The ‘Why’ of Repentance

by Joan Fanshawe

(Based on Matt 3:1-12; Isa 11:1-10; Ro 15:4-13)

Last weekend Alison and I sang in the performance of the Messiah in Thames. It was great that a good number of you were able to come over and share that too. We had practised in segments over the months but when it all came together with the soloists, I found it a very moving experience to hear those words within the whole sequence of experience so familiar to our faith.

Speaking of familiarity, on this second Sunday of Advent we find ourselves once again on the banks of the River Jordan with John the Baptist. We should be used to it by now, but that wild  prophet John still jars as a bit of a party-pooper as we look toward Christmas.
It’s tempting to reduce the image of this provocative wild man dressed in a rough garments to a cartoon character on a street corner with a placard saying “Get ready – the end is near!”  However, all four Gospel writers agree that there is no good news – no Gospel of Jesus – without John the Baptist. He has to be included in the story.

Jesus himself describes John as the greatest of prophets. A prophet, we remember, is not one who foretells the future but one who speaks as mouthpiece of God. John took his mission, which was to declare the imminent arrival of the coming Messiah, very seriously and feared no one, not even Herod or Herod’s wife, who in the end arranged to have John’s head. He was totally devoted to the One for whom he came to prepare the way, saying to his followers, “I baptise you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”
When John proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” crowds from Jerusalem and the surrounding regions come out to hear him and to be baptised in the Jordan.

So why do they flock to hear John?

It helps to remember here, the Biblical understanding of the term ‘repent’ is deeply shaped by the Jewish experience of exile. To repent, to return, is to follow the prepared way of the Lord that leads out of separation and back into reconnection.
Reconnection with the God who made us and loves us beyond our understanding.

John is out in the wilderness – far away from the places of power. He sees the world through the lens of wilderness experience and reminds us, then and now, that God’s people endured the wilderness – with all its confusions, ill-will, and foolishness – as they fled from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s tyranny. For years they struggled with God’s call on their lives, often abusing it with their disobedience.

Perhaps venturing into the wilderness to be with John reminds the crowd of their ancestors’ struggles, allowing them to hear John’s call to repent, more as invitation than judgment – as an invitation to come home.

To repent doesn’t mean simply to be sorry. In the New Testament, to repent means to begin seeing differently, to begin thinking differently, both of which lead to acting and living differently. To repent is to change, but not for the sake of change itself. Rather, when we change we start to live differently, and as we develop a new way of seeing, we become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s dream for all creation.

What then is God’s dream for all creation? The answer to that question can be found throughout Scripture. One illustration can be found in today’s reading from Isaiah: God’s dream is for the world to be a place in which peace and equity – rather than fear and hatred – rule the day. God dreams for the world to be a place where we view each other with compassion and with love, where all of creation is full of the mercy and the peace of God.

God dreams of community … wherein we love one another, as neighbours, with all our heart, soul and mind, and that God calls us to live into this dream, not next year, not ten years from today, but right now.
It is a desire that John himself expresses with the phrase that always comes after the verb ‘repent’. He doesn’t just shout, “Repent!” and stop there. He links the call to repentance with the ‘why’: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

For those of us who follow God in the Way of Love, it is Jesus who defines our new way of seeing, our new mindset, and our way back to God. Deciding to try to live and love like Jesus is what Christian repentance is all about.

Dear friends, what if we choose to hear this prophet’s call – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – not as an ominous threat of impending judgment, but as an invitation to live into God’s dream?

Even now, there are prophets rising up in our midst. We cannot ignore our young people who dream of having a future in which they can enjoy God’s creation, but often feel that their dreams are threatened because of climate change, economic unfairness and violence. They are demanding change to protect their lives and God’s creation so they and their children may enjoy the abundant life God desires for them – “and a little child shall lead them,” says Isaiah.

Advent invites us all to dream of something beyond what we can presently see – injustice, inequality, prejudice, ignorance, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, powerlessness, and hopelessness? Can we let John invade our indifference by asking what part we play in these dis-eases? How will we live knowing the hardship of the homeless and the hungry, the suffering of migrants, refugees, seemingly increased acts of violence and, especially, pointless war?
These are dreams by which to set a course. God does not ask us if we are there yet, but rather whether we are headed in the right direction. We as children of God need to heed the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness – the voice that reminds us of God’s dream.

We need to take the time to seek God’s vision for ourselves; to ask, “What does God want us to be and to do?”
Could we choose one element of our lives – just one, for now – where we see the need for repentance, and take advantage of the opportunity to change direction?

And, following Paul’s counsel, we who have glimpsed God’s dream must now share that hope. Like John, we must strive to renew the hopes of an exhausted world. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“Repent, live into God’s Dream.” This is John the Baptist’s invitation for us to come home and to be the people God has created us to be.

Prepare the way of the Holy One,
           make a straight path.
                           — Matthew 3.3

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 15:13

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