, Confess him as your saviour. More recently it is not something we like to put so much stress on. Even the words are somewhat old-fashioned. Sin is not really a concept that is in regular use. I actually prefer selfishness, which I think is the nearest word that is in use. Thinking of yourself first, whether before others or God. A temptation is used more about chocolate or having a piece of cake than the stark choice between right and wrong.
There are good reasons for avoiding talking about repentance. It can be pretty off-putting if, entering a church, among the first things you hear are that you are miserable sinner. It is not the most attractive advertisement for Christianity to have to admit your failings before you can go any further.
But it is still fundamental, however uncomfortable. It is actually freeing. It may not be the start of faith, which is often to do with coming to understand about the love of God, of his unconditional care for you. That Jesus went on from his baptism to proclaim the gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom. He took his unselfishness to the point of dying for us, becoming the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God, as in this extraordinary painting, Agnus Dei by Francisco Zubaray. It is a poetic way of showing what Jesus did for us
So we are invited to come to God in repentance knowing that God will still accept us, whatever. His love, like that of the best parent, is totally unconditional. Whatever it is we have done, whoever we have become, whatever we are like, we are loved. You can get over it. You can change. God wants you to come back to him and allow him to change you.
Picture credit – Temptation of Christ on the Mountain, Duccio Di Buoninsegna