December 6, 2020, Do You Want to Keep It?, Mark 1:1-8 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Forty-six years ago last spring I had the exciting and terrifying experience of discovering that I was pregnant for the very first time. I was pretty young at the time; we’d been married for less than a year, and it was a bit of a surprise – the first of many surprises, as it turned out. But at the time, we had other plans for our lives, beginning with me studying art at the university while Carroll finished his degree in Math. We wanted to start a family, but that was a few years down the road. We thought.
We lived in downtown St. Louis at the time, and being “impoverished students” we went to the neighborhood clinic to get a pregnancy test. This was the olden days, before home pregnancy tests were commonly available at the drugstore. But it only took a few minutes before the nurse came back with the results of my test. And the first thing she asked me, after she told us that I was indeed expecting a baby, was this: “Do you want to keep it?”
At the time, I was really shocked by the question. There was never the slightest doubt in our minds that if there was a baby coming, they would be entirely wanted and loved from the very moment we knew about them. But of course, our reaction came from two healthy people, who were in a stable marriage, loved and supported by both sets of parents who were still alive at the time, active members of a caring and faithful church. We had the small-but-steady income of Carroll’s graduate stipend and my part-time job at a restaurant, an apartment of our own, adequate food and clothing. We had everything we really needed. A baby was a surprise. A baby threw a wrench into our carefully-laid plans. But we had absolutely no reason to fear that we couldn’t care for a baby. There was never any question in our minds whether we would be able to feed her or keep her warm or get medical care when she needed it.
But the truth is, that is not the case for every woman who finds out she’s expecting a baby. The reason the nurse at the clinic asked me that question is that, for many women who came through those doors, the discovery that she was pregnant was earth-shattering. There were women who came in to that clinic, and many other clinics just like it all over the country, who faced rejection or violence at home if they found they were expecting a baby. There were women who already had barely enough income to make it from day to day. There were women who came in who were alone, with no family support, no church community, no one they could depend on to help them raise a child. For all these women, the coming of a child posed an enormous question. “Did they want to keep it? Was there any way they could keep this child?” It was a serious question. Because for many women, saying “Yes” would mean choosing a whole new direction for their lives, taking an enormous risk. It would mean turning their backs on everything that seemed familiar and safe, even if it wasn’t terribly good, and choosing the unknown. I think it is important to say that I would never condemn those women who chose to say “No” to that choice.
But the real reason I bring up this memory today is that this whole question of accepting the coming of something unknown, some One unknown – the question of making a choice that will change a person’s life forever, that is what John is offering in his baptism of repentance. The meaning of the English word, “repentance,” means to change course, to turn from the one direction you are going, and choose to go the opposite way. And the Greek word, the word Mark originally used here, is metanoia, which means to change the way we think – what Paul calls being transformed by the renewing of our minds. John came to announce the coming of someone who would call us to turn our backs to everything we thought we knew, and who would cause us to think about and see the world in a whole new way. Coming out into the wilderness to be baptized by John meant facing the unknown with all its earth-shattering changes. To become a disciple is to take a great risk.
The problem we sometimes have with understanding what John was doing out in the wilderness is that too often we’ve loaded the words “repentance” and “sins” with such a heavy burden of guilt and shame and fear. But Mark tells us right off the bat, verse one, that what we are about to read is good news, not terrifying news. There was something about that wild man preaching out in the desert that sounded good, so that he attracted people from all over, from the Judean countryside to the streets of Jerusalem. If they wanted to hear John they had to leave behind what was safe and familiar and comfortable – and they did. Clearly, John was pointing the way toward something they needed and wanted, a change of direction, a new way of seeing and thinking. And they needed and wanted it desperately enough to head out into the wilderness to find it.
Because just like the news of a pregnancy test, John’s good news came with a choice. “Do you want it?” “Are you willing to change and be changed?” When Isaiah talked about mountains and hills being leveled and valleys being filled in, he wasn’t talking about roadwork or landscaping. He was talking about transforming the landscapes of people’s hearts. He was talking about humbling the proud and raising up the oppressed. He was talking about breaking down the barriers that separate us from each other, and more important, the barriers that separate us from God. Comfort, comfort my people, God says through Isaiah, Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term. Tell her that her debt is all paid off.
Most important of all, though, is that John’s good news wasn’t about himself at all. John was just the messenger, like the nurse that gave us our good news about Emily all those years ago. I don’t really remember anything about that nurse at all, except for the one question she asked us. But Emily has changed my life, beginning on that very day and now, forty-six years later I can say all the more surely that my life would be very different, so much less, if she were not my daughter.
John’s whole mission was to point people towards someone who was so much greater than himself, that he says that he, John, wasn’t even good enough, wasn’t worthy enough, to bend down and tie his shoelace.
Each of the four evangelists takes a different approach to telling the story of Jesus Christ. Matthew opens his gospel with his birth, and Luke with the birth of John the Baptist. John’s gospel opens with the Son of God, present with the Father from before the creation of the worlds. But Mark opens his gospel with the urgent voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare a way for the Lord; make his paths straight.” This, Mark says to us, this is the beginning of the good news.
John’s proclamation of the good news calls for a response, a choice. Do we willingly receive the one who is coming to us? Do we willingly repent, letting go of those things in our lives that are familiar and safe, and saying “yes” to new ways of seeing and being? Do we say “yes” to earth-shattering transformation in the absolute deepest parts of our hearts and minds, “yes” to the breaking down of every barrier that separates us from God? Will we let go of our well-laid plans; will we take the risk of discipleship, and let the Spirit of Christ grow in us?
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.