The movement of the Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent comes in three parts: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance. With his signature economy of words, Mark spares the details. In only seven verses he describes these inaugural events in Jesus’ ministry (as an exercise in careful biblical reading, take a few minutes to read through all four gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism and notice how little Mark tells us). His rapid-fire approach draws attention away from the details of the individual events themselves and brings into focus the movement between them: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance.
This is the movement of our life in Christ, too. It begins with our baptism into Christ. This baptism is followed immediately and continuously by temptation. We are not as resilient as Jesus, which is why the movement in the text takes a slightly different turn for us. Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.
Thus Lent. This forty-day season of preparation for Easter is an opportunity for the people of God to rededicate themselves to hearing and responding to Jesus’ call to repent. This rededication begins with you, the preacher, who is called both to repent and to proclaim repentance. This means the movement of the text, which is the movement of the life of all Christians, it also the movement of your life: Baptism, temptation, and the practice of repenting.
Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.
But what does that movement look like? What does this look like in your life? What does it look like in the lives of your hearers?
For you, and for most of your hearers, baptism has already taken place. They have already been united with Christ in His death and resurrection through the promise in the water. They are members of His body, part of the family, participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Himself. Coming out of the water, they find themselves in another kind of wilderness. The Devil still prowls, but the wild animals are of a different sort.
Living a life of repentance in today’s wildernesses involves more than acknowledging temporary feelings of guilt. It is more than a regular participation in a transaction to clean the slate. Our worship services identify repentance and forgiveness (confession and absolution) as one element in the liturgy, but Christians know that the entire life of a follower of Jesus is a life of turning. Luther’s first thesis comes to mind: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
This suggests you might want to dedicate a sermon on this text, especially at this time in the church year, to the topic of repentance. You have a number of tools at your disposal to help you put it together. Lutherans will naturally turn to the Apology of the Augsburg Confession. Article twelve, which is the longest after article four on justification, is worth rereading. It reminds us that repentance is comprised of two things: Sorrow over sin and faith in the promises of Christ. The works which follow repentance, the fruit of faith, are not, strictly speaking, part of repentance itself. But they always follow.
The works which follow repentance, the fruit of faith, are not, strictly speaking, part of repentance itself. But they always follow.
You might want to contemplate this thoughtful consideration of how our culture has responded to the strange persistence of guilt. This summary of the same article is also a good place to start. But these are background resources. They can help you understand repentance from a biblical perspective, as well as the current stance of western culture toward guilt, but a sermon still needs to be composed. As you think about moving toward a sermon on repentance, here are a few thoughts about what it might look like:
First, it should reflect (and as best as you can, elicit) sorrow over sin. But do not just tell people to be sorry. Embody the sorrow. Be explicit about the grief you experience because of sin. You might reflect on the grief you experience over your own sin, or the destructive impact of sin in the lives of others.
Second, proclaim the promises of God in Christ to which faith clings. This must dominate the sermon, for the promise is what makes repentance (and your sermon) Christian. There are a number of ways to proclaim this promise. Announcing forgiveness is one way. Another is to proclaim the coming of the day when sorrow for sin will be no more. Or you might proclaim the victory over all that grieves us in the resurrection of Jesus.
Third, lead people to a fruitful life in the Spirit. Point them in directions for what happens in the light of repentance and forgiveness. Call them to put their repentance into action by offering some concrete images of the new, communal, sacrificial life of the baptized.
*Please note that your sermon does not need to follow these three ideas as if this were an outline. That would be one way to organize the sermon, but it is not the only way.
If you are looking for an example of what this might look like, I will point you to this sermon I preached on Ash Wednesday a few years ago. You might also watch the interview (lower on the page at the same link) discussing the sermon. This particular sermon was not based on our reading from Mark 1. Instead, it is an example of a topical sermon which tries to directly address some confusion about what it means to be a repentant believer in Jesus.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 1:9-15.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 1:9-15.
Lectionary Podcast- Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 1:9-15.