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Repent!

Repent

Ser­mon preached at Enmore, Second Sunday in Advent, 4th. Decem­ber 2016

Read­ings: Isai­ah 11.1–10; Romans 15:4–13; Mat­thew 3. 1–12

Our Gos­pel read­ing this morn­ing intro­duces us to the strange fig­ure of John the Baptist who appears sud­denly in the wil­der­ness of Judea pro­claim­ing: “Repent, for the king­dom of heav­en has come near.” I won­der what images the word ‘repent’ brings to mind. Some of us grew up in churches where we were fre­quently being told that we must repent and be saved. Some may find the word rather puzz­ling and identi­fy with the refrain in Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘The Future’,: ‘When they said repent I wondered what they meant.’ So let us take a few minutes to look at John the Baptist and make sense of his mes­sage and its pos­sible rel­ev­ance for us today.

In all four Gos­pels the min­istry of Jesus begins with John the Baptist. His is the first voice we hear in Mark’s Gos­pel (Mk.1.7). Luke devotes two lengthy pas­sages to a descrip­tion of the cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing John’s mira­cu­lous birth and tells this in par­al­lel with his nar­rat­ive regard­ing the birth of Jesus. John’s Gos­pel begins with his fam­ous pro­logue announ­cing the com­ing of the Word made flesh but this is fol­lowed imme­di­ately by the testi­mony of John the Baptist declar­ing repeatedly that he is not the Mes­si­ah. In John’s Gos­pel Jesus is the great ‘I am’ but John in con­trast is the great ‘I am not.’ Mat­thew gives us a fairly detailed descrip­tion of John’s cloth­ing and unusu­al diet­ary habits but provides no oth­er back­ground inform­a­tion – he appears out of nowhere.

How­ever, Mat­thew was writ­ing for a largely Jew­ish audi­ence and the little he says about John would have res­on­ated with his read­ers. The Old Test­a­ment ends with this admon­i­tion:

Remem­ber the teach­ing of my ser­vant Moses, the stat­utes and ordin­ances that I com­manded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the proph­et Eli­jah before the great and ter­rible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of par­ents to their chil­dren and the hearts of the chil­dren to their par­ents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Mala­chi 4.4–6)

Jew­ish read­ers were also aware that the great Proph­et Eli­jah was described in 2 Kings 1.8 as “a hairy man with a leath­er belt around his waist.” Matthew’s descrip­tion of John would have left little doubt that John the Baptist was Eli­jah returned to earth. Later on in Matthew’s Gos­pel Jesus will identi­fy John with Eli­jah (Matt.11.14). After John is arres­ted Jesus speaks to the crowds about him and declares “For all the proph­ets and the law proph­es­ised until John came; and if you are will­ing to accept it, he is Eli­jah who is to come. Let any­one with ears listen!” Some have iden­ti­fied sim­il­ar­it­ies between John and the Essene com­munity. His self-under­stand­ing as ‘the voice of one cry­ing in the wil­der­ness’ was a vir­tu­al moto of the Essenes. It is pos­sible, though by no means cer­tain, that John had been part of that com­munity of the Dead Sea after the death of his eld­erly par­ents and then went out on his own to call Israel to repent­ance, con­nect­ing the call with a bap­tism in the Jordan.

John, liv­ing in the desert and eat­ing food that can only be gathered, relives the wil­der­ness wan­der­ings that the Israel­ites exper­i­enced after their exodus from Egypt. Israel’s exper­i­ence in the forty years in the wil­der­ness was both a pun­ish­ment for its unbe­lief but also the place of its form­a­tion as a nation. In the desert Israel learnt to rely on God for her needs includ­ing liv­ing on food that came only as gift.

So John’s mes­sage, “repent for the king­dom of heav­en has come near,” is not as obscure as it may first appear. In many ways John is the embod­i­ment of what it means for Israel to repent. He is the ful­fil­ment of Isai­ah 40.3: “a voice cries out: ‘in the wil­der­ness pre­pare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a high­way for our God.’” When I was grow­ing up and was fre­quently encour­aged to repent in many a ser­mon, it was about being sorry for my sins and ask­ing for for­give­ness. But the word trans­lated ‘repent’ in our New Test­a­ment means ‘a change of heart’ or ‘a change of dir­ec­tion.’ The water bap­tism that John called for was a sign of a desire for a new way of life. Theo­lo­gian Stan­ley Hauer­was puts it like this: “John’s call for Israel to repent is not a proph­et­ic call for those who repent to change the world, but rather he calls for repent­ance because the world is being and will be changed by the one whom John knows is to come.” It is the pro­clam­a­tion that the king­dom of heav­en is near that gives the urgency to John’s min­istry.

We usu­ally think of repent­ance in per­son­al, indi­vidu­al­ist­ic terms- (Jesus is my per­son­al saviour) but John was a proph­et of Israel. He called not just for indi­vidu­als to repent but Israel as a nation. Bap­tism was a rad­ic­al sign of this. Until John arrived bap­tism by immer­sion in a river was unknown in Israel-they had ritu­al wash­ing of hands and utensils but this was some­thing else. It implied that Israel required a whole new begin­ning, a com­plete trans­form­a­tion. When John bap­tised in the Jordan he reminded Israel of their bap­tism in Exodus when God called them out of Egypt and walked them through the waters of the Red Sea. The exodus marked a new begin­ning. John’s mes­sage is that it is time for anoth­er new begin­ning: Israel must learn to live again as God’s holy people for the Mes­si­ah him­self is com­ing.

John’s min­istry clearly had a power­ful effect on the pop­u­la­tion, crowds of people from Jer­u­s­alem and the sur­round­ing areas came to listen to him and many were bap­tised. John made reli­gion inter­est­ing and excit­ing. Every­one was talk­ing about him. His mes­sage was rad­ic­al and far removed from the stuffy debates about the fine points of the law that the Scribes and Phar­isees engaged in. The reli­gious lead­ers were not sure how to respond. They liked the fact that reli­gion was becom­ing a hot top­ic but they were not sure that they liked John’s mes­sage. They were not con­vinced that Israel needed a change of dir­ec­tion. So when some of the Phar­isees and Sad­ducees came to John for bap­tism he rebuked them for their com­pla­cency and mis­placed con­fid­ence. He told them that it was not enough to claim to be des­cend­ants of Abra­ham. God, he declared, could raise up chil­dren of Abra­ham from the stones on the ground. What was needed was a change of heart for a new age was about to dawn. It’s was a “times they are a’changing mes­sage” and the reli­gious estab­lish­ment pre­ferred the status quo.

John is in some ways the bridge between the Old and New Test­a­ments. The proph­ets before him like Eli­jah, Isai­ah, Amos etc. all looked for­ward to the com­ing new age of the Mes­si­ah. This morning’s Old Test­a­ment read­ing from Isai­ah 11 is a lovely example. John’s task was to say, it is not some­thing in the future but it is break­ing upon us now, hence the urgency of his mes­sage.

Like the people of John’s day it is easy to be com­pla­cent and to think that as things are now they always will be. But we are chil­dren of the king­dom of God, the king­dom inaug­ur­ated by the life, death and resur­rec­tion of Jesus. Jesus’ prom­ise of a new heav­en and a new earth is not just a hope for the future but a mes­sage that informs the way we live now and gives us hope even in the darkest times. This week I read an art­icle by a Cath­ol­ic priest, John Dear,  who recalled hear­ing Des­mond Tutu speak at the Nation­al Cathed­ral in Wash­ing­ton D.C. in 1987 when the world was just wak­ing up to the hor­rors of apartheid in South Africa. Tutu spoke of an eld­erly woman he had met in Soweto a few days earli­er. She told him that every night she got up at 2am for an hour in order to beg God to bring apartheid to an end. Tutu then said, “I know we will win now because God can­not res­ist the pray­er of that poor woman.” And then he wept. In the art­icle John Dear then recoun­ted an inter­view he had with Des­mond Tutu in Cape Town in 2014. He asked Des­mond how he kept going in the face of all the prob­lems still afflict­ing South Africa and in so many oth­er parts of the world. Des­mond replied: “My favour­ite proph­et is Jeremiah…Why? Because he cries a lot. I cry a lot too…..but think how much God cries! We have a God who weeps. God weeps because we don’t get it. We don’t under­stand that we are all broth­ers and sis­ters.” He also said: “In a situ­ation where human life seems dirt cheap, with people being killed as eas­ily as one swats a fly, we must pro­claim that people mat­ter and mat­ter enorm­ously. To be neut­ral in a situ­ation of injustice is to have chosen sides already. It is to sup­port the status quo.”

Advent reminds us that with the com­ing of Jesus, the king­dom of God has already come so there­fore we con­tin­ue to have hope. In the words of the Apostle Paul in today’s read­ing, “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.”

 

Philip Brad­ford