Matthew 3: 1-12
Repent. It’s the word most associated with a two-dimensional Biblical figure named John the Baptist, or the Baptizer. One might paint him with a brush on a canvas. standing near the Jordan River, crying out to people like a street evangelist, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Then those who decide to listen to him gather–as the hymn says, at the River—repent of their sins, go under the water, and come out a new creation. At least that is the hope. Last summer I donned a robe, stepped into the Jordan River, and welcomed people who journeyed with me to Israel to be baptized, or to remember their baptism. I can say with certainty that some were changed dramatically after that experience. Repenting is the truly different thing that John called people to do; baptism seals the deal and allows God’s Holy Spirit to begin to guide them. John the Baptist is powerful, but as the Lorenz/Hart show tune from the musical “Babes in Arms” puts it, he’s “Johnny One Note.” All he talks about is repentance, repentance, repentance! Still, people in the world, those of us here today, probably need to repent from some habit, some action, or some addiction. Let’s start by exploring this enigmatic man.
Franciscan Richard Rohr says this about John:
John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare, and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons of groups. That is why we focus on John The Baptist every Advent, and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual, while also going far beyond him. Water is the only the container; fire and Spirit are the contents …. John is the strangest combination of conviction and humility, morality and mysticism, radical prophecy and living in the present. This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege, who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything . … He is a living paradox, as even Jesus says of him “There is no man greater than John … but he is also the least.” [Preparing for Christmas, Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2008, p.24-25.
Thanks Father Rohr, for reminding us of John’s 3-dimensional nature! We’ve established who the messenger is, now we focus on the message- Repent.
As I simply showed the boys and girls, it’s like a U-Turn. If you realize you are going down a path that is toxic to yourself or others, or destructive or dark, you can, and you have the power to, turn around and travel back from the wrong direction to the right direction; back toward redemption; or back toward love. Here we rely on John because Jesus has not yet spoken a word in the gospel, not until this chapter, verse 13. Beloved Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner define repentance this way: “To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do, as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’” [Wishful Thinking, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, p. 79.]
Another author, Kathleen Norris, wrote a more intriguing description of repentance:
Once a little boy wrote a poem called “The Monster Who Was Sorry.” He began by admitting that he hates it when his father yells at him; his response in the poem is to throw his sister down the stairs, and to wreck his room, and finally to wreck the whole town. The poem concludes:
“Then I sit in my messy house and say to myself, ‘I shouldn’t have done that.’” My Messy House” says it all; with more honesty than most adults could have mustered, the boy makes a metaphor for himself that admitted the depth of his rage and also gave him a way out…If that boy had been a novice in the fourth century monastic desert, his elder might have told him that he was well on the way toward repentance, not such a monster after all, but only human. If the house is messy, they might have said, why not clean it up, why not make it into a place where God might wish to dwell? [Amazing Grace, New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 69,70]
You might know that people in our AA programs have repented from drinking and are busy every day trying to keep moving toward a life of love and wholeness. From the first day, people in our Gambler’s Anonymous program repented of their gambling and spending addictions and have been moving toward a life of financial security and relationship rescue. But what about those of us who are not in those programs? What about the mother who is hateful to her son-in-law or daughter-in-law? Does she see the need to repent? What about the man who once abused his wife or the man who abused his dog? Have they seen the light? How about the celebrities who tried to buy a spot for their daughters in colleges? Have they felt the need to repent? Repentance is not just a John the Baptist cry, it is a human reality that can change one’s life, one’s marriage, and one’s spirituality. Repentance is a connective tissue for our Spiritual bodies. Without it, we may feel disjointed, disconnected, or broken. And indeed, we are. Yet even in our day, there are situations that keep people from moving from repentance to wholeness. One is a lack of forgiveness. For example, a woman spends and spends and spends and builds up enormous credit card debt. Her husband sees their income diminishing to the point that the nest egg they were building is now gone. Debts ensue, and the man moves toward divorce to stop the financial hemorrhaging of his assets. The wife, with the help of a 12-step group, repents of her spending habits and is showing the changes in her life to her husband. Will he welcome her again? Will he forgive her and remain in their marriage? A lack of forgiveness keeps repentance from moving toward wholeness.\
Here’s an example of our prison system becoming an impasse to wholeness. In the December 4th issue of the Christian Century [p.26,] Caitlin Kandil, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, tells the story of a woman who rolled through a stop sign in San Francisco. Police pulled her over and gave her a $238 ticket. Although she could pay the ticket, she started thinking about others who could not. She called it “the spiral of despair.” She researched and shared these results:
A person gets a traffic ticket for a few hundred dollars. Unable to pay the fine, she misses the deadline for payment, and the ticket starts accruing late fees and creates a debt that hangs over her head. The city sends the ticket to the collections department, and now her credit is damaged, so the next time she tries to rent an apartment, her application is rejected. Eventually her driver’s license is suspended for failure to pay. Without a driver’s license, she can’t perform the tasks of everyday life—commuting to work, grocery shopping, taking children to school, going to doctor’s appointments—and also become ineligible to apply for and work at many jobs. Without secure employment and housing, she is a risk for homelessness. It all started with a traffic ticket.
To combat incarcerations due to mounting fines from an inability to pay them, the Stated Clerk of our Presbyterian Church (USA), at our 2018 General Assembly in St. Louis, marched down the streets of the city, with hundreds behind him, to the St. Louis Justice Center with more than $47,000 raised from GA committees and commissioners. They paid the bail for many people who were incarcerated for misdemeanors. With them released, they could be employed again, be united with families, and begin a new life. Sometimes, the system can stall repentance and forgiveness. Sometimes a generous and timely gift can bring a second chance to a woman who could not pay a minor traffic ticket.
A long time ago, a man invited people to gather at the river, to change their hearts, repent of their sins, and get a new start. John still invites that, as he calls out to each of us from the pages of Scripture: “Repent!” Would you like a new start in your life? Or perhaps someone you know needs a new start in theirs? They can repent—that is, make a U-Turn from the direction they are going—and they can ask for forgiveness for their actions. But before any of that happens, they, and perhaps we, need to ask God to “Change our Heart.” Songwriter Eddie Espinosa wrote this song with this prayerful message:
Change my heart, O God; make it ever true. Change my heart, O God; may I be like you. You are the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray: Change my heart, O God.”
I invite you to offer that prayer today, to God, in song.
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 8, 2019