“Grounded in a New Way of Being”
December 4, 2022
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor;” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ ***
Throughout life we encounter times when we realize change is needed. Things do not work out. Something happens. The tried and true ways become tired and trite. It may happen suddenly or slowly over time. Either way, we realize we cannot go on like we have. We must not only do things differently we must be different. Other times, whether or not we want them or are ready, life brings us changes.
That is what happened to the people who heard John’s preaching out in the wilderness. Something about his message of change, preparation, and repentance took root in them.
This is the Advent message the church announces — the news that in the coming of Christ we, our lives, and our world cannot continue on in the same old ways. That message was enough to draw the crowds out to John. Is it still a message we need today?
I have been wondering about those crowds in the wilderness long ago. They must have heard a word in the wilderness of their lives. A word that was prophetic, a word of deep insight, by which they recognize that all is not well. But it had to be also a word of hope and rejoicing, a word of God, that says all can be well. It is a word that joins the wilderness and paradise and makes them two sides of the same reality.
John seemed to know that real change, transformation, does not begin with the world around us but the world within us. One of the things that often makes change difficult is our propensity for self-justification. This happens in lots of different ways. We blame others. We list how hard we have worked and what we deserve. We claim place and position by virtue of our tenure or experience. We deny our need for others. We refuse to accept responsibility for ourselves. We play the victim. We choose to live as blind or uninformed persons. John understands this about us. He expresses his understanding directly and bluntly:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Uffda.
John has no patience for self-justification. He will not settle for good intentions or nice behavior. There must be congruence between who we are and what we do. This means going all in. Changing the direction of our lives, means that inner change, a change in our way of being must be manifested by corresponding behaviors. Likewise, our words and actions must point to and arise from a different way of being.
“Bear fruit worthy of repentance” John proclaims. In other words, go and do the right thing. Share with those in need. Do not take advantage of or defraud others. Do not manipulate, use, or coerce others.
Underneath, however, lies the deeper issue and the real change that must take place. The reason we can deny or be indifferent to the needs of others, the reason we can lie to or take advantage of another, the reason we can use, manipulate, harm, and even kill another is because we see them as something other and something less than our selves. We see them as objects to be used or overcome and not as persons.
In calling for repentance, John is demanding behavior that arises from and is grounded in a new way of being, one that sees the other as a person with needs, hopes, fears, dreams, and a life as real and as valid as our own.
Repentance bears fruit which sees others as holy, as created and loved by the same God who created and loves us. That changes everything about how we see the world and relate to others. It is what Jesus is talking about when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” It is “a gospel of shared life” (Richard Rohr), one life shared with other persons and shared with God.
The word repentance in the biblical language is “metanoia.” “Meta” means “after” and it bears the concept of change as in the word metamorphosis, and “noia” translates to mind. Metanoia is a change of mind so powerful that it changes one’s very way of life.
Repentance is not just about us. It is connected to and happens in relationship with God and neighbor It is not about escaping the circumstances of our life but about engaging those circumstances in a new and different way — God’s way.
Thus, repentance turns us in a Godward direction and it bears fruit outwardly to our neighbor, restoring, enhancing and giving life.
Repentance opens us to see ourselves and each other as we really are in God. It fills us with the joyful expectation of the one who is more powerful, the Messiah.
Every moment of every day we choose our way of being, how we will speak, and how we will act. Amidst the many voices that offer advice, opinion and critique, continue to hear the voice of John the Baptist, “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and in doing so “prepare the way of the Lord.”