Sermon Text — Mark 1:1-8
December 7, 2015 — 2nd Sunday in Advent, Series B
There is always something exciting and auspicious about beginnings. Today we baptized John Smith [fictional names], which baptism marks the beginning of–and created–his Christian faith. John himself marks the beginning of the next generation of the Smith and Mueller families. What will John be like when he grows up? We don’t really know, but we have some idea from our experiences.
We have watched other children in this congregation as they were born, were baptized, were held in their mother’s and father’s arms in church, began to walk on their own two feet, began to talk, began to converse intelligently, go to school, develop abilities and talents in reading, writing, speaking, math, science, history, literature, social sciences, foreign language, sports, music, drama, and other fields of endeavor, go off to college or military service, meet a special someone, get a full-time job, get married, and have children. All of this started with simple, infant beginnings, just like John today.
In our Gospel lesson this morning, we also have an infant beginning. In this text, the Evangelist Mark begins the biography of Jesus that we know as “The Gospel of Mark.” We call it that name because of who wrote it. But Mark did not invent this story. He simply reported through writing the true story of Jesus. He reported the events and sayings of Jesus to people who had not personally witnessed them first-hand. Because the apostolic and early church preserved this biography of Jesus, we still have the true and uncorrupted story of Jesus two thousand years later, now into the 21st century.
Mark begins his Gospel with these words in verse one: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Here the magnificent term “gospel” has a different meaning than the one we use for the title of Mark’s book. Jesus did not write Gospels of his own life. He left that task to his apostles and their associates: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The term “gospel” in Mark 1:1 means “a good report.” So we could say that this is “the beginning of the good report of Jesus Christ.”
The New Testament and the Christian church has done a lot with this magnificent term “gospel.” In the Greek of Mark 1:1, the word “gospel” is “euangeliou,” from which we obtain the English words “evangelical” and “evangelism.” This is also part of our name as a congregation. In January 1841, a dozen or so German-American gentlemen met together to establish the “German Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Lamasco and Vicinity.” It wasn’t until 1853 that our name was changed to “Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Congregation of Evansville, Vanderburgh County, Indiana.” So that term “evangelical” is part of our own name and identity, just as much as “Lutheran” is part of our own name and identity.
What does the term “Evangelical” mean in our congregational title? It can be a confusing term, because so many different faiths use it. The term “Evangelical” was first used by German and English reformers of the 16th century to refer to their own theological position, as opposed to the one held by the pope, and later, by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This is the sense in which the founders of our congregation used the term. That means that “Evangelical Lutheran” in our title means a congregation that follows the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation as described in the Lutheran Confessions of the sixteenth century. In this “Evangelical Lutheran” doctrine, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the chief thing.
What is this gospel? This gospel is, first, the good report about Jesus’ work of teaching and healing. Second, it is especially the wonderfully good news that through Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross the sins of all mankind have been paid for. Third, it is especially marvelous–and worthy of eternal praise and thanks to God–that through believing in Jesus and his cross you may obtain the forgiveness of your sins, justification before God’s judgment seat, resurrection on the last day, and life everlasting with God, the angels, and all the saints.
The term “Evangelical” is used in the United States of America in a different way than Lutherans use it. Here in the U.S. “Evangelical” means a person or church whose theology, church practice, and personal piety is derived from the revivals of the “First Great Awakening” (1733ff.). Theologians involved in this revival included Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and Charles and John Wesley. These theologians, and the preachers who followed them, taught that you are not “saved” unless you have an emotional and decisive experience of conversion. This experience of being “saved,” they argued, gives a Christian the certain assurance of their salvation in spite of doubts or contrary experiences. The most popular of these Evangelical preachers in recent times is the Rev. Billy Graham.
Since we are “Evangelicals” in the 16th century sense of that term, and not the more modern one, we have to disagree with American Evangelicals’ distinctive doctrines. The Bible nowhere demands of all Christians an emotional and decisive experience of conversion. It is true that some people had such a conversion, such as the Apostle Paul, but others, such as Timothy were believers since childhood (2 Timothy 1:5-6). Jesus set forth little children who did not have a conversion experience as the paradigm of faith (Matthew 19:13-14). The Bible nowhere says that you can trust in your personal conversion experience for the assurance of your salvation. The Bible teaches us that faith is assurance and that such faith is directed toward the promises of God in the Gospel (Hebrews 11:1-2, 13).
What then is this business of “repentance” that we find in our Gospel lesson this Sunday? “Repentance” as it was preached by John the Baptist and by Jesus simply means “sorrow over my sin.” If you are ashamed of the sins that you commit, then you are repentant over those sins. It is as simple as that. Thus the phrase in verse 4, “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” means that such baptism signifies shame and sorrow over sins, and gives the forgiveness of sins. This is exactly what we Lutherans confess about baptism in the Small Catechism.
I think that most children, and even dogs, are more repentant than most adults I know. If you scold a child for doing something wrong, they will often break into tears. That is a type of repentance. If you get home today at noon, and find that your adult dog has been chewing on the furniture, you know that he will not be proud of that behavior. He will probably hide, or at least cringe, in shame over his sin against his master. So repentance is not a conversion experience, because dogs and children don’t have such experiences.
We have to acknowledge that there are people who have conversion experiences. These are folks who were not Christians, or if they were, they did not believe what we Christians believe, teach, and confess. When they understand the teachings of the Christian faith, they may have a sudden mixture of emotions. They may feel shame over the bad ways that they treated people and neglected the worship of God. They may feel relieved over the promise of everlasting life and may feel comforted by the assurance of God’s love for them as a person and individual. But this does not happen to everyone, and I think is actually very rare.
Most Christians are baptized at an early age and are raised in the Christian faith. The feelings of shame, relief, and comfort found in the suddenly converted are also present in such lifelong Christians in the form of durable attitudes, nurtured by the Word of God and the sacraments over the years. Your religious focus should not be on a conversion experience, but on what God gives and does for you in baptism, in absolution, in the Sacrament of the Altar, and through His Word. This is the Gospel in the truest sense of the word. This is what Jesus came into the world to give to you and the whole world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.