I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
Over the years I have watched a number of relationships dissolve. Sometimes they break apart suddenly but more typically they dissolve over time. In those cases the blame is usually shared, though not always admitted, and the reason for the dissolution seems to go under the heading of sloth. Sloth is more than laziness. It’s more like becoming slowly paralyzed where the solution seems so difficult that it’s impossible to tackle. So nothing is done and the distance grows wider and wider between the couple until there’s just not much there to work with: no fondness, no respect, no desire to state one’s needs and listen to the needs of the other. It’s a giving up of sorts, either consciously or unconsciously. Inertia sets in and that’s a tough thing to fight because there’s nothing to fight it with.
Many more times over those same years I have watched relationships be repaired and renewed. In those cases, the hurt and disappointment that the couple has experienced gets faced somehow and dealt with. Though not usually a neat and rational process, some mutual responsibility is taken for the situation that has arisen. Usually one member of the couple has the courage to step up and say, I want more with you than what I am experiencing. That’s a scary thing to say. And it’s a scary thing to hear. But when relationships are repaired and renewed that usually has to happen. And usually what one finds when such an honest interest is expressed is that the other person wants more too. True renewal in relationships involves that mutual desire for something better, which also assumes that the relationship is in some disrepair or that there is something lacking, something that used to be there that has been lost or something hoped for that hasn’t quite been realized yet.
Another thing that seems to happen when relationships are repaired and renewed is that someone steps forward and says, I’m sorry. Some apologies are less genuine than others but even a shallow apology has a way of deepening. Once I admit I am sorry for something, even if I just begin by being sorry that we are in this mess, my heart begins to soften and expand and I begin to see the things that are within my control to change, things I have done and left undone which have caused harm. When I hear someone else apologize my heart softens and expands in a different way as I realize what it represents for someone else to be willing to take even a little responsibility for the pain we have experienced together. Then I more easily can see my part. If someone is willing to turn around and look at me and say, I’m sorry, I suddenly am willing to move toward that person even if I’ve been frozen apart from them for a long time.
When relationships find a way to be repaired and renewed something more is desired and apologies are offered. Then the way is opened for a new atmosphere to develop. If you’ve been there, you will attest that while you have asked for more and offered an apology, the matter of repair and renewal seems to come about on its own. We do our necessary work but the end result is much greater than the sum of the parts of our work. It doesn’t add up but repair and renewal come and, when we are fortunate enough to experience that, we are amazed at the spirit which brought about the healing and the new spirit that exists between us.
Isaiah, and all the prophets, were the ones in the broken relationship between God and his people who said, We want more in our relationship with God. Something is missing. We have strayed and become paralyzed. We have lost something. Isaiah did his prophesying, his standing up and asking for more from the people, as neighboring countries were building up into world powers, as the nation of Israel was waning in its trust in God. His warnings, for a long time, go unheeded, and what he hoped the nation would avoid actually comes about. The mighty Babylonians capture Israel and carry them off into exile. But there, in the midst of the pain of the exile, realizing how cut off they are from all that they love, the people of Israel come to want more. They begin to take responsibility for their actions and they come to offer their apologies for what they have done and left undone. It takes a while but a spirit of repair and renewal comes about. The 40th chapter of Isaiah is a brand new section of that book which now focuses on the new spirit which has been realized. There is comfort, there is hope, there is restoration and renewal and repair.
John the Baptist, hundreds of years later, emerges as that era’s Isaiah, as a prophet who stands up and says there must be more. He tells the people to repent, to turn around and admit what they have done and left undone in their lives, to take some responsibility for actions and lack of action. And the people respond. They come forward to be baptized, they participate in John’s liturgy of apology and repentance. They turn around and become willing to look for something more in life.
As John says, I have baptized you with water; but someone else will baptize you with the Holy Spirit, he proclaims the great spirit of hope that is about to burst forth and repair and renew. That’s where Mark’s gospel begins, not with a long genealogy proving Jesus’ lineage, not with a story about how Jesus was born, but with a prophet standing up and saying, I want more, and the people saying, We are sorry. Mark’s gospel begins with the brokenness of the relationship between God and his people and with the promise that repair and renewal is coming.
I want more. I’m sorry. I am willing to be changed. I am eager for things to be all that they can be between us. Those are Advent statements. It can be scary to be in the place of needing to say those things because it takes us honestly admitting that there is something missing, something that we are willing to address but something we really cannot solve all by ourselves. It’s scary when two members of a relationship do that and it’s scary when we do that with the Almighty God himself. But when we admit we want and need more, when we offer even the slimmest of apologies, our hearts soften and expand, a brand new Spirit emerges to carry us into all that we can ever hope for, and we see light where before we only saw darkness.
John the Baptist doesn’t come grimly to rub our noses in our sinfulness. Notice the great sense of excitement in what he says: I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. He comes to say that we are about to experience that more of life that we so deeply desire, if only we want more. Christ is near, John the Baptist proclaims. All we have to do is turn around. Repentance isn’t wallowing in what I have done wrong, it isn’t even changing and becoming a better person. It is simply turning around and saying we want more. That spirit allows for miraculous healing here on earth. And that spirit allows God to bring us into everything we have ever hoped for. The birth of Christ, the Second Coming of Christ, the continual and unceasing coming of Christ, is the promise and the evidence of God’s great love for this world.