Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3:13-15)
One of my professors described the task of interpreting Matthew as akin to nailing jello to the wall. I’m inclined to think, though, that the real challenge in reading Matthew is that he presumed a knowledge of Jewish history that most modern readers lack. That’s particularly the case in this passage from the Gospel. What is John doing? What is Jesus doing? Matthew doesn’t explain. So, let me fill in the gaps.
John understands his role as one who gets people ready for the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people had longed for a deliverer for millennia and – at last – he was coming. But how do you get ready for this kind of event?
The prophets were clear about this. The people needed to repent, to turn around, to change the way that they lived. Because even though the Messiah was Israel’s long-awaited deliverer, they were equally clear that the primary task of the Messiah was to bring Israel fully into alignment with God’s purposes – to restore the kind of intimacy that God longed to have with his people from the very beginning. Repentance was necessary, because without turning around, without abandoning old and familiar ways of coping on their own, the people of Israel were not going to be ready to listen or receive the Messiah – proving once and for all that sometimes the only solution is to reboot.
So, John dresses up in rough clothing and eats a basic diet of locusts and honey to stress the urgency of the situation. And he goes out into the wilderness preaching and baptizing his hearer as an act of cleansing and repentance.
When Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized, John is understandably resistant. He knows that Jesus is the Messiah and there is nothing in the Jewish tradition about baptizing the Messiah, let alone someone who doesn’t need to repent. John is fairly sure that he is the one who needs to be baptized. But Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
If Jesus isn’t talking about prophecy, what is he talking about? The answer lies in his role not just as the Messiah, but as God’s son. “Righteousness” is not about being good or nice. It is about living a life aligned with the purposes of God. And Jesus is sent, not just to deliver us, but to embody the lives that we are meant to live. So, in narrow terms, John is right. Jesus doesn’t need to repent. But we do. And it’s with our need to repent that I would like to focus this morning.
At one point or another, all of us have resisted repenting. That’s not surprising. The cultural tapes around the act of repentance are not all that attractive. The message that we get is that repentance is embarrassing and an occasion for shame. An invitation to self-loathing and misery. It is the leverage that is used by the self-righteous. In a world of carrots, repentance is the stick.
And there are certainly examples of it out there that justify this stereotype. Repentance was once the centerpiece of fire and brimstone preaching, and it still is in some circles. As a spiritual director, I have noticed that in the world of recovering fundamentalists, the hardest thing to recover from is not just bad theology, but the deep shame that preaching of that kind instills. Told time and time again that they are unworthy of love, people who have walked that path have often been taught to think of repentance as an endless game of entrapment or – maybe – the Hotel California: “You can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”*
The stunning, but really rather predictable development, of course, is that now the demand for repentance as entrapment is the stuff of a new brand of political fundamentalism, as well. You can be called on to repent of your politics, your unpatriotic or undemocratic views, your social status, your eating habits, your choice of cars, the size of your checkbook, your sex, gender, and race. And – now – according to a New York Times piece this week, you should probably repent of being tall, because short people are supposedly better for the environment.
For that reason, it may be more important than ever to be biblical about repentance. When we are, we get a very different picture of what it is all about. And we find a place that we can reclaim our spiritual independence of tyrants and bullies, without making the dangerous assumption that repentance is an outdated and unnecessary dynamic in a healthy spiritual life.
I’m going to be direct, now, so that we don’t lose the thread of what is at stake:
First: Repentance is about specific actions and ways of thinking. It is not God’s way of saying you are unloved or unforgivable.
If you believe that to repent means that you are an unlovable mistake, that God hates you and rejects you, then one or more of three things have happened: You’ve been manipulated. You’ve been deliberately misled. Or you have misunderstood what repentance is all about.
This is the peril in both religious and political fundamentalism. Repentance in those settings is not about naming what we could or should do differently, it is about branding people. And, as an exercise in branding, it is also about control. If you’ve been branded, if you have been told that what is unforgivable about you is bone-deep and inescapable, that is not what repentance is all about.
Repentance is about naming a specific act, a way of acting, or a way of thinking that presents a barrier to God’s love and a love of others. The Bible uses the word, “sin”, which means “missing the mark” to describe those acts and patterns. Repentance, then, isn’t about camping out in a Hotel California of self-loathing and hopelessness. It’s about being freed. It is a starting point. It is ground-clearing. And we can’t know where to start without the Holy Spirit identifying what might cause us to miss the mark.
As such, repentance is an important key to our spiritual growth and progress. We can’t grow in generosity, if we feed our greed. We can’t deepen in wisdom if we are vain and superficial. We can’t acquire a capacity for love by being self-serving, mean, and abusive. We can’t be honest by dissembling and lying. We can’t be courageous by hiding out. We can’t be faithful by being fearful. And we can’t receive God’s healing by ignoring God or living as if God doesn’t matter.
And these barriers or sins aren’t just big things. Sometimes – in fact, quite often – they are little things. Pockets and islands of our lives that have yet to be surrendered to God. In fact, many times it’s not about willful sin, it’s about growth. It’s understanding something about ourselves that we’ve never understood before.
I can remember what a revolution in my own faith was when I discovered that Jesus was not the God who moved goalposts and the Christian journey is about more than being good or nice. Up to that point my life had been lived on a knife’s edge, and the effort to be a good son, a good student, and a good person. I realized that God wasn’t a hall monitor, but my loving advocate and that changed the way I related to God and to others.
When you think about it, the notion that we have nothing to repent of presupposes that we are perfect, that we are incapable of doing the wrong thing or thinking about things in the wrong way, that we can’t possibly hurt someone else, ignore them, or undermine them, that we know God so well that we have nothing else to learn, no more growing to do. Frankly, that’s impossible and only someone who is self-deluded would think otherwise.
A second truth about a biblical view of repentance is that it is all about turning, changing, and moving on.
The gift of repentance isn’t just the opportunity to name what is inhibiting our spiritual growth. It’s also the gift of being able to grow, with God’s help, to find a new direction. This is not about self-help. It is not about mind over matter. It’s about God’s help. It is about putting our lives back in the hands of God, whatever our circumstances.
Follow me carefully here: Far too many Christians have bought into a transactional view of their faith. Countless preachers and teachers have popularized the idea that the most important thing about the Christian life is that moment when you receive Christ as your savior. In that moment you get your name moved from the column that reads “Damned and going to hell” to the column labeled, “Saved and going to heaven.” There is little more left to hope for other than to hunker down, hold on for dear life, and hope not to screw things up.
There are a number of problems with this reading of the Christian journey, but one of the big problems is this: If we assume that all God has in mind for us is that one moment, then we are missing out on the larger gift that God longs to give us. The Christian life is not about get saved and hold on for dear life. Whether it begins with a spiritual crisis in adult life or at our baptism as an infant, God is in the business of healing his image in us. And that entails growth and progress, not just sometime in the future, but now.
And that journey is an invitation to the young and the old, the strong and the weak, the healthy and those who are ill. Life in the body of Christ may look like a harmless bundle of old rituals, a gathering of well-meaning people working hard at being nice. But it is not. Repentance is the starting point of a journey on which we give our lives back to God each day and we discover new layers of freedom, meaning, service, and creativity in Christ.
That is why the church has been at the forefront of creating schools, universities, and hospitals. That is why the Christian journey has shaped the lives of educators, scientists, physicians, athletes, actors, writers, and politicians. And that is why the history of the western world has been shaped by opposition to slavery and racism, the exploitation of children, and discrimination against women. And why the church has been at the forefront of the battles against poverty, ignorance, and persecution.
Jesus didn’t inhabit our lives to create a group of people hanging on for dear life, hoping not to make a mistake. He didn’t come to beat us up. He came to lead us out. Out of enslavement to our failings, out of enslavement to our past, out of enslavement to a future we can’t control, out of the small visions of what we can be.
Repentance is not the end, the death-knell, a damning word of condemnation. It is not the Hotel California It is the beginning, an opening, an opportunity, the way out into the everlasting arms of God, the light, the release, the freedom that only God can give.
*For those who don’t know who The Eagles are (?!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09839DpTctU