When I say “repent!” what do you all think? How many of you all picture the crazy guy on the street corner, standing there with a sign that says “Repent! The end is near!” It has become a stock cliché, hasn’t it? A punchline.
A lot of us have the same picture in mind when we think about John the Baptist. There he is in our mind’s eye: covered in animal skins, wild hair, a bag full of locusts and wild honey for lunch. He is the equivalent to the crazy guy on the street corner crying, “Repent! The end is near!” That is the image that comes to mind often when we think of the word “repentance.” The word makes an appearance a few times in today’s passage. What I want to do today is take a deeper look at the word and maybe connect John’s message to our world. John is talking about repentance in a couple of different ways.
The first way that John spoke of repentance was systemically – our shared responsibility. For John, this was a message against a socio-political system. Now, often times we get nervous when we start talking about the Bible and politics. But look again at the first few verses, the ones with all those names and people. It is foreign to us, but this is all about politics. Imagine, for example, we translated Luke’s introduction into our own time and place. It would say, quite literally:
In the second year of the term of President Donald Trump, when Jeff Colyer was ending his term of governor of Kansas and Laura Kelly was preparing to begin hers, and Lynn Jenkins was the current congressional representative from the second district, and Kevin Yoder from the neighboring third district, and Stuart Boley was the mayor of the city of Lawrence, in the year that longtime Statehouse Chaplain Fred Hollomon died, the word of the Lord came to John.
Can we still say it is not political? John’s message absolutely was a political one – otherwise it wouldn’t have landed him in jail and eventually beheaded. It was clear that Luke saw John’s message as a political one. That’s why all of those political names matter. Because John was taking on a socio-political system. Those in charge of the system were at the heart of its brokenness. Even referring to John as “son of Zechariah” was not only talking about his literal father. Zechariah was also an Old Testament prophet, and John was his spiritual offspring. This, too, was a political statement. That’s why we would probably have to say in our translation of the text to our context, that he was the son of Martin Luther, or Martin Luther King Jr., or John Smyth or Thomas Helwys…all prophets in their time.
In this very specific political reality, John had a message to share: repent. John was taking a stand against the system of sin that was present in that time and place. Look again at the people that Luke specifically names, who asked him, “what should we repent of?” Tax collectors and soldiers. Both of these are pawns in the system of oppression and marginalization that John was preaching against. Tax collectors were a symbol of the political and financial oppression. Soldiers were symbols of the military oppression. They were not the leaders of the system, but were perpetuators of it. John’s imagery is clear. He calls them a brood of vipers.
It forces us to ask the difficult question: how do we participate in systems of oppression in our context? How do we benefit from systems and policies that hurt the poor? That oppress minorities, racial, political, or religious? Are there tax laws that benefit us that hurt the working class? Are there policies that keep us comfortable and insured, at the expense of others who cannot say the same? Are there corporate realities that we need to repent of: the way that we treat the stranger and the outsider, the poor, the medically needy, the abused? And some of you are probably saying “aren’t you getting political, pastor?” To that, John the Baptist looking over my shoulder might say, “I sure hope so.”
But that wasn’t the only way that John spoke of repentance. It wasn’t only about political realities, about corporate realities. John spoke of a second element of repentance: individual responsibility. Look at the specific things that he names. “You aren’t taking care of those in need. You have two coats, while your neighbor has none. You take more than your fair share. You extort money from others.” My guess is that those who came to hear John knew that they were caught up in a broken system of oppression, but they probably thought to themselves, “but what can I do? The system is bigger than me. Everyone else does it, so I guess I should, too.” But here is where John doubles down on repentance: “Just because the problem isn’t all your fault doesn’t mean that the solution isn’t your responsibility.” Each of us has a responsibility to care for our neighbor. Each of us has a responsibility to act in loving ways to our neighbors. Each of us has something that gets in the way of our holiness…that we need to repent of.
It isn’t just about what we did, but what we haven’t done for others, says John. The old language for this is the sin of “omission.” The sins of “commission” are those things that we do outright to hurt others or reject God. The sins of omission are the things that we fail to do – that we omit from our lives – that would lead us to a more holy and whole way of living. When John speaks of judgment, he speaks of things that we have not yet done to get ready. Sins in our lives that get in the way of our relationship with God and others. And John would probably say the same thing of us. How do we ignore the needs of others? How do we focus only on ourselves? If we were to read the Ten Commandments as a to-do list in our lives…or the Sermon on the Mount…what would we say? What would we be omitting?
We try and acknowledge both of these sides of repentance in our worship service. You notice that we begin our time of confession with a corporate, a shared discipline of confession – words we say in unison, meant to acknowledge our shared sinfulness. And then we allow a time of silence for individual confession. Just between you and God. Both are critical to the work of repentance!
Kathleen Norris tells a story about repentance. She was once teaching Sunday school and asked the children to write their own psalms. She was amazed at the theological depth of their writings. One child wrote something akin to a psalm of repentance, a poem he called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He said that when his dad yelled at him, he became very angry. He took that anger and he pushed his sister down the stairs. And then he wrecked his whole room. And then he wrecked the whole town. And after all that, wrote the boy, “I sit down in my messy house and I say ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” For Norris, it is a perfect picture of repentance. The image of a “messy house” is a perfect way to talk about our lives of sin. The things that we do, the ways that we react to those around us, the unhealthy things that we do in response to the pain in our lives…it’s all a messy house. We push others around. We wreck our own homes and communities with our greed and our selfishness. We act as monsters to all those in our lives.
But then, there comes a moment when we sit down in our messy houses and say, “I shouldn’t have done that.” I made things worse. That is repentance. And at that moment in John’s sermon to the people, a shift happens:
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
John brings the people to the edge of their own messiness, and then he gives them the good news. “But,” he says, “there is One coming who will take away our messiness. Who will bring wholeness to our brokenness. Who will end our bad news and replace it with good news.” So often, when we think of the concept of repentance, or of sinfulness, or of the messiness of our lives, that is the end of the story. But for John, it was only the beginning. The whole reason for repentance is that there is something better coming into our lives. Some One better. Someone that he could barely hold a candle to. Someone who would come and bring hope and transformation and healing and a better way to live. He would come and take out all of the brokenness and replace it with what we need. Repentance is good news, because it brings us to the place of making room for something better! And it isn’t until we sit down and look at our lives and say, “I shouldn’t have done that” that we are ready for the new thing that God wants to give us.
Repentance leads to forgiveness, and to a life lived out of that forgiveness! A better way. A better life. A life of wholeness and grace and love. That’s the life that Jesus brings.
Let me suggest a metaphor to make this point. Say I want to visit the splendor of the Colorado Rockies. I want to climb a 14,000 foot mountain. I want to stand on top of the peak and look out over the spine of the Front Range. If that was my goal, imagine with me leaving the church parking lot and heading up to 6th Street. Down the hill to Iowa St. Through the tollbooth. And onto I-70 East. How long do you think it would be before I reached the splendor of the Rockies?
If you know your geography, you know it would be a long time! Because you can’t get to the Rockies on I-70 East from here. If you got on I-70 East, where would you end up? Missouri! Now, if you are from the state of Missouri, or have family from Missouri, or love Branson, please don’t take this metaphor too literally. But if you want to end up in the Rockies, where do you not want to go? Missouri! The hard truth is that if you want to stand on top of the Rockies, and you are headed on I-70 East to Missouri, you need to repent!
The original sense of the word “repent,” the concept that John and Luke would have had in mind, was a physical turning. A U-turn. An end to the direction that you are currently going, and replacing that path with a new direction. According to our metaphor, it is making an intentional decision to get off at the next exit, to stop the path into Missouri, to take two immediate left turns, and get back on the highway, headed west. To make a turn, a change of direction and purpose and priority. Repentance is going from heading East into Missouri, to heading West into Colorado.
And the reason for that change is that there is something better in that new way. (Again, nothing personal, Missourians). There is a better way of living for those who travel this new path. Jesus wants to give us a better life than simply focusing on ourselves and our needs and our desires! Jesus wants to give us a better life than pushing people around or trashing our rooms! Jesus wants to give us a better life than taking more than our fair share and open our hands toward those in need. Jesus wants us to stand on top of the splendor that he has co-created for us! For us to stand atop the beauty of a life worth living, and to glimpse the glory and majesty of the Divine.
Frederick Buechner, in his definition of “repentance,” says “true repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘wow!’” Jesus has a “wow” in store for us and the only way we can get it is if we turn from the ways of selfishness and self-glory and self-sufficiency and toward that “wow!”
I looked and looked for an image, a story, a picture of what happens after repentance. And then I realized that you have already seen it this morning. Is there a better picture, a better dramatic retelling of the story of repentance and grace than baptism? How can we top that image? Here are those who came this morning, or us in our own memory, buried with him into death, and raised to walk in newness of life. Repentance from a life of commission and omission. And raised to stand on new high places! There is a reason that John’s preaching ended up with the baptism of Jesus. Because it is the perfect symbol of the death of the old ways, the death of a life of sinfulness, the death of the brokenness of our “messy houses.” And it is the perfect symbol of the newness, the hope, the forgiveness, the “wow!” and the higher ground of the ways of Christ. Let us rejoice today that the God in Christ is a God of grace and love. Let us rejoice in the new ways that we are called to live!