Living without Regrets
1 The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”— 3 “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
I want to live a life without regrets. The type of life that can look honestly back at the decisions that I have made and believe that I made the best choices that I could. But what I often find, and maybe you have discovered this as well, is that as I look back at the decisions I have made, and there are so many twists and turns in the paths that I have walked, so many levels of denial, and explanations that justify my behavior, that the root of my decisions are hidden around the previous bend, or behind that previous hill. The paths of our lives are oftentimes meandering roads with a detour around this obstacle here, or around that roadblock there, enough so that at times, we get ourselves so turned around, that we can forget where it is we are going anyway.
Mark’s Gospel is written to people like you and I, with murky backgrounds and oftentimes uncertain futures, and he is letting us know that there is a much better way. Now last week I introduced you to Mark’s Gospel, and let you know that it was probably written by John Mark, with the Apostle Peter’s assistance. This book is written to a church under stress, a church that has been living under the threat of persecution, during a time when being a Christian could cost you everything. So what this book is all about is the core of the Gospel, what Jesus did, who Jesus was, and what we need to do if we want to follow him to be His disciples.
It begins by describing itself as the beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ. That Word Gospel, that you probably know means Good News, is interesting, because it originally meant the reward that was given to the one who brought good news to a king or ruler. As a result of bringing Good News to the King, you would be given a reward, a Gospel. So in a sense, the Gospel, was really good news to the one proclaiming it. Words develop and change over time now Gospel had a deeper, richer meaning, and is Good news not just for the speaker or the hearer, but for everyone everywhere. Good News is coming. What a relief. Have you ever gotten a phone call and they start it off by saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got really good news for you.” If it’s a telemarketer, you know the next line will be, “You too can own a four room satellite system for no charge…” But if its from your financial planner, the guy or gal who handles your stocks and retirement stuff, “Good news is good news.” If it’s a phone call from your grandson, whose wife has been in labor for the past day, “Good news is good news.” And if you are a persecuted group of people who on really bad days wonders what exactly we are doing this for anyway, “Good news is good news.”
But before the good news can come, our text tells us, there is a time of preparation. On Friday our parking lot was under a few inches of snow, and as I slipped on my way to my car I thought, things need to be done before Sunday morning. Before You and I can worship, the lot needs plowing the steps need shoveling, the ramps need salting, all in preparation for what was to come, and that same type of preparation is necessary before you and I can hear God’s Good News to us this day in Mark’s Gospel. You see, Mark’s Gospel is not interested in the Messiah, that is primarily a Jewish thing, and in Mark’s Gospel, it’s all a big secret, “Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, but keep it under your hat.” Mark is showing a Jesus that is not primarily a Jewish Messiah, but is our savior, our example, and our Lord.
But before you and I can get to that point of being able to follow him, to walk with him, to be his disciples, there is some work that needs to be done first. It used to be that Kindergarten was where we expected our kids to learn their ABC’s and 123’s and shapes and colors and all that. That used to be when school started. Now, before school, we have what. Pre-school… We expect kids to come in knowing their ABC’s and 123’s, or at least being relatively familiar with them. Pre-school is a preparation for the real thing.
Our story for today tells us about the time of preparation that is essential that each of us go through before we follow Jesus. In our story for today, the preparation came in the form of John the Baptist. This guy was something else. How many of you have a favorite author, or movie star, or musical group, or even speaker that you would travel to see? You’d maybe get in your car for a half-hour if you knew at the other end you’d get to see or hear them. Well, people came for miles around, walking all day, sometimes more then a day away to hear from John the Baptist. The Land of Israel was a pretty fertile place back then, remember…out of Egypt it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey. So oftentimes when the Scriptures talk about a desert, it references a place where there were no habitations. We are not talking Sahara necessarily, but more like the untamed land, like Montana or New Mexico. But this place where John lived is about 20 miles from Jerusalem…can you imagine packing up your family for a 20 mile walk. Now Jerusalem is located on a hill, but as you traverse down you then find yourself climbing, going up and down and left and right, but always climbing until you are about 4000 feet above sea level, to an area west of and overlooking a large body of water. Down the hills in front of you plummeting down more sharply is an immense lake, with only tributaries feeding it, nothing draining it, on top of countless salt mines. Imagine taking a box of baking powder, a box of baking soda, and a container of salt and pouring it into a large bowl and then filling that bowl up with water. Imagine the water that remains, that was the water of the dead sea. No micro-organisms can even live in it, but you won’t get sunburned, there, because it is 1200 feet below sea level, the Ozone layer is thick and protective. Because the lake is so filled with minerals, no one swam in it. Once you get knee high in the dead sea, you fall on your back, because of the high mineral content. But if you don’t shower afterwards, you damage your skin. That’s how bad that water was. The whole area that surrounds this lake is a wasteland. Now what would it take for you to travel 20 miles to go hear someone talk. How good a speaker must he have been?
He was a character, like someone transplanted from a different time. He was dressed in Camels Hair, and eating munching on bugs, and chewing on a honeycomb. In a world without movies, or rock stars, or Conan O’Brian, he was the main attraction. But what brought those people into the wilderness? It was his message, it was good news. The Old Testament Isaiah predicted John’s coming and described him as one who would prepare the way for the Lord and make straight paths for him.
Straight paths…we take them for granted, nice smooth roads, perfectly straight and engineered flat as far as the eye can see. Straight paths were a rarity in Biblical times. The Romans great empire was built on their engineered roads between major cities, allowing commerce, and more important military traffic to achieve speeds never seen before. These roads were built oftentimes using slave labor to reconfigure the lands they encountered.
Have you ever been on a road that seemed like a buggy trail that had just been paved over? It winds around and up and down, and has never heard of a straight line. That was most of the roads in Israel before the Romans came, and changed the world. Parts of those engineered Roman highways still remain today, 2000 years later, they were manufactured so well.
“Make straight paths for him. Our story proclaims, echoing Isaiah’s words. And what does John the Baptist do, he preaches a Gospel of straight paths, a Gospel of Repentance. What does repentance mean. In Greek the word simply means to change your mind. Like, O, I used to like the Viking, but I repented, I changed my mind, I like the Colts now. (As if that would happen.)
But the Jews and Christians changed how this word was used. Metanoia, repentance, meant much more then just thinking, oops I was wrong; but actually meant changing your mind, heart, and direction. I was going this way, but now I’m not, I’m going this way.
So often, you and I follow the Greek’s way of repentance. We change our mind, without ever changing the way we live or behave, and we wonder why as we look at the landscape we traveled there are so many curvy paths and detours and dead ends. Some of us are living lives that are not markedly different then we would be living if we had never heard of the name of Jesus. Our pathway was never prepared, and so our road is not straight. We have apologized for our sins, without ever taking steps to insure they do not remain a part of our lives. We have simply placed a layer of asphalt over an old donkey cart and called it our spiritual interstate, and we wonder why we crash all the time.
A number of years ago I saw a cutaway view, a cross-section, that compared European road manufacturing with American Road manufacturing. Our roads are created to last 20 years, we prepare two levels of underlayment and then the asphalt or concrete. But in Europe, they prepare their roads to last 50 years and the engineering is much more complex. They dig much deeper, have 5 layers of underlayment, different types of rocks and earth, and staggered concrete, before the surface layer is laid down. Their roads last longer, funny that.
If someone were to look back on the path you’ve walked, would they be able to tell whether your path is straight or crooked. If they were able to view a cross-section of your life, Would they be able to tell whether your repentance ran deep and was life changing, or was it just slapping some asphalt on an old road. People do that all the time, they try to be spiritual, and talk about how God wanted them to do this or that, but it interesting how what it was that God wanted them to do is almost always what they wanted to do in the first place. I struggle with this, because, as I read the Scriptural text, Jesus tells us that following him is hard, but is worth it. There are sacrifices, costly sacrifices, but they are redeemed in the end. And I find there is a part of me that does not want to make those sacrifices, that a part of me resists making those sacrifices, and I’m guessing the same is true for you.
We’re on the same road, and we’re inspecting our foundations. We might as well close the book here if we are not willing to do this prep work. In high school I had a college prep course, and I learned about financial aid, and how to fill out all the forms, and apply for scholarships, and how to write term papers, Say what your gonna say, say it, and say what you said. Introduction, body, conclusion. Say what you are going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve said. A little over-simplistic, but it helped me. That college prep course gave me essential tools that made college life easier, because I knew what I was getting into.
Mark’s Gospel is going to give it to you and to me straight. Good news is ours, and if we are to have it’s benefit, we must prepare ourselves to receive it. John proclaimed good news, news that was so amazing, so hope-filled, so transformational, that people walked 20 miles to be able to hear it, and they were so touched when they did that they were baptized, where, do you suppose that baptism took place. In the Dead Sea, with the minerals burning in your eyes and your skin the whole way home? You wouldn’t make the mistake of believing everything about you was going to be the same after walking 20 miles itching the whole way. I struggle driving 10 minutes home after I get my haircut.
Chances are good they found a stream that flowed down from the hills into the lake, and there John gave each person an opportunity visibly proclaim that they were forsaking the life they had lived before and were living a life that was new, clean, set apart, and holy. They repented of their old life, in front of family and friends and strangers, they committed themselves to be a new person.
But we’ve done that before haven’t we, we’ve made that mental assent, that decision, but what have we done to change the road that we walk. I used to have a remote control car that could not go straight, only right or left. This was back when I was too young to have heard the phrase, manufacturer’s warranty. So I lived with it, but it always frustrated me. And it frustrates me when I look into my life and your life and know that we will leave this place unchanged. We will be content to go around this obstacle and that obstacle, when God’s intention was that we would go right through the obstacles in our way, straight path to Him. We go around because we refuse to change, we refuse to repent.
If you and I are going to walk this path and follow Jesus, we need to know what we are getting into. What I want to ask you this morning, is as you look back, What are the detours and curves in your path? What are your regrets, and mistakes, and crashes along the way. “Make straight paths for him.” I want to live a life free of regret, free of might have beens, would have, should’ve, and could’ves, Don’t you?