Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sunday 1 March 2009 - New Birth, Learning, Repentance

This sermon is based on Mark 1:9-15


There is an interesting phenomenon happening on the internet these days. A number of websites have sprung up where people can make confessions anonymously.

As you can imagine, many of these confessions are not suitable for repetition in church and some of them are downright shocking or, if not shocking, then upsetting.

Some are poignant: ‘I've loved her since she first told me that true love didn't exist.’

And a number go straight to the darker side of the human condition.
...‘I drive drunk at least once a week; I’m getting very good at it.’
...‘I know someone who has been around forever, is well liked by everyone and who is not who they say they are.’
...‘I get jealous when attention is paid to other people but I do my best to repress it.’

I only just learned about these websites about a fortnight ago. But if you do an internet search for ‘anonymous confessions’, you will have quite a selection of websites to choose from. There is even a website called ‘Anonymous Australian Confessions’. (It makes me wonder why Australians need a special kind of confessing?)

But what each of these websites claims to provide is a place to safely get things off your chest. Some of these websites even give assurances that they have disabled the usual ways that anonymous internet comments can be identified.

Confessing our sins and our misdeeds seems to be an act that is rooted deep in the human psyche. Most of us seem to need to get our misdeeds off our chest in some form or another and, if we can’t actually confess to the person whom we have wronged, then an anonymous confession on the internet is the next best thing.

Or is it? Perhaps that’s the question.

What I found interesting in reading some of these confessions is that there was often no desire expressed to stop the activity being confessed. And, fairly frequently, a number of people expressed the idea that they wish they could stop but they can’t so there really isn’t any point in trying.

You won’t be surprised, either, that a number of people didn’t seem to be ‘confessing’ as much as they appeared to be ‘boasting’. Perhaps they had a small idea in the back of their mind that what they were up to was a behaviour that should be stopped, but somehow they seemed to be seeking an anonymous kind of approval or admiration on the internet.

Lent is the time for self-examination and repentance and – intentionally or unintentionally – today’s Gospel reading sets out a useful example for what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Today’s Gospel reading contains three ‘movements’, if you will:
1) New Birth in the form of baptism;
2) challenge and learning in the form of the trial in the desert; and 3) Jesus’ call to repentance.

New Birth / Baptism

In the first cameo in today’s Gospel, Jesus is baptised.

Baptism is the sacrament of what John Wesley called the New Birth. The commonly-used phrase ‘born again’ probably arose from John Wesley’s use of the term ‘New Birth’ which is closely related to his concept of ‘New Creation’.

The process of salvation for individuals is expressed in the term ‘New Birth’. And the process of salvation for all of creation is expressed in the term ‘New Creation’

To be born again is to stop seeing reality from the commonly-accepted perspective of our society and culture, but rather to see reality from God’s perspective. From God’s perspective, driving drunk isn’t so much a character flaw or quirk as it is a sin that puts his beloved creatures in danger – both the drunk driver and others who he or she might hurt. From God’s perspective, mismanaging a company or an economy from wreckless greed and putting thousands of people out of work isn’t simply bad luck and ‘the way things are’ – it is also a manifestation of sin.

To be born again is to recognise both our individual sins and our sinful condition and our absolute need for God’s grace. The difference between the person who is born again and some of the anonymous confessors is that the person who is born again recognises that their sinful actions are, indeed, sinful. And it is not just individuals like drunk drivers who need New Birth. It is also systems that wrecklessly create unemployment or systematic Third-World poverty that need the salvation of God’s New Creation.

Learning and Trials

But as anyone who has tried to kick a bad habit is only too aware, understanding that our actions are wrong or sinful doesn’t necessarily make it easy to stop the harmful actions. Just because we are ‘born again’ doesn’t mean that we become automatically holy and that we don’t need to grow and learn.

We all know that it’s not easy for an alcoholic to stop drinking And neither is it easy for us as a society to give up some of our economic addictions – which is why we are now going through recession.

In order to get rid of our bad habits and our sins, we often need to go through a painful process of learning.

To continue with the analogy of alcoholism….Many alcoholics have found that the process of ‘learning’ that Alcoholics Anonymous provides is one that ultimately works.

It is by no means an easy process. It requires members to examine themselves, their motives, their habits and it also requires them to make amends to people whom they have wronged. It urges individuals to call upon a ‘Higher Power’ (God) in times of trial but, importantly, it also provides a human being to rely upon. The member’s sponsor is there for them any time of the day or night and is there for them even when they fall off the wagon.

I sometimes think that this system of learning and support probably works a lot better than the Church where I think that people often feel that church is the last place they can admit their weaknesses to others and find support to learn and grow.

In every Christian life there will be times of trial and testing. Such times can be times of learning for individuals and they can also be occasions for support from Christian friends and from the Church family.

Like the sponsor at Alcoholics Anonymous, the church is at its best when we stand by those who are struggling. We won’t name anyone’s sins as good things, but we won’t abandon each other when we fall off the wagon.

Because each of us knows that, when it comes to sin, we will all fall off the wagon and need the grace of God, especially as it is demonstrated by our brothers and sisters in Christ. And each of us knows that, because of the cross of Christ, God extends this grace to us and gives us strength in the power of the Holy Spirit.


The ultimate goal of our learning, of course, is a change in our behaviour. What John Wesley called a growth in holiness.

Repentance is not just being sorry for our sins. Repentance includes change. The kind of change that needs the power of the Holy Spirit; the kind of change that needs the support of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The kind of change that means that rather than turn our backs towards God, we have our faces turned towards God.

‘Repentance’, of course, is what the season of Lent is all about. And repentance is also this morning’s Good News.

The Good News is that every person is given the opportunity to repent and be born again. The Good News is that, in the power of the Holy Spirit and with the support of our brothers and sisters, we can grow in holiness and the likeness of Christ. The Good News is that when we inevitably make mistakes and fall off the wagon that these mistakes can be used as learning experiences. The Good News is that God is our sponsor and is always patient, always forgiving, always ready to give us a second chance.

As we come to the Lord’s Table, I pray that we may all be aware of the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness for us. Amen