The Gospel of Mark begins abruptly with a lion’s roar, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and then a quote from the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Malachi: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” That messenger, for Mark, is John the Baptist, considered by many to be the last of the prophets. John announces the arrival of the Messiah, and calls the people to prepare for the Messiah with repentance, baptism, confession, and forgiveness.
The subject of confession was a subject of interest to those who participated in last fall’s inquirer’s class. Several participants came from the Roman Catholic tradition and remembered private confession as an intimate conversation with a faceless priest in a darkened booth. I’m told that at one time St. Stephen’s had a confessional here in the rear of this church. Although private confession is still available upon request, and our Book of Common Prayer provides two forms of Reconciliation of a Penitent, the most common way Episcopalians practice the sacrament of confession is in public worship and the ministers of the church declaring absolution. Many of us tend to think of confession as especially appropriate as a Lenten discipline, but I wonder if confession isn’t just as appropriate in Advent. As we prepare our hearts for the Lord Jesus to be born in us, confession and forgiveness remove the barriers that obstruct the pathway for encountering the living God.
Confession, which means “to agree with someone else,” involves the open acknowledgement of the truth about our sin – to ourselves, to God, and perhaps to another person. Confession usually names the offensive behavior, recognizes its darkness and brings a disciplined effort to turn away from it. John hears the people’s confessions before the people are immersed in the water. He searches their attitudes and questions their behavior. This verbalizing is the outward show of their repentance, which makes them candidates for baptism. Confession does more than recognize sin; it agrees with God about sin’s seriousness.
Advent is the season of preparation for the coming of the Lord. What might it mean for us to prepare ourselves spiritually? From what old ways might you be called to turn away? What might it mean for you to move in an opposite direction?
This Advent could you name and agree with God about one attitude or behavior that needs to be changed in you? When I hear that question my first reaction is “only one?” I have a long list. But, yes. Only one. Let me start with one.
As the Old Testament prophets, our forebears, called God’s people back to faithfulness to the Torah and to God ’s call to feed those who are experiencing hunger, shelter those who are experiencing homelessness, visit those who are sick or in prison, and bind up the brokenhearted, so as we prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us too face the truth about ourselves and change the direction of our lives.
The Good News of Jesus Christ – perhaps it doesn’t seem like such good news at first hearing because repentance and confession both require a searching and honest look back. But deep in our hearts there is that inescapable yearning for our God who breaks into our time with a message of love and hope.
Come, Lord Jesus, fill our hearts with your presence and joy!