First Mennonite Church
January 13, 2019
Repentance: A Way of Living
John the Baptist is often called the “harbinger” or “forerunner” of Jesus. These titles simply mean: the one who signals the coming of something or someone, which, in this case, was Jesus’ entry into his public ministry. John came forewarning the people of Jesus’ public appearance and message. In reference to Jesus, John announced, “After me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” John’s demeanor was not that of a typical Jewish peasant or rabbi of his time. He was dressed rather rustically. He did not wear any flashy garment, but wore a tunic made of either camel’s hair or skin/leather, held around his body by a leather belt. His diet was that of the poorest of his people—locusts, some kind of edible grasshopper and wild honey. Later in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to John as someone who avoided banquets and parties and because of his avoidance of feasts, the people thought he was demon-possessed (Matthew 11:18). Luke gives the impression that John the Baptist lived in the desert. It is in the desert where the “word of God came to John” (Luke 3:2). And although John avoided not only the masses but even living as a regular resident within the limits of a village or town, his message attracted people to himself. People from all over the place and from all walks of life started coming to hear John’s message and to be baptized by him.
John was himself a living sermon of simplicity and countercultural lifestyle. He was a living example of what repentance meant. But as we will see today, he also preached it verbally as he introduced Jesus into the public arena.
John’s opening words are: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” But the kind of repentance John was calling for was not only about feeling sorry for personal mistakes and sins. To say one is very sorry about having done or said something is only part of what repentance means, according to John’s message. Repentance means making a complete turnaround, taking a new course of direction; it means, making a 180 degrees turn of direction from which one is going. Repentance means starting again. In that regard, repentance could only be demonstrated by abandoning the values and practices of the “old age” to embrace the new of Jesus’ kingdom. Repentance could only be demonstrated by renouncing the cycle of violence, injustice, exploitation, and greed that characterizes the world. Therefore, John was calling his audience to redirect their life and to align it with the values of the kingdom of heaven that had come near with the coming of Jesus.
In the Gospel of Luke, John’s message of repentance included some very practical ways to be demonstrated. When the crowds asked John for ways to express repentance, John said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” And to others who came, he told repentance meant being honest, avoiding violence, and doing justice. John’s message was stern and direct. He even questioned the motives of the Pharisees and Sadducees in coming to be baptized. John realized that they were coming under the assumption that if they were baptized they would be spared of God’s judgement. But John reminded them that baptism without evidence of repentance was futile and self-deceiving and that God already has his eyes on those who refuse to repent. In fact, John’s words to the Pharisees and Sadducees was nothing short of a harsh insult. He called them a “brood of vipers.” As this incident reveals, hiding behind some kind of religious practice without living the true meaning of it, in John’s message, would merit the same kind of definition. In other words, fulfilling any religious ritual—eating the Lord’s Supper, being baptized, attending worship services, giving alms and fasting, but failing to live the essence of such practices only makes one part of a brood of vipers. Yes, it is harsh language. As Matthew’s account reveals in our passage, the wrong motives for people to ask for baptism is not a new one. There were people who had wrong motives to ask for baptism from the day this practice was introduced.
The words of verse 11 might seem to us a little out of order, doctrinally speaking. John said, “I baptize you with water for repentance. From John’s perspective, baptism is for repentance. In our evangelical preaching we call people to repent and then to be baptized. We believe that repentance should precede baptism. In fact, one question in the baptismal ritual is: “Are you sorry-that is, do you repent– of your sins?” And although repentance of sins is part of our initial Christian conversion experience, we certainly should not think of it as the only time we need to repent. Repentance is an ongoing attitude of faithfulness towards God. Through repentance we acknowledge that our natural inclinations are not aligned with the will of God for our lives. Our natural inclinations are very much in collusion with the way the world operates. We are inclined to go “tooth for tooth,” or “eye for an eye.” We are naturally inclined to react in the way we are treated: “If you yell at me, I will yell at you.” We are inclined to uncritically follow the world’s insatiable consumerist system; therefore, we help sustain the cycle of exploitation of the world’s resources and even human dignity and life. Thus, we are naturally inclined to hoard for ourselves and to be less generous towards others. It is not a mystery to say that we live in a divided and polarized world. And so, we are tempted to give our allegiance to one or the other of those divisive forces that put human life and dignity in jeopardy. In the world we live in today, we see racial injustices, increasing social inequalities, breakdown of family unity through divorce, leaving in its wake countless children having only one parent struggling to hold things together.
Repentance according to John’s message and personal example is a way of life that goes against the grain of the world’s values and system. Repentance means living life fully aware that the way of the world is completely against the way of the kingdom of God. The values of the kingdom of heaven, as preached by both John the Baptist and Jesus, put human life and dignity at the center.
If John’s core message was to repent and to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” from what should we turn around or start all over again? What would the fruit of repentance look in our lives? I want to invite you to look into the way you relate to those around you. What change would you like to make in order to improve the way you relate with others? What aspect of your relationship will you focus on to improve? Will you change your attitude towards other people? Will you be gentler in the way you speak to that someone with whom you cannot see eye to eye? Will you trust more? Will you try to listen to those whom you might have written off in your life?
Once again, if repentance is aligning our lives to the will of God, in what way will you seek to align your everyday life to God’s will? Will you give God more of yourself, of your time? What changes would you make in your daily use of your money and talents? How would you join with God to raise the quality of human life and dignity?
Repentance is needed before we are baptized, but a life lived in repentance means going against the grain of the world. Aligning our lives to the message of the kingdom of heaven will always be going countercultural. It is not hard to know if we live a life of repentance. If you find that other than your coming to church you have a lot in common with your friends who do not go to church on Sunday, it could be that your life might be more aligned to the world. If you see the world’s affairs in the same light your neighbors do, you need to turn around—that is, repent.
My dear sisters and brothers, a life of repentance is a daunting task. It involves our entire life and lifestyle. It involves matters of the spirit but also includes our material life. Repentance is an attitude directed to God but it also affects the way we treat the one who lives or works with us as well as the one who sits next to us in worship.
Again, this is the message of John to us: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Amen.
 This question appears first in the list of alternative questions for baptism in the Minister’s Manual used in the Mennonite Church. (Herald Press, Scottsdale, PA. 1998. P. 50.)