2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:1-8 Part 2

A woman in her fifties comes for counseling. She struggles with guilt over a secret abortion fifteen years earlier. She does not wonder about whether abortion is right or wrong; She believes it is wrong. Her burden of guilt is tremendous: she cannot right the wrong; she cannot claim that she did not know what she was doing; worst of all, she knows in her heart that if she were in the same situation she would do the same wrong thing again, not out of conviction but out of a sense of shame and weakness.

Mark's gospel opens with the messenger preparing the way, calling for repentance as a means to forgiveness—all this in a baptism that only prefigures the grand and glorious baptism which is to come. This passage offers us the opportunity to challenge presuppositions of innocence, to withdraw from accusations of guilt, and to offer the warm and comforting word of acceptance through participation in the reconciling baptism Christ offers.

The distinction which this passage highlights between John's baptism and Christ's is paralleled by the different quality of forgiveness—or relationship to forgiveness—that each offers. Paul Hessert offers a perceptive analysis of this difference, pointing to the way in which religion operates within culture while faith—and God—break through culture. Religion may challenge a specific aspect of culture but validates culture (and culture's beliefs) as a whole. Faith is a challenge to culture, especially to culture's pretense and promise that it offers us all that we need if we but follow its precepts and prescriptions. This is idolatry, and faith's challenge to cultural idolatry causes offense.

John's baptism occurs within culture, calling persons to repent as a condition for forgiveness. This mirrors popular understandings of guilt and forgiveness—then and now. Culture is heavily invested in the notion of guilt: Identifying the innocent and the guilty, keeping track of relative amounts of guilt, assigning guilt when cultural systems fail or expectations are disappointed. Culture blames the individual rather than risk acknowledgement that culture itself is structurally flawed. In popular understandings, forgiveness is achieved in one of two ways: Either by earning it, or by proving a secondary kind of innocence.

Earning forgiveness involves either undoing whatever damage has been done or accepting some public punishment. Punishment may include not only such obvious things as imprisonment or fines; sometimes humiliating acts of confession or contrition will suffice. Proving secondary innocence involves showing that one isn't really guilty, even though one did the deed. Secondary innocence involves the claim that one did not mean to do what one did, or that one could not help oneself, or that one did not realize the consequences. Whether through earning forgiveness or through proving secondary innocence, the resulting "forgiveness" is what Frederick Buechner calls "fair warning": We'll let you off this time, but don't let it happen again.

John's baptism offers a way to earn forgiveness through repentance. It is the best an enlightened culture has to offer: A means to clean one's slate, to start over. People accepted this baptism gratefully then, and still do. Certainly it is an improvement over the status quo, in which guilt accumulates in irreversible increments. This baptism operates safely within cultural parameters of power and meaning; the baptized and forgiven person does not challenge culture but rather is reconciled to it, having been given an opportunity for a fresh start.

Much parish preaching and counseling (and practically all public-domain psychotherapy) promotes this view of innocence and guilt. A person who accepts the label "guilty" is encouraged to repair the damage or accept the punishment for its cleansing effects; a person who denies that label is either challenged to face the facts or else encouraged to develop arguments for secondary innocence. This popular understanding of guilt and forgiveness offers no relief to many people who, like the woman described above, can neither undo the damage, withstand the punishment, nor prove secondary innocence. When they turn to the church or to the resources of the mental health community, often they only find their despair reinforced by inadequate palliatives or impossible prescriptions.

The baptism of the Holy Spirit suggests a different—and more subversive—kind of repentance and forgiveness. Operating by the faith which breaks through culture, this repentance goes beyond an accounting of specific thoughts and deeds. Instead, this repentance surrenders all claims to participation in the innocence-guilt "game." As Jesus did not try to prove his innocence at his trial, so this baptism leads us to relinquish all attempts at proving ourselves innocent and others guilty. This relinquishment is frightening, as we lose the (false) security of our social status and identity which innocence provides. It is liberating, however, in that culture loses its power to mold and shape us according to its definitions of innocence and its threats regarding guilt. In this relinquishment we move from forgiveness to reconciliation, from being servants to being heirs.

The resulting transformation has profound implications for human relationships. While it threatens our insecurities to consider letting go of the trappings of innocence and status, it is life-transforming to take the leap of faith toward a God whose love reaches deep within us—past our cultural identities—to hold our souls in everlasting arms. The woman described above was blessed over time to undergo this healing experience: She came to feel loved, and loved not just in what made her beautiful but also loved at the very point where she felt beyond love. As a result, she did not return to innocence but rather lost the need to keep track of where she (and others) stood in the game.

So much of our energy is expended maintaining or improving our standing in culture; the baptism of the Holy Spirit shows us the futility of those endeavors and offers us a quality of life and relationship that doesn't so much extend life as enter and transform death (cf. Paul's formulation that we are "baptized into Christ's death"). As we relinquish cultural claims of innocence and burdens of guilt, instead relating to one another out of the experience of profound acceptance that comes through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, an accepting community develops that is truly Christ's body.

Gregory A. Hinkle Elkhart, IN