We hear, in the opening sentence of our worship, from Mark’s gospel, the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry, and, I think, a definition of Christian life, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Compare that to the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptiser, from Matthew’s gospel today, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2) The purpose of the message of John the Baptiser and Jesus is the same; they are both calling for repentance. The reason for that call is different, however. John is calling for repentance in order to receive, accept, or welcome of Jesus. Jesus’ call for repentance is to believe in him as the one in whom the kingdom of God is personified. We are not to believe in John, we are to believe in Jesus.
Repentance is our translation of the Greek ‘metanoia’ – ‘meta’ meaning to change and ‘noia’ literally meaning nerve, that is, mind – a change of mind. Repentance is a change of heart and mind. Contrary to popular opinion, I think that this change is not primarily concerned with turning away from sin, but turning to God, turning to walk more directly toward God. This will mean that sin is left behind, but the primary focus is not the sin, it is God, and God’s place in our church and individual life.
In my pastoral interviews, one of the listening tasks I undertake is to see whether there is inconsistency between a person’s actions or behaviour and what they are telling me. Whether it is their body language in the conversation or whether it is a story of something that has happened to them, how they reacted and what they are telling me they think they believe. From one interview to the next, I am listening to see whether there has been a change of behaviour or action that is expressing consistency with what they are saying, either because they have changed what they are claiming or they have changed their action.
A change of heart and mind usually means a change in action and behaviour. Repentance is inseparable from actions or behaviour. We all act because of what we believe. Logically, how we act will declare what we actually believe, in that sense of ‘actions speaking louder than words’. And, we will act differently if there is a change in what we believe.
It is in this context that John the Baptist confronts the Pharisees and Sadducees who come for baptism. We are not told whether he refuses to baptise them. I think the language suggests that he does, “I baptise you”, if not just the Pharisees and the Sadducees who came for baptism, ‘the likes of you’, who were repentant. But he is making a judgment about them. He wants to know that they are repentant, that they have changed their heart and their mind.
Two questions on John’s mind for them. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and one in the form of a statement, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Needless to say that both these questions come out of judgment. We have become so rooted in a misunderstanding of “do not judge or you too will be judged” (Mtt 7:1) that we forget that, even though we live by grace we are still under God’s judgment. God is a merciful God because he continues to judge us, even if we are saved from condemnation by the work of Jesus on the cross.
You will judge me by my failures and hypocrisy, but you will love me anyway. You will know my sinfulness, but you will not condemn me. It is being able to identify what is sin and evil but not rejecting the one who sins. It is the prophetic role of the Church to continue to bear judgement, without condemnation, on the world, in order that the kingdom of God may be realised.
John the Baptiser, clearly, has a very strong opinion about the Pharisees and Sadducees in general, and makes a very clear judgment of them. They are consistently presented as those who do not believe in Jesus as the Messiah. How come you come to seek this baptism of preparational repentance? What has occurred to these Pharisees and Sadducees that they come to be baptised? Who has spoken to them about John, or about Jesus, or about the coming of the messianic kingdom of which John has been teaching? The answer to these questions is not addressed in the story, but it is, in itself, an expression that something has occurred to make these representatives of those in opposition, change their position. Their actions are now betraying their new belief.
We can never be sure why people may change their position and attitude toward God. Through crisis of life, an experience that exposes all the false values in which trust is placed; it is clear that people for what ever reason seek something new to replace it. For some this may turn to denial and trying to keep alive that which is false with a false world of alcohol, drugs and even food. For others it may mean a denial that leaves a profound and life damaging depression. For others, it may mean that they surrender all aspects of life. Actions will speak where they have placed their trust.
But John also confronts any apathy regarding what this repentance means, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not say presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’” The problem with some of the members of the Church in Corinth is that they rested on the laurels of their salvation in Christ. Sure we are saved by Christ, but grace is not cheap, it stands with judgment. Some members of the Church in Corinth believed they could do whatever they wanted to do, because they were saved by Christ, and Paul condemns such behaviour.
We can almost hear the words of St James who says, “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I, by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:18) Belief demands an action, and action reveals belief. So John the Baptiser challengers those coming to seek the baptism of preparational repentance, don’t rely on your family history as a Jew to keep you secure. We Anglican Christians could hear John saying to us, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We were baptised as infants,’ or ‘Our parents were Anglicans,’ or ‘I have always come to this Church.’
What do our actions, as a church and as individuals, say about our faith, what we believe in? Advent is a time of preparing ourselves for the celebration of the incarnation, the coming of God in human flesh, in the person of Jesus. This is God’s merciful hand at work, working out how we might be saved from righteous condemnation. But anciently, it is also a preparation for the return of Jesus and the judgment that comes with him, that has been given to him by the heavenly Father, as the Son of Man. What do we need to do, as a church and as individual Christians, what is God inviting us, yet, to change our mind about in order to give ourselves more deeply to him?