Mark 1:4-5 “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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.”
Does it sound strange to hear that John was preaching a “baptism?” Isn’t baptism an activity, a rite, a ceremony? It is those things, too, but it is one in which the Lord is delivering a very clear and very striking message.
The Baptism which John preached was, first of all, a “baptism of repentance.” It wasn’t just a nice little gesture. It marked these people as sinners undergoing a deep and all-encompassing spiritual change. This baptism was connected with their repentance, and repentance is never merely a slight change of course, a minor adjustment in the direction we were traveling. Repenting of our sins means a 180 degree turn away from our sins.
This repentance is a violent experience because it always involves a death inside. When we come to see our sinful past as God sees it, when we come to see the sins we’ve enjoyed as the horrible things they are, it kills us. We die. We begin to look at that part of ourselves as the old self, the dead self, the self we want nothing to do with. John’s preaching and his baptism led them to see things this way.
At the same time, John’s baptism meant life for these people. This was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Those who went out to John were not left to despair about the horror and ugliness of their sin. In baptism God promises to wash sins away. Baptism was not something they did to pay for their sins. It was not a good work to make up for their failures. That payment would be made in full when Jesus later gave his life for them on the cross.
Rather, this baptism was God’s tangible way of saying, “I forgive you.” In it he assured them his promises of forgiveness and love were not only for others. They belonged to them, too. Through the water pouring over their bodies, the Lord was saying, “All my promises are yours. You need never doubt my love. I have claimed you as one of my own dear children.”
The power of that promise connected with John’s Baptism inspired their faith. It moved them to take a hold of the promise and make it their very own. The message his baptism proclaimed–sins repented, and sins forgiven– was making them ready for Christ.
That message in Baptism still makes us ready for Christ. But weren’t we baptized years ago? What does it have to do with being ready today? Maybe the ceremony took place in your distant past, but the changes it began, and the promises it made, are still going on today. Even if you fall away and come back to the Lord, God’s baptismal promises to you don’t change. His promises can never change or fail. As Paul reminded Timothy, “if we are faithless, he is faithful, for he cannot disown himself.” How does this make us ready?
What makes us truly ready for Christ is faith. We trust he is coming not to be our Judge, but our Savior. And everything about Baptism leads us in exactly that direction. In every way God is saying to us in it, “Trust me! Trust me!” He is giving us that very trust, and that makes us ready for Christ.