Repentance

4 December 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
Advent 2A (RCL)
Isaiah 11:1-10
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
Romans 15:4-13
Matthew 3:1-12

The collect for this day calls out the them of repentance in the Gospel reading. The matter is a bit more complicated than just a focus on repentance. Matthew tells us that the people were baptized, “confessing their sins.” When the Scribes and Pharisees come for baptism, he warns them that they must bear fruit worthy of repentance. And when he announces the coming of the mightier one, he says, “I baptize you in water into repentance.” The more powerful one will baptize in Holy Spirit and fire.

What does it mean to be baptized into repentance? There have been endless word studies on the word metanoia, and I am going to add one more. The noos in Greek thought is that part of the intellect responsible for perception, thinking things through, devising plans, understanding and purposeful thought. It was the part of the intellect that was trained in schooling. To change one’s noos would require going back to school, a retraining of perception and intention, a reconfiguration of one’s whole epistemological framework. It is not just changing one’s mind (as in deciding I’ll have a coke today, instead of coffee), but a complete retraining. It means something more than repent like we mean it, to regret doing something, or even to endeavor not to do it again. Plato seems to use it in this more rigorous sense.

People are going out to John the Baptist from Jerusalem and all Judea, to be baptized in the Jordan river. The Jordan, of course, bore significant political implications. When Joshua brought the children of Israel across the Jordan on dry ground, he instructed the leaders of the twelve tribes each to choose a river stone and carry it to the west bank, and build there a cairn of those stones, so that when children ask in days to come the meaning of the stones, the story of the crossing will be recalled. People baptizing in the Jordan (John was not the only one) were making the claim that the current occupants of the land were not God’s choice; they were reclaiming the land.

The wilderness, then, serves as the location where the people are forged into a single identity. In the wilderness the people depended on God and each other; in the wilderness, they received the law, and of course, grumbled, made the golden calfs and all the rest of the story. John is calling them back into the wilderness, so that they can relearn that history, and be reformed as the people of God. They had forgotten the meaning of the twelve stones, and need to relearn it.

John baptizes in water into repentance, but the coming one will baptize with holy spirit and fire. This fire is the fire of judgment, which will burn out the chaff, but it is also the fire that bakes the grains of wheat into bread, the fire of formation. The Isaiah passage speaks of the reformation of the nation after the coming judgment. A shoot will come up out of the stump of Jesse (even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree), who will bring peace and justice through the knowledge and fear of the Lord. Even the Gentiles will come to inquire of him. Paul quotes this passage in his summation of his Gospel in the passage from Romans. Christ has been a servant to the circumcised for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs, one of which was that all the nations of the earth should find their blessing in Abraham. The repentance needed is a relearning in order to understand our identity in this one new humanity of Christ.

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