It happens to me all the time—a disembodied voice from the dashboard beseeches, “Repent!” No, it’s not a radio preacher—it’s my GPS telling me I missed my turn: “In 100 yards make a U-turn and return to Mulberry.” That’s pretty much what “metanoia,” the word translated “repentance” in our Gospel lesson, means in Greek. It is literally “to change one’s mind” and, as a result, to “turn around” and go in a new direction. This is somewhat different from the English word “repent,” which implies shame, guilt, remorse, etc. Though this can be (and in some cases, ought to be) part of genuine repentance, it isn’t exactly what the Greek word implies or what the Gospel writers meant. For them, repentance has little to do with feelings and much to do with right actions.
John calls on people to change their minds about what it means to be a child of God. The image he invokes in verse 7—a brood of vipers fleeing a fire—would have been common among his hearers. Even in my youth on a farm in rural Appalachia, we often used a “controlled burn” to clear the stubble on a field at the end of a harvest. And many creatures that my grandfather called “varmints”—snakes, rats, etc.—would come slithering and running out of the field ahead of the flames. John’s meaning is that repentance requires more than either regret for bad behavior or fear of punishment. What later spiritual writers referred to as “amendment of life” is part and parcel of really, truly changing one’s mind.
This is clearly shown by Luke in the somewhat stylized description of folk coming to John asking what they must “do.” First, there is the general public, who are told to share what they have with others: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (verse 11). Second, “even the tax collectors” came and were told to not collect more than they were supposed to (verse 13). Lastly, soldiers (probably hated Romans) came and were told to not use their power for personal gain (verse 14).
The important thing here is not so much the exact things John told each of these groups to do—this is not a new law, technique, or requirement for “getting saved,” “pleasing God” or “being a moral person.” The point is that “thinking right” and “doing right” are morally and spiritually inseparable. To truly repent means not only to change your mind, but also to change your way of life. The two go together like a hand in a glove. To repent of racism without changing your behavior toward people of other races is worthless. To repent of sexism without changing your behavior toward people of other genders is a waste of breath. To repent of mistreating and abusing family members without changing your behavior toward them does neither you nor them any good. And so it goes, on and on, in all areas of our lives. To repent is to change not only our minds but also our hearts and actions.
The point is that “thinking right” and “doing right” are morally and spiritually inseparable. To truly repent means not only to change your mind, but also to change your way of life.
Perhaps the most jarring part of this Gospel lesson is the last line: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” What? What “good news”? In what possible universe of meaning does all this talk of vipers, trees and chaff consumed with an “unquenchable fire” equal “good news”?
Well, this is only “bad news” if we assume that the promised messiah to whom John points has come to separate humanity into “good people” and “bad people”; fruitful followers of God, and unfruitful pretenders. But that isn’t what the text actually says—it is what our fearful and/or judgmental eyes, ears and hearts perceive. That is an understandable reading—but it’s not consistent with the prophetic message of the Hebrew Scriptures. Over and over again, the word of the Lord comes to a variety of preachers with a message of both judgement and new life rooted in the call to repentance, the call to change one’s mind, and as a result, to change one’s actions. Judgment and salvation are offered to all—judgment of their attitudes and actions, salvation to their selves and souls.
While our reading from Zephaniah is full of singing, shouting and rejoicing before the Lord, this is the grace note at the end of the book. Everything prior is gloom and doom about and judgment upon the world in general and Judah and Jerusalem in particular. The promise of hope comes at the end. But there is a promise of hope. Genuinely bad news would be if there were no possibility of reprieve, no opportunity for a change of mind, a change of behavior, a change of outcome.
Isaiah speaks to Israel in a time of great terror and distress—an enemy army is at the gates, brought there in part by what Isaiah considers to be wrong thinking and wrong behavior by the nation’s political leadership. In the midst of pointing out this misdirection, Isaiah proclaims the good news that, in spite of the people’s failures, God’s promise for the future is sure and they can hold on to hope, not because of their own goodness but because of God’s goodness, mercy and love.
So the good news John proclaims is that the messiah is on the way to remove from our lives those things that keep us from bearing good fruit—fruit “worthy of repentance,” fruit that is the result of changed minds and changed lives. The ax chops down not people, but sinful attitudes and actions that separate us from God and one another. The fire burns away that which keeps us from following God, the winnowing fork rakes up the trash of our lives, getting it out of our way so can we can more easily serve God and our neighbor.
This Advent a voice calls out to us. It calls on us to repent, to change our minds and actions, to make U-turns where U-turns are needed, to follow the messiah where the messiah leads. The voice is a powerful voice, because it chops, burns and rakes our lives and souls—cleaning us up and pointing us in the right direction. And the only responses we can make are the ones to which Zephaniah and Isaiah invite us:
“Sing aloud, O Daughter of Zion; shout O Israel” (Zephaniah 3:14)!
“Sing praise to the LORD. … Shout aloud and sing for joy …” (Isaiah 12:5-6).
Amen and amen.