Jesus' Baptism of Repentance

A sermon preached at Episcopal Church of the Ascension on 22 February, 2015 (the First Sunday in Lent).


“Repent.”  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


1.  Why was Jesus baptized?  Seems a funny question at first.  But it is a bit of a puzzle.  If baptism demonstrates repentance for sin, but Jesus never sinned, then Jesus need not have been baptized.  Why, then, does this apparently unnecessary action prompt God to call Jesus his “beloved,” the “Son”  “with whom” he is “well pleased?”[1]  Was it even possible for Jesus to repent?

Our word, “repent,” comes from a Greek word, “metanoia,” which means a change of mind.  Meta means change, and noia, means mind.  Like metamorphosis.  But notice, that with any change of mind, there is a turn away from something, and a turn toward something else.  To repent, then, involves two kinds of turning: first there is the turning away from sin; second, there is the turning toward God.


2.  Jesus had no need to turn away from personal sin, but he knew that the Israelites needed to.  The Israelites, once chosen by God to dwell and to rule in the promised land, had abandoned their covenant with the Lord and sold out to foreigners.  The King was a wicked adulterer, the temple priests were corrupt, the pharisees feigned piety while neglecting the weightier matters of the law.[2]  To those with eyes to see, Israel was a rotten mess, and was in extreme need of repentance, especially if the day of the Lord were near.

And so, to practice the first part of repentance, Jesus took the sin of his people upon himself.  Just as he had taken on frail human flesh, Jesus entered the waters of his people’s destruction, pleading on their behalf, taking their condition upon himself, just as he would on the cross.


3.  But when it came to the second part of repentance, the turning toward God, Jesus repented not only in the place of Israel, but also for himself, in preparation for his ministry on earth.  For Jesus was a man, from the city of Nazareth.  He loved his family, and had probably learned a profession.  But what if Jesus’ mind had been focused on such earthly things?  What if his greatest love was his family, or his work?  Then Jesus would not be able to carry out the work that God had given him to do.[3]  Then Jesus might fall in the time of temptation.  And so it was only by setting his mind firmly upon God that Jesus would have the strength to do God’s will rather than his own.[4]  Only by means of this repentance, this metanoia, this turning to God, would Jesus remain “obedient” to his Father, “even unto death on a cross.”[5]


4.  Today, I would like to argue that this second aspect of repentance, this turning toward God, is as necessary to true repentance as the turning from sin.  In fact, I would like to argue that turning toward God is the most important part of repentance.

I realize that this is a counterintuitive idea.  When we hear the word, “repentance,” we think of making confession, of asking forgiveness, or changing our lives.  We think primarily of the process of identifying and eliminating some sin.

But if repentance stops there, we have a problem, which is this: if we manage to eliminate one sin, we are going to fall into another.


5.  Here’s one way to think about it.  My daughter Elsie has recently been learning to stay seated on her own.  Usually she remains seated for a minute or two, but then kicks a bit with her feet and falls backward.  She does not yet know how to hold her hands behind her to keep from falling.

 A few days ago, while I was watching Elsie, I had to do a few chores, so I thought I would give her a chance to sit and watch me while I worked.  I bunched up a blanket and put it behind her, thinking that the blanket would keep her from falling backward.  And it did.  She did not fall backward.  But when I wasn’t looking, Elsie twisted her leg to the side, lost her balance, and fell forward, onto her face.


6.  Too often, our pattern of repentance is like that.  We repent of one sin only to fall for another.  We take measures to prevent ourselves from falling one way, only to lose our balance and to fall in the other. We fight sloth with pride. We lust in our heads rather than in our eyes.  We work harder to make money we don’t need.  We redirect anger from our sisters to our brothers. We replace one addiction with another.

This is not the kind of repentance that God wants from us.  And, thankfully, this is not the kind of repentance that Jesus practiced as he went to his baptism.  Jesus did not even have any personal sins.  Jesus took on the baptism of repentance by turning toward God, and focusing upon Him.  Jesus’s repentance was characterized by a focus on God rather than a focus on sin.


7.  Now, please understand, I am not saying that anyone should give up on resisting sin.  Resisting sin, and mastering our temptations, is one of the central disciplines of the Christian life.  But I am saying that regret over past sin, and resolve to better keep the law, is not an effective weapon in the battle against sin.  In other words, you cannot guilt yourself to holiness.  No matter how much you reflect upon your own sin, and criticize yourself, and insist to yourself that you ought to be better, and create rules for yourself to try to stop the sin, you will fall again.  And that is because neither regret nor the law has power to attain righteousness in our lives.  Only God has the power to amend our lives and to make us righteous.  “What the law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did, sending his son.”[6]

That is why St. Paul teaches, in his second letter to the Corinthians, that there is a difference between repentance and regret.  Regret comes from a worldly grief that is obsessed with our own guilt.  But repentance leaves our guilt behind and walks into newness of life.  Let me repeat that.  Repentance leaves guilt behind.  Does this sound too good to be true?  I am not making it up.    These are the words of Paul, and I quote “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret.”[7]  When we repent, we “[forget] what lies behind and [strain] forward to what lies ahead…for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”[8]


8.  Instead of regret and new assertions of the law, we are meant to turn away from sin and turn toward God.  And it is in that new place, where we focus upon God, that we will find the power to better resist sin.  Consider Jesus.  Immediately after taking the baptism of repentance, Jesus was sent to the wilderness.  There, with his focus upon God, he had the power to resist the temptations of the Devil.   

In going to the wilderness, Jesus repeats the story of Israel.  Just as the Israelites had been delivered from Egypt through the water of the Red Sea, and then wandered through the wilderness for forty years, so Jesus is delivered through the waters of baptism, and taken to the wilderness for forty days.[9]  But where the Israelites turned away from God in the wilderness, giving in to temptation and worshipping a golden calf, Jesus resists temptation and is obedient to his Father in heaven.


9.  And that is why Jesus can say, in the first recorded words of his ministry.  “The time is come, and the kingdom of God is at hand.”[10]  The Father is restoring the nation of Israel in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.  The Son has accepted the baptism of repentance, turning from the sins of his people and turning his own mind toward his Father.  Working as one, the Father and the Son have come to deliver God’s people.

Will the people take notice?  “Repent,” Jesus cries out, for all who have ears to hear.  “Repent, and believe in the good news.”[11]


[1] Mark 1:10

[2] Mark 6:17-18; Mark 11:15-19; Matthew 23:23

[3] Mark 3:31-35

[4] Mark 14:36

[5] Philippians 2:8

[6] Romans 8:3

[7] 2 Cor 7:9-10

[8] Philippians 3:13-14

[9] Mark 1:12-13

[10] Mark 1:15

[11] Mark 1:15