God’s grace and peace be with all of you.
Repent! Repent, repent, repent! Our gospel reading today sounds like it belongs at the beginning of Lent, don’t you think? The repeated refrain is for repentance. John’s proclamation is for repentance: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” People are hearing John’s message and coming out to the Jordan River to confess their sins and be baptized.
This baptism, the baptism of John, is baptism with water for repentance. And John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” There is repentance all over this passage.
As I said, usually we think about repentance more during the season of Lent. But the second Sunday of Advent has given us an opportunity to reflect on repentance during this season.
So what about repentance? What is repentance, anyway?
Our first thought about repentance is that it involves feeling sad about something. We imagine how it plays out with a child: a kid is playing carelessly, knocks a lamp off a table, it shatters on the floor. The kid tearfully apologizes to the parent and accepts the appropriate consequences. Repentance.
But that’s a very limited image of what repentance can be. Repentance is more than just feeling bad for something you’ve done wrong.
Some of you may have heard a pastor say at some point that the Hebrew word for repentance means “to turn around.” That’s one way of thinking of repentance—it’s turning, turning away from sin and turning towards God.
However, the books of the New Testament, including the gospels, were written in Greek, not Hebrew. So in Greek, there is a different word for repentance: metanoia. That’s the word which occurs in our gospel reading today. Unlike the Hebrew word for repentance, which suggests turning around, the Greek word for repentance means changing your mind or changing your thinking.
When John says, “Repent,” he’s saying, “Change your way of thinking, your way of imagining, your way of looking at the world.” But it doesn’t stop with your thoughts—a changed way of thinking should show itself through changed behavior. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John instructs. The fruit you bear—your actions, your behavior—demonstrates how your mind has been changed.
Repentance means changing our minds. But of course, this is more than just changing your mind from wanting vanilla ice cream to wanting chocolate. This is changing our minds from what we want to what God wants, what God intends, what God wills. It’s changing our thinking towards God’s will for us and for creation.
Repentance is more than just being sorry. Repentance is even more than promising, “I’ll never do that bad thing again.” Repentance is about a transformation, a turning around, a change of mind, that takes us away from self-centeredness and towards God’s design.
How can we practice repentance this Advent? If we think of repentance as just being sorry, we make repentance too small. There are plenty of things we may feel sorry for, plenty of guilt and regret, but if we stop there, it doesn’t amount to anything. It certainly doesn’t bring us closer to God’s kingdom.
On the other hand, sometimes repentance can seem too big. There are whole systems in our world that run contrary to God’s will, and we should repent of those things. We should repent of racism, sexism, and other injustices. We should repent of our obsession with material things, our false god of consumerism and wealth. We should repent of hunger and homelessness and poverty that affect so many of our neighbors, near and far.
We should repent of these things. We should strive to change our thinking and our acting around these issues. But these problems are so big, it can feel hopeless, overwhelming. How can my repentance change racism? How can my repentance end hunger?
So instead of making repentance too small, or getting lost in a repentance that’s too big, I want us to try something that’s somewhere in between. I’m going to ask you to think of one specific way you might want to repent in your own life, and one specific way you might want to repent in this church community.
Now, catch yourself: did you immediately go back to the things you feel bad about? I’m guilty of that temptation myself. It’s easy to jump from repentance to guilt so quickly we hardly notice it. But I don’t want us to get stuck on the things we feel bad about, the things we are sorry for. I want us to get at a deeper sense of repentance.
Repentance is a change of mind, a change of thinking, a change of imagination. So we need to have some sense of what we are changing towards. We need a new image, a new imagination, to grab hold of.
For our new imagination, it’s hard to do better than the Advent readings from the prophet Isaiah. Last week, we heard Isaiah describe a wonderful future: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
The hopeful imagery of God’s kingdom continues in the reading from Isaiah this week. An image of a living green shoot coming out of an old, dead stump. An image of a peaceable kingdom, not only for humans, but animals as