Repentance According to the Scriptures: Mark 1:1-8

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Repentance comes on account of suffering, loss, failure, and death. It happens when the promise of forgiveness of sin given in Jesus’ death is proclaimed to us down-and-outers.

The greatest piece of pop music bombast is Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 ode to being bereft, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Its composer, Jim Steinman, called it “a Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion.” I can’t argue with that.

I’ve always thought that while “Total Eclipse” could make for a fun time with friends out for a karaoke night, the song is really a gobbledygook of lines meant to salve adolescent angst that would be better served by Tyler’s previous hit “It’s a Heartache.” Steinman apparently wrote the piece while he was working on a musical theater version of the 1922 German silent vampire film, Nosferatu. With that in mind we can see through a Top-40 glass less dimly. Lyrics like “Once upon a time there was light in my life / But now there’s only love in the dark / Nothing I can say / A total eclipse of the heart” now read like a vampire’s victim finally submitting to her role as a nighttime blood donor. Not only would that literally suck, but it’s also fairly creepy.

It doesn’t increase my appreciation of this 80’s radio opera. Except there’s no rule that says I have to read pop schmaltz according to either its composer’s or its singer’s intentions. What if “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is really the perfect Ash Wednesday anthem of repentance? It’s all about that pre-chorus hook of the background singer Rory Dodd singing “Turn around, Bright Eyes.”

In the overture to his gospel, Mark begins his tale of the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God with a voice crying in the wilderness. Jesus’ shirt-tail relation John is far from both Roman power and the Temple priest’s legalistic pomp. He’s at the edge of the wilderness on the shore of the Jordan river preaching up a storm. Depending on where you’d insert the non-existent punctuation in the Greek, he’s either the “one crying in the wilderness” or he’s “crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3). Whichever way you read it, the Baptizer has met with some success with a word aimed at people whose own lives have turned out to be more wild and wooly than they bargained for.

John proclaims “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Most of the words in that phrase are easily understood. Baptism is about being washed clean. Forgiveness is the erasing of debt. Sins refers to our captive will’s inability to get our religious poop in a group. But repentance is something that we can dig into that could become a word from God that draws into the waters ourselves (even as it allows us to revel in “Total Eclipse”).

The Greek word in Mark 1:4 that’s translated as “repentance” is metanoia. Repentance has so many centuries of sacred interpretation that have been laminated on it that it’s difficult to get past the veneer of law and religion. Better to translate metanoia with its literal meaning: “doing a U-turn.” In “Total Eclipse,” when the background vocalist sings “Turn around, Bright Eyes,” he’s putting before her a new possibility of turning to him as the solution to “love in the dark.” John the Baptist stands with his back to the river and bids the crowds to turn around as well.

The problem with repentance is that it’s invariably regarded as an act of the will. Repentance demands that we gin up our will and decide to make a clean breast of things and now live a more moral, spiritual, ethical, religious, useful, God-pleasing life. But true repentance isn’t a willful work. It’s a response to a beckoning voice: “Turn around. When spoken by the one who also says “Follow me” and “Take up your cross,” his well of affection for sinners makes it irresistible. Jesus’ call fosters in us the realization that “Total Eclipse” voices: “…now I’m only falling apart / There’s nothing I can do / Total eclipse of the heart.” To repent is to turn and say to the calling Lord, “Sorry, I’ve got nothing. If anything’s going to change, you’re going to have to make it happen. I don’t have it in me.”

Such a U-turn comes, John proclaims, with a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” We know about such a Greek grammatical construction from the story of Luther wrestling with “the righteousness of God” in Romans. It’s a genitive clause, indicating possession. This is righteousness that belongs to God. But Luther’s explosive insight was that it can also be read as righteousness that comes as divine gift. Baptisma metanoias, or “baptism of repentance” is such a genitive phrase.

It’s usually read like Luther read Romans, that baptism flows from repentance. That’s how folks in the Anabaptist believer’s baptism tradition see it. Baptism is a seal on prior repentance. But what if we read it instead as repentance that flows out of baptism? We’d have to think about what we’re baptized in. In Romans 6:3, Paul declares that we are baptized into Christ’s death. Repentance, then, comes on account of suffering, loss, failure, and death. It happens when the promise of forgiveness of sin given in Jesus’ death is proclaimed to us down-and-outers. Repentance happens when our hearts are shadowed in the total eclipse of our brokenness and we hear the voice of Jesus: “Turn around, bright eyes. I will give you rest.”

The Lord is about to step into the water to be steeped in the sin of all those who’ve come to the Jordan. He’s not about to be afraid of a powder keg like you.