John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)
The Advent season has been as unique for me this year as the year itself has been unique. I live with a sense of darkness hanging over us, a blanketing anxiety, compassion fatigue, and a tiresome frustration. The weight of this year has been a burden for most of us – seeing worldwide suffering, experiencing personal loss and grief, and witnessing the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on so many lives. We are not used to such oppressive forces at work in our day-to-day lives. We join the desperate plea of our Old Testament forebears, "How long, O Lord, how long?"
Many times, when we are in the deepest darkness, when we are facing the greatest challenges, when we feel most lost and disoriented, it is easy to lose focus on those aspects of our faith that keep us anchored and secure. We turn away from the things that ground us and center us, that strengthen us and renew us, acting much like Peter excitedly desiring to walk on the water, but ending up sinking when fear kicks in. We lose a sense of control and enter a downward spiral emotionally and spiritually.
It is in such a reality that we need to hear again the prophetic words of John the Baptizer, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Our modern interpretation of Mark 1:4 varies greatly with its original meaning. For many of us, "repentance" is about contrition for all our wrongdoing and "sins" are those wrong and evil actions and bad behaviors. While there is merit to this interpretation, the original intention offers a wonderful word of grace to our current lived reality.
For Jewish believers, repentance and sin had significantly and subtly different meanings. Both were tied very closely to obedient faithfulness. To be a faithful Hebrew meant to live in covenantal harmony with God and God’s people. Staying focused on God, participating in the ritual worship, engaging in prayer and fasting, and observing the community rules and boundaries defined the basic goals of God’s people. However, it was easy to stray from these goals, and to allow focus to shift. "Sin" meant to turn from these basic goals and observances; "repentance" meant to turn back to these goals.
For many in this pandemic year, losing the rhythm of weekly worship in our church sanctuaries has been more than distracting. It has been devastating. In our culture, rituals and practices of personal piety have been displaced by attending church. The majority of mainline Christians go to church, but they do not have a covenant community connection to a Sunday school class, a discipleship or fellowship group, or any other connection for spiritual growth and development. Surveys in a variety of denominations indicate that fewer and fewer church people have a regular prayer life, a discipline of reading and reflecting on scripture, a practice of fasting, or a devotional life – individually or with others – at home. If our only faith connection is the worship hour in our local church, what happens when even that is taken away?
Our Advent gift is an invitation; a call to repentance for the ways we have strayed from a healthy spirituality. We can turn back to God by turning back to prayer, to scripture, to fasting, and to devotional time. We can share in these practices with others very easily by phone or video (Facetime, Zoom, Skype, etc.). There is nothing preventing us from being a church, just because we cannot gather once a week for worship. In fact, this call to repentance, to refocus and return to personal and shared spiritual formation, can even be stronger in this pandemic time. Our engagement can happen any day of the week, any time of the day, and with as few or as many people as can connect.
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself," (Mark 12:30-31) can be our guiding light of repentance – giving more time and attention to God, time and attention to strengthening relationships and care for others, and engaging in intentional self-care in body, mind, and spirit. There is no such thing as passive discipleship – we cannot simply wait for worship experiences to be provided for us again – but real and transformative discipleship is an active and intentional engagement in the things that draw us closer to God, to those who need support and care, and that help us become the people God most needs us to be.
Advent is a time of preparing for the blessing and indwelling of the Christ. To repent and return to a full focus on God is the gift we can give God and each other as we await the amazing gift God is sending our way. And it may be the best way we can survive this pandemic together!
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).