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The First Step

Thomas J Parlette

“The First Step”

Mark 1: 4-11



This is an interesting Sunday in the church year. Yesterday was January 6th – Epiphany, the traditional end of the Christmas season, the day we celebrate the wise men visiting Jesus – the light of God come into the world to dispel our darkness. Most years, that would be the focus of our worship this morning.

But today, January 7th, the first Sunday after Epiphany, is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Usually we have a bit more space between these two liturgical celebrations, but not so this year. This year they fall on consecutive days, right on top of each other. So, in our liturgy and our music this morning you will see bits of both holy days shining through.

But our primary focus is on the Baptism of the Lord – always a good to start a new year. You know the story. A man named John was baptizing people out in the wilderness in the river Jordan, which means he was several miles outside of Jerusalem. This is interesting because the Gospel of Mark tells us that “the whole Judean countryside – the locals – and all the people of Jerusalem – the wealthier, city folk – went out to him.” Obviously John was a remarkable preacher. He appealed to a large section of the population – enough so that many of them walked for miles to be touched by his ministry.

It is also interesting that John’s preaching centered on a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Scholars tell us that this was highly unusual for Jews. Jews believed that only Gentile converts to Judaism needed to be baptized.

According to the customs of the day, these Gentile converts had to do 3 things. First – if the convert was a male, he had to be circumcised. This was the defining mark of a Jew. Second – a sacrifice had to be offered as a payment for sin. Third – the convert had to be baptized. This was literally a full bath in which the whole body was bathed. This ritual symbolized cleansing from all the pollution of sin, so that you could start a new relationship with God.

No such ritual was required of Jews however. Still, people – mostly Jews – poured out from Jerusalem and the surrounding territory to be baptized by John, responding to John’s call to repent, literally, to change your direction.

Amazing, when you consider that none of us really wants to admit that there are some things we should change about the way we are living. It takes a lot for people to acknowledge their need for repentance – but John was able to do it.

There is a pastor named John Mathison who tells a story about a Middle School principal who was having trouble with the girls in his school putting lipstick prints on the mirror of the girl’s bathroom, as they experimented with make-up and such. The janitorial staff was spending an inordinate amount of time cleaning all the mirrors.

So the Principal called on Mrs. Miller, the head custodian, to demonstrate to the girls how she cleaned up the prints. The Principal invited as many of the girls as could fit into the bathroom and turned to Mrs. Miller. Mrs. Miller grabbed large sponge, dipped it into the toilet, and proceeded to wipe the lipstick prints off the mirrors.

After that, amazingly, no more lipstick prints appeared on the mirrors.(1) All the girls changed their way of living, at least when it came to their make-up habits. I guess that’s one way to bring about repentance. But for John – it was his preaching that made an entire region of people aware of their need for repentance and baptism.

Maybe people came at first out of curiosity. John the Baptist was a pretty interesting character for many reasons, not the least of which was his appearance and lifestyle. Mark tells us he wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. His was a Spartan existence out in the wilderness, but he certainly had an appeal for those seeking spiritual assurance.

John’s ministry was also interesting because of his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, I’m not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John’s ministry was designed to help people prepare spiritually for the coming of Christ. If you think about it, that is what we still do in baptism. When parents present their children for baptism, they are preparing them for a lifetime of spiritual growth – it’s not a one and done kind of deal. It’s not the end of the process – it is a beginning, a first step in the life -long learning process that is discipleship.

People come for baptism for a variety of reasons, whether it is as a child or as an adult. For some, it is a tradition, a way of fitting in with the community. They believe that church membership is important and baptism is like the initiation rite.

In his book The Death of the Banker, author Ron Chernow tells about the sociologist Max Weber who once saw a banker being baptized in a cold stream in the South. When Mr. Weber asked what was happening, he was told that the banker was being baptized so that the people of the town would trust him and so do business with him.(2)

Well, that’s not the best reason to get baptized, but people do it for lots of different reasons. Some regard baptism as a form of spiritual insurance against the fires of hell. I hope it works for them, but that’s not really how I understand it. The best reason for being baptized is to welcome Christ into your life and to commit yourself to following him.

That is why repentance is the first step of baptism. How can you open your heart to the love of Christ if you are still holding on to destructive emotions and practices? How can you follow Christ and live your life with no regard to the effect you are having on others?

There was once a seven year old girl who told her parents that she needed to talk to their minister, Dr. Steve. They asked he why – and all she would say was “something is wrong, I need to talk to Dr. Steve.” Everyday she said, “I have to talk to Dr. Steve.”

Finally her parents brought her to church to see Dr. Steve and the girl poured out her concerns. “My brain is broken,” she said. “You know that thing in your head that keeps your thoughts from coming out your mouth? Well it doesn’t work for me. Whenever I think something bad, I just say it. Then I feel bad because I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. I think my brain is broken.”

And later, Dr. Steve concluded, “Maybe we all have broken brains.”(3)

Who hasn’t said something that they later regretted. Who hasn’t done something that they looked back on and thought “Boy, I wish I could go back in time and un-do that.”

That’s repentance – God’s gift to go back spiritually and un-do our sins and our faults and our shortcomings.

The comedian Steve Allen once joked, “I am loyal to a fault. I’ve got a great many faults and I’m loyal to every one of them.”(4)

He could be describing any one of us – most of us are stubbornly loyal to our faults. It’s tough to change sinful behavior. It’s easier to just apologize for it, make excuses or blame someone else for our faults. It’s much harder to actually make a change. It’s much harder to admit that we need repentance.

Frederica Matthewes-Green points out that: “The first time Jesus appears, in the first gospel – here in Mark – the first instruction he gives is “Repent”. From then on, it’s a consistent message, at all times, in every situation – “Repent”. Not just the scribes, not just the Pharisees and not just the powerful, but the poor and oppressed as well. Repent. Repentance is the key to eternal life.

But talk of repentance makes modern day Christians nervous. We get embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering our sin, making people feel guilty. Jesus isn’t really like that, we say. He came out of love. He wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our pain – his healing love sets us free. And all of that is true – as far as it goes.

But this is one of those truths that runs out of gas halfway home. The question is, “What do we need to be healed of?”

Subjectively – we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is one of loneliness and unease.

Objectively – our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile just isn’t enough.

Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home.”(5)

Repentance isn’t something that we do for God. Repentance is something God does for us. Our repentance does nothing to enhance God’s being. Repentance and baptism is entirely for our benefit. It is God’s gift of a spiritual do-over. Repentance is the first step in the process of faithful living.

I’m sure many of you are aware that the Winter Olympics begin Feb. 8th. In our household, we’ve been preparing ourselves by watching the Olympic channel and getting back in touch with all those sports we only watch every four years. We’ve been watching athletes qualify in curling, Nordic combined and short track speed-skating. Not long ago, while we were watching the speed-skating, Gold Medalist Apollo Ohno was commenting on one of the athletes that was trying to make her third or fourth Olympic Team, and she was coming back from some pretty major injuries, and Ohno was asked – “What motivates these skaters to keep going into their 30’s? There is not much financial reward and it takes such a toll on your body. What keeps bringing them back?”

And Ohno said, “You’ve got to be in love with the process. Races are fun, winning is great, it’s unbelievable to stand on the podium and hear the anthem played – but to keep coming back, you’ve got to be in love with the process. You’ve got to love the work-outs and the training and the pre-dawn ice time. If you don’t love that, you’ll never last.”

You’ve got to be in love with the process.

That is how we are to live as Christians as well. We need to be in love with the process of Christian living, not simply looking to the end result, eternal life. We must be in love with the process of acknowledging we are imperfect, that we are in need of repentance, of coming back to God, changing our ways and trying again the next day. We need to be in love with the process of trying to live more like Jesus every day. That is the process. Admit our shortcomings, celebrate God’s grace and forgiveness, and do better tomorrow.

So on this first Sunday of the new year, one that combines the light of Christ coming in to the world with the example of Christ demonstrating the need for repentance, let us gather around the table and take the first step of falling love with the process of Christian living. Let us repent, celebrate God’s gift of grace, and try again to live in the image of Christ.

May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIV, No. 1, p11.

2.    Ibid…p11.

3.    Ibid…p11-12.

4.    Ibid…p12.

5.    Homiletics, Vol. 30, No. 1, p17.