John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
All the people were baptized. Jesus also is baptized by John in the Jordan River.
And for centuries since, people have asked the question, “why did Jesus get baptized? Why was he baptized with a baptism of repentance? Surely he hadn’t done anything wrong – did Jesus need to repent?”
Some have tried to answer that question by saying that Jesus didn’t need to repent, but that he chose to be baptised anyways, as a gesture of solidarity with all the rest of us that do need repentance. And while I agree totally that Jesus stands in solidarity with us, in this and so many ways, I have to disagree about the repentance part. I think that Jesus needed a baptism of repentance, as much, or maybe even more, than any of us.
The confusion about Jesus’ baptism comes from the way we have historically narrowed and distorted the word “repentance”. We tend to think that to repent is to say you’re sorry for something wrong that you’ve done. That might be part of it. But repentance is actually much bigger and much more important, much more foundational than that.
The actual word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means to change your mind. Metanoia, or repentance is a transformation, a changing of your orientation, a change in your understanding, perception and way of life. It’s a turning about, a change in direction.
Was Jesus’ baptism a moment of metanoia? Was it a turning point in Jesus’ life?
We don’t know very much about his life before his baptism, but that in itself tells us something. Baptism was the moment when Jesus’ went from private life to public ministry. This was the moment when he assumed the mantle of a prophet, when he took on the mission of Messiah, when he was revealed as the one who would make God known. If that’s not a moment of metanoia, if that’s not an earth-shaking, ground-breaking change in the mindset and orientation of someone’s life, than I don’t know what is!
Jesus’ baptism was a moment of repentance. Jesus then calls us to repentance with the very first words of his public ministry, “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” We are called to be transformed. Baptism is our primary sacrament, it’s our symbol of the life-giving transformation that we call repentance.
But have you ever wondered what makes repentance possible?
Have you ever tried to change? To transform your way of understanding the world? To separate the wheat from the chaff in your own life? It’s hard! Just ask all the people who have already given up on their New Year’s resolutions.
Our fundamental calling as followers of Jesus is to repent, to change, to be transformed. The fundamental calling of the church is to change lives. And yet, that is often the hardest thing of all. What is it that makes repentance possible?
Or to put it another way, if you wanted someone in your life to change, what would you do? How would you go about it? How would you try to motivate that person?
The temptation for most of us is to use some sort of system of reward and punishment. You know what I’m talking about, we do it all the time. Parents, how many times have you said to your child, if you want dessert you have to finish your vegetables? Or if you don’t tidy your room, you won’t get any screen time. And we don’t just do it with our children. What about the spouse who says, one way or another, to their partner, “if you want me to love you, you’ll have to start doing this or stop doing that?” Or the church that says if you want to get to heaven, here’s what you’re going to have to change in your life?
Reward and punishment is one way of trying to change lives, of encouraging repentance. It’s can be effective, though often with unintended consequences.
But it’s not God’s way.
God’s way is not to change people so that they can be loved. God’s way is to love people so that they can change.
We see it in our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah. The people of Israel are on the brink of a massive change. They have been living in exile in Babylon for two generations, and now that the Persians have defeated the Babylonians, the people of Israel have been told that they can return home to Jerusalem. But they are afraid. It will be a massive change in their lives. Jerusalem has been destroyed. Most of them had never known a home other than Babylon. The journey across the desert would be long and dangerous. The change that’s being asked of them is too much, too big, too hard.
And how does God respond?
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. You are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you.”
What makes repentance possible? It’s knowing that we are loved and that we are worthy of love, now, just as we are, that’s what enables repentance. Knowing that we are loved, before we change, while we change and after we’ve changed. Love comes first, love is what enables us to change and grow into the fullness of whom God created us to be.
We see it again at Jesus’ baptism, at this moment of new beginning in his life. Was Jesus afraid of the new journey he was about to embark on at his baptism? We don’t know, though we do know from the way it turned out that he had every reason to be afraid. And what we also know is that at the moment of his baptism, the heaven was opened, and a voice came from heaven saying “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Imagine the impact of hearing those words. Imagine how those words would become a turning point in Jesus’ life. It is knowing that God loves us that enables change to happen in our lives.
That is God’s gift to us. The words that the people of Israel heard, the words that Jesus heard, these words have been recorded in our scriptures and were read out this Sunday so that you can hear them too. Listen again to what God is saying to you:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. You are precious in my sight and honoured, and I love you. You are my child, the beloved. With you I am well pleased.”
God loves us now, as we are. We were created in love and pronounced as good at the very beginning, and even when we screw up, God never stops loving us. It is the power of that love that enables us to change and grow and be transformed into the fullness of what God intends for each one us. We are called to repentance: to change our understandings, our perspectives, our orientation, our way of life. Baptism is our primary sacrament & symbol of that life-giving transformation that we call repentance. It is God’s love for us that makes repentance possible.
And like Jesus, in solidarity with Jesus, we too have a role to play. When we look at how Jesus lived, when we see him engage with others, especially when he engages with outsiders and sinners and those whom his community had marginalized, we see that Jesus did not ask people to change so that he could love them. He loved them so that they could change.
We can do that for each other. All of us are called to repentance, but it is love that enables repentance. So love one another. Resist the temptation to withhold love in an effort to make people change. Love one another, make possible the beautiful transformations that each one of us wants to see in our lives and in the lives of those around us. That’s the very purpose of this community we call church, to change lives, to love people so that their lives can be changed.
Because that’s what God does.
Homily: Yr C Baptism of the Lord, January 13 2019, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 43.1-7, Ps 29, Acts 8.14-17, Luke 3.15-17, 21-22