Repentance what does it really mean!
The imagery in our gospel today could have been written for the cinema. We have the wilderness in Judea, dry barren and rugged and the Jordan River this precious and symbolic water to the people of Palestine. John the Baptist is barely clad and living on adiet of locusts and honey, and there are crowds of people coming from Judea and Jerusalem including the Pharisees and Sadducees. John the Baptist is in the background shouting “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”, pure Cecil B. De Mille.
Over the last few weeks I have heard the words sin, repentance and forgiveness numerous times, especially at my ordination service and from my fellow ordinands. Today’s Gospel has John the Baptist, talking about repentance and the need for baptism to be prepared for the ‘kingdom of heaven’ which is at hand. But what does this word repentance really mean?
The original Greek word is metanoia which means to open and expand, to change one’s mind. It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for doing something wrong or bad. It means to ‘go beyond the mind’ or ‘go into the larger mind’. So what is John the Baptist talking about by going beyond our mind?
John and Jesus are asking people to approach life with a different mind-set, a more encompassing mind-set. In fact, the whole of Matthew’s Gospel is a story about transformation, turning around not just confessing our mistakes one week receiving forgiveness and returning next Sunday with the same or similar confession. It’s much more; it’s a realignment of how we live, how we engage with the world and with each other.
It was in the third and fourth century that Jerome when he was translating the Greek Scriptures into Latin that the word repentance was translated as to be sorry for our human shortcomings. This translation was based on a doctrine of original sin. However, Martin Luther wrote about this in the fifteenth century stating that metanoia clearly signifies a changing of the mind and heart not just a confession of wrong doing andasking for forgiveness. Sadly this error of interpretation has been with us for centuries, resulting in countless generations missing the point of this gospel and for many this error has caused immeasurable misery.
John is asking us to expand of our minds into the mind-set of Christ, to approach life differently here and now. Not just a turn around for eternal salvation, but a turn around of our lives and ourway of thinking. John was telling the people to turn their way of living around and be baptised in the Jordan not in the Temple at Jerusalem.
It would have been impossible to have a baptism in the temple by the time this gospel was written because the Romans had destroyed the temple some ten years previously. There was good reason for the gospel writer to be talking about turning around your mind-set. The Romans were as oppressive as during Jesus’ ministry if not more so, it was time for a new life perspective for the people of Palestine. John’s language challenges the priestly aristocracy; the Sadducees were high priests from Jerusalem and the Pharisees were the priests who made sure the Mosaic Law was being kept everywhere else. The Pharisees and Sadducees as the elite were working with the Romans, allowing excessive taxation, confiscation of ancestral property and chronic food shortages. This society was in need of a turn around and in needof a new way of being and living.
John’s appearance symbolically links him to Old Testament figures such as Samson, Samuel and especially Elijah. These prophetic men represented resistance to injustice and offered a revolutionary model of renewing society. John has crowds from Judea and Jerusalem, the people are not happy with the current status quo. John demands that his followers change their ways, they must live in ‘right relationship’ with God. John makes it clear that no one is exempt from this change required to be in the ‘kingdom of heaven’. This meant a radical conversion putting them and us back in a right relationship with God.
Advent is a time for renewal, new possibilities and hope, an invitation to participate with God in creating a new way of being. With all the media hype that comes with our commercialised Christmas season this seems a very difficult choice in fact something that we probably feel too busy to even contemplate. We have the Christmas cake to make, presents to buy, a tree to decorate and the all-important Christmas dinner to prepare. We don’t have time to think about changing our lives around.
But that is what this Advent tide is all about, being ready, being prepared, living in open expectation that we will be surprised by the gifts being offered by realigning and expanding our minds to a new way of living. One cannot expect to be cleansed by the water of baptism without first washing away the old way of living. We prepare the way of God when by our choices we open possibilities for God’s creative, transforming love.
John the Baptist's message is one of hell fire and brimstone, his message is uncomfortable, its not Christmas, not pretty lights and tinsel, it is challenging. John was preparing the people of first century Palestine for the coming of one so different to the age, a message offering love, hope, acceptance and compassion.
As many of you know Peter and I have had to move out of our apartment next door and put thirty-seven years of belongings into storage. We have experienced a radical turn around in the way we live. We are enjoying living in the countryside with just enough to get by on. We have no idea how we will celebrate our family Christmas dinner and we are not worrying about it.
Last week prior to my ordination I went on a silent retreat, I will admit I was not looking forward to the silence. To my amazement it was the best time I had had at Vaughan Park in three years. I really enjoyed the peace, I felt restored by the quiet, mediation and the gentle rhythm of retreat life. While it seems impossible to try and have quiet and peace in this time of parties and shopping it seems to me that this is what we should be doing. Listening and feeling that small voice within us all allowing each of us to be transformed into a humanity that challenges wrongs in our society, that cares for creation and each other.
We are being called during Advent and indeed through our whole lives to transform ourselves, to break out of our old habits and begin life again as new people. We will make mistakes and fall back into old ways, to respond continually to the invitation to repentance that is the expansion of our minds and hearts.