2nd Sunday in Advent
December 7, 2104
I have to laugh when I remember a funny incident from years ago. We had a family football game going on with myself, my kids, their cousins and their cousins’ dad. The kids were really young and they didn’t understand the game too well.
My nephew, Sammy, was on my team for a while, but then decided he wanted to be on his Dad’s team. This change of sides apparently caused some confusion for him. On the first play with his new team, he got a hand-off and began to run as fast as he could… in the wrong direction. Everybody stopped. You just don’t really have a football game anymore when the ball carrier starts running the wrong way.
Sammy’s dad and I called for Sammy several times to turn around and run the other way, but he couldn’t hear us. He was completely fixed on reaching the goal line. We raised our voices and finally Sammy looked back. It took him a while to process what was going on, but he finally changed direction. Once again, all was right on the field… the game had meaning and play could continue.
That image of little Sammy running as hard as he could — but the wrong way — is a good picture to help us understand the word “repentance” which is used in today’s Gospel.
The Gospel tells of John the Baptism, preparing the way for the coming of the Kingdom of God… the beginning of Jesus’ ministry… John proclaimed a “baptism of repentance.”
Repentance is a powerful word… and a very important part of the Advent season as we make ourselves ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God… and we make ourselves ready for Jesus to do his work in us.
Repentance is what is called for when our direction in life is not what it should be. In a deeper sense, repentance is called for every day of our lives.
The concept of repentance is a very rich and profound one in both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament traditions. And it is a crucial foundation stone in our relationship with God.
The Greek word translated as repentance here is “metanoia” (μετάνοια). It is important to note that the common meaning of the English word “repentance” just doesn’t fit the meaning of the Greek word μετάνοια.
Biblical scholars have, for years, lamented the use of “repentance” for μετάνοια. Here’s a brief sampling of scholarly comments regarding this word choice:
“an unsuitable translation.”
“an utter mistranslation”
“the worst translation in the New Testament.”
“a linguistic and theological tragedy.”
However, since there is no suitable English word that accurately expresses the meaning of μετάνοια, the use of “repentance” continues.
In English, the word repentance is a word that looks back in regret. We generally understand it to mean we’re really sorry for something we’ve done or failed to do.
The Greek word μετάνοια looks forward. It is a powerfully hopeful word. It literally means “to change one’s heart or mind.” Its full translation might go like this: “a change in world view and life direction that involves all of one’s being.” It builds on the older Hebrew word, “shov” (שוב) which means literally to “turn around” or “come back.”
Biblical repentance doesn’t mean looking back and feeling or saying we’re sorry for something we’ve done. It means looking forward and setting our sights on new life and committing ourselves to changes that bring us back to God… bring us toward the life God means us to have.
If, like little Sammy, we are going the wrong direction in life, it doesn’t matter how hard we run, or even how much God calls us and runs after us, We cannot receive the new life God desires to give us, until we have reoriented ourselves to a new direction… a new way of seeing, thinking and doing.
Repentance is necessary for the new life God wants us to have. It is necessary for the life we were meant to have; but it isn’t easy.
This is because our human will is naturally rebellious. We want to go our own way. We are generally comfortable with the direction we are already going. It’s what we know and are used to. It’s easy for us to be our own lord and master as long as we keep going the same old way that is familiar to us.
But getting stuck in the old way can be incredibly destructive for us and for those around us. That is why repentance is so important.
In today’s Gospel lesson, John’s call for repentance is followed by the promise that something is coming, something of God, something powerful and good. From what we hear about John and his preaching, it seems that not even he was sure what it was he was preparing the way for. He only knew that whoever was coming, was from God, and people needed to get ready for him. They needed to prepare themselves for something new, for change. They needed to turn around to see it, to participate in it. They needed to repent.
We understand now that what was coming was God himself, wrapped in human flesh — in the person of Jesus Christ. And this fact is what we call the Gospel (the Good News) of Jesus Christ.
The Good News is that God has pursued us through time and space, and fought his way through darkness and death, in order to be near us — in order to bring his power and presence to those who are in trouble (who are in need).
God is fulfilling the wonderful promise he proclaimed through the prophet Ezekiel: “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…. I will feed them with justice.”
It is a healthy thing to feel sorry for bad things we’ve done or for good things we’ve failed to do. In fact, I’m not sure we can move away from that kind of grief until we feel sorry for those things. However, that is not the ultimate aim of the Gospel. God is calling us to something much bigger and richer. What God has in mind for you and for me is new direction, change, growth… new life.
The Good News is that God comes to us, in Christ… now and always. He is always calling us forward to a future of his making. And he meets us along the way with wonderful gifts: forgiveness, acceptance, love, strength, joy, hope, salvation. It is his will and his pleasure to mold and shape our lives with these things.
It is important that we all hear John’s call for repentance. In order for us to be ready to meet what is coming, in order for us to meet God who comes to us with riches of his kingdom, we must hear the call to repentance. We must hear God calling after us in the voice of his living word (present in scripture, in the church, in creation, in relationships), telling us to turn around and make our lives ready to receive him who brings the riches and blessings of the kingdom of God.