In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
How did the people of Judea respond to the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God by Jesus and John the Baptist? It is reported that they headed down to the river Jordan in large numbers to be baptised. Why? Well, they recognised baptism to be a sign of their personal repentance. The question remains: why was repentance considered the appropriate way to make ready for the approaching kingdom of God?
I find this analogy helpful. In the Second World War France suffered under Nazi occupation for some four years. Soon after the Normandy invasion Paris was liberated by the allied forces with General de Gaulle leading the Free French army down the Champs-Elysees. This was a mixed blessing for those of the French people who had collaborated with the occupying forces. They were fearful of the day when they would have to account for their treachery. Perhaps in the days before liberation they might have sought to ‘come clean’ and make things right by confession and a change of allegiance.
For those of us who have collaborated with the forces of darkness over the years we might view this moment in our lives as a time of amnesty where we can own up to our treachery and transform our ways in readiness for the coming of the king.
Repentance can be understood as being closely related to faith. Where faith is a turning to God in trust and hope, repentance is a turning away from our dark deeds and self-centredness. They are the two sides of a single coin. Both are matters of the heart and also of outward change. John challenged the Sadducees and Pharisees who were coming down to the Jordan for baptism to show the fruits of genuine repentance. They should not presume on their religious background. Even now, he warned them, the axe is laid to the root of the tree and the tree that does not bear fruit will be cast away.
Holy God In your penetrating light all is made visible. Where then can I hide from your sight? You know my thoughts and intentions Before they ever come to mind. I have been found out And lie defenceless before you. Cover my nakedness with your love I pray, Lift me up in your arms. Turn my mind and heart To worship you And follow you faithfully all my days. Amen