Editor’s note: This column is the third part of a four-part Advent series from the Gospel of Mark on waiting, hearing, repenting and believing. Read part one here and part two here.
In following the Gospel of Mark’s opening, what I have called Mark’s Advent story, I have suggested that the story calls us to wait on God and listen for God — two disciplines we ought to practice during the season of Advent.
But after a time of waiting, however long it might be, and after listening for God through the multiple and diverse ways God may speak, we are confronted with the choice of either ignoring or acting.
If we ignore the messenger and message of God, then we cannot fully embrace the gospel of God.
To enter God’s rule means that we must act in response to both the messenger and message of God. Such actions are defined by two simple, but interrelated terms: repent and believe.
Much like the term sin, the idea of repentance is often pushed aside as unnecessary.
Because we are told we should never admit that we have failed, often intentionally and horribly, there seems to be no need to admit our sin, and thus we believe that there is no need for the successive action of repenting from our sin.
But this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel’s message.
Indeed, at the very heart of the gospel are the idea, the command and the action of repenting.
In fact, a careful reading of Mark’s prologue shows that the call to repent is there from the beginning.
God’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” spoken through the prophet, are a declaration from Isaiah 40 that God will come to God’s people and the people must respond by preparing their lives for the visitation of God.
Such preparation involves recognizing that we are finite humans who are in need of the love and grace of God.
This recognition is indicated through the act of turning from our self-serving lives and turning to God and to others in service and love.
Mark follows this declaration with the introduction of God’s messenger, John, who preaches a baptism of repentance and to whom throngs of people come to confess their sins and be baptized in preparation for God’s coming.
But John is only the forerunner to the one who comes in the authority of God, the one who is proclaimed as the Beloved Son by God.
In the coming of Jesus, we see again that at the core of the gospel is the idea of repentance. Jesus declares, “The rule of God is near. Repent and believe in the gospel.”
Thus, at the heart of Israel’s ancient prophet’s preaching, the proclamation by the one sent as the messenger of God, and Jesus’ announcement that God’s rule was near, is a call to repent.
But two important questions come to mind regarding the idea of repentance. From what should we repent, and what does it mean to repent?
Perhaps it is best to take the second question first.
We can find assistance in answering this question by looking at the Greek word behind this English rendering to garner a definition of the word repent.
Simply put, the word means to turn around or to change one’s mind. But this dictionary meaning does not help us much.
We often think of repenting as telling God that we are sorry we committed this or that sinful act and we will never do it again.
Yet, what we find is that we do those things again and again no matter how serious we are in our repentance. But is repentance simply a turning away from our private and favorite sins?
While we should continue to repent of those individual habits that afflict us, the idea and practice of repentance is much bigger.
Repentance is when we allow our lives to be bent continually away from our self-interests and toward the will and purposes of God, particularly as they relate to our intentions and actions toward others.
It is not a magical formula we use to get in right relationship with God; it is a yielding of our lives to the will and purposes of God and God’s just rule on earth.
And this helps us answer our first question: From what should we repent?
We are to repent from our sinful lives of selfish living in which we have failed to love our neighbors and our enemies, failed to practice justice and mercy, and failed to side with the weak and vulnerable.
We are to repent from our neglect to protect the most defenseless of our society, whether a child in poverty, a homeless adult who hungers, a person facing loneliness and depression, or a school full of innocent children who are gunned down.
We are to repent from allowing our politics to become divisive, from allowing our culture to have a love affair with violence, from allowing an ever intensifying disregard for human life, and from allowing bigotry, racism, religious intolerance, sexism and homophobia to continue to exist.
But more than repenting from these evils and many more, we are also to repent and turn toward the rule of God.
In doing so, we embrace a new life of love, justice, compassion and mercy toward everyone. This is the heart of the gospel and the hope of Advent and Christmas.
For Christians, the season of Advent is a time when we are once again reminded of the coming of God in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
In our celebration of this coming, we relive the story of God’s visitation with God’s people by preparing the way of the Lord in our own lives by repenting of our self-serving actions that neglect the needs of others, disrespect the humanity of others, and wound the heart of God, and by turning toward the rule of God.