John the Baptist may have been the first and last successful crazy, street-corner preacher.
Why did so many people come to him for his baptism? Our modern street-corner preachers who hold signs that say “repent” don’t have nearly the same results.
Maybe you feel like I do: When I hear a preacher shouting “repent,” what I really hear is he or she saying, “Stop being bad. Start being good or else God’s gonna be mad at you.
This feels like more of a threat than anything else. It just never works on me. Who wants their spiritual arm twisted? It’s like religious bullying.
And I just can’t imagine that it was religious bullying that brought all of Judea and Jerusalem to be baptized by John. Fear and threat can create change in behavior. No question about it. But it doesn’t really change your thinking.
Threats don’t change your heart.
Change in thinking and change of heart takes truth and promise. Namely, the truth and promise that is external to us and that comes only from God; reaching into the graves we dig ourselves and bringing out new life.
Because if repentance comes from something other than an external word of truth about who you are and who God is, it’s not repentance. It’s self-improvement.
And I’m pretty sure that what happened that day by the banks of the Jordon was more than just a massive wave of self-improvement.
So if John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, then maybe it wasn’t so much so that sinners would confess and stop being bad.
Maybe it was so that all would hear the truth about this God who comes near to us in the person of Jesus Christ — not so that we might be good but that we might be new.
John says to them: Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for something new because there is one who is coming who will change everything.
The way in which John the Baptist prepares the people for the gospel is by making room for it through washing away their old ideas and expectations.
The untruth, sin, shame and all competing identities float away in the Jordon because the real thing is finally here.
I believe it was the truth and promise of this gospel and not religious bullying that compelled repentance and new life from the people of Judea.
I wonder if repentance is giving up on the idea that we can redeem ourselves. Maybe true repentance involves surrender more than it involves self-improvement. The practice of kneeling in church has military origins, namely that it was a posture of surrender, as in you can’t fight if you’re kneeling.
This kind of surrender, the kind we see in forgiven sinners in the waters of the Jordon, only comes from hearing the truth of who we are and the truth of who God is.
Repentance in Greek means something closer to “thinking differently afterward” than it means “change your cheating ways.”
Repentance can look like a prostitute becoming a librarian, but repentance can also look like a whore saying, “OK, I’m a sex worker and I have no idea how to get out, but I can come here and receive bread and wine. And maybe, if only for a moment, I can hold onto the love of God without being deemed worthy of it by anyone but God.”
Repentance is a con artist being a real person for the first time without knowing who that person is anymore but knowing he sees it in the eyes of those serving him communion, naming him a child of God.
Repentance is realizing there is more life to be had in being proven wrong than in continuing to think you’re right.
Repentance is the adult child of a fundamentalist saying, “I give up on waiting for my mom to love me for who I am so I’m gonna rely on God to help me love her for who she is because I know she’s not going to be around forever.”
Repentance is unexpected beauty after a failed suicide attempt.
Repentance is a couple weeks ago when the clerk at the adult bookstore on Colfax teared up and said to me, “Your church brought me Thanksgiving lunch?”
Repentance is what happened to me when at the age of 28 my first community college teacher told me I was smart and, despite all my past experience, I believed her.
Repentance is what happens to us when the good news, the truth of who we are and who God is, enters our lives and scatters the darkness of competing ideas.
It is the external truth of God that liberates you from the bondage of self. This is what the daily return to baptism looks like. It is like the arm of God reaches in to rip out your own heart and replace it with God’s own.
Every time you hear the absolution — that you are forgiven — every time you hear that Christ has come into the world to change everything, every time you hear that you are a child of God and that this is God’s very own body broken and poured out for you — every time these external words of good news enter your ears, they scatter the darkness of competing claims.
All of it is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ Son of God.