Luke 3: 7-18
John the Baptist’s message to those who have travelled out of the city, into the desert, to hear him, is bracing. As an opening greeting, “You brood of vipers” is – well, unconventional. And he carries on with a range of colourful threats of axes, winnowing forks and fire. Greta Thunberg seems quite bland in comparison.
To modern ears, perhaps there is a hint of irony when Luke concludes, “And so with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
All four gospels link John with Isaiah, placing him in that long tradition of prophets who speak truth to power, exposing the evils of the age, urging change. A great tradition in which Greta also has her place.
They came to see and hear a wild man, someone who had chosen to make his home in the wilderness, that ungoverned hinterland, apart from community, convention, restraint. Like others before him, John had quit the company of others, to be alone, but from that isolation could see clearly into the heart of human society. From his isolation he exposed the tragedy of a fractured humanity, that those who are one in their God-given essence, divide against each other.
More than the other gospels, Luke brings out John’s uncompromising teaching. For John, the test of repentance is what we then do, not what we say. Words are so often empty pretence. What we do reveals our true orientation, and if we are to change direction then evidence of that change is to be found in our subsequent decisions and actions.
The appeal to give your second coat or surplus food to anyone who has none is clear and vivid – with no wriggle room. Each of us now carries that challenge around with us as we decide how to allocate the resources under our stewardship.
This much is uncomfortable but familiar. But as I re-read this gospel, I was also struck as to how forward-looking it is, and this was for me a new aspect to John’s understanding of repentance.
Firstly, John looks to shake his audience out of their own backward-looking complacency. It doesn’t matter who you are: your Jewish ancestry, the covenant to Abraham, will not save you. What he seeks is change – the Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which means a change of mind and heart. So it is about being made new in readiness for the future. And the future which is the whole focus of John’s calling is nothing less than the salvation of the world, personified in he who will come after him, Jesus.
That repentance can be forward-looking is something worth being reminded of. For in our own time we perhaps emphasise too much the backward-looking aspect of confession, picking over our past failings. Many outside of the church recoil from this practice, either because it raises their defensive ego – you may be a sinner but I’m doing ok! – or conversely because they associate it with private shame they wish at all costs to ignore.
In Jesus’ teaching the encouragement to repent is often followed by…. “for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” – giving it the same forward-looking intent. Without the open heart and mind of repentance, we are blinded by our past and so fail to see the new kingdom unfolding before our eyes.
Blinded by our past perhaps because our self-justification is threatened by what we see before us and so dismisses it. But also in another way: I have found that as I get older, I have accumulated a large stock of experiences and knowledge, so that when I see something new, I am tempted to jump to the conclusion, “I see, it’s one of those.” And in so doing I fail to really see what is in front of me for what it is.
So repentance then in this new understanding, is that openness of heart and mind to change, which sees each new thing in its sacred uniqueness – what the medieval theologian Duns Scotus calls its “thisness.”
As Isaiah says:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
I pray that we will all have open, repentant minds and hearts, and so will see and respond afresh, today, to the presence of God, in the beauty of his creation, in the people we meet, and even, somehow, in those disfigured things which are yet born of God and will be redeemed by him.
Richard Young (Rector)