I imagine we have occasionally come upon some characters dressed in unusual garb, professing to have a word from God. They often are dressed in robes, crying out their appeals / commands.
I recall one such individual, who was poised on a traffic island in downtown Nashville. He was wearing a sign bearing the message, “Repent in the raw. Nudist Christians.” If my recollection of the fellow is accurate, it seemed underneath the sign, he was wearing no shirt. However, he did have on some pants.
Below the delightful invitation was a phone number. I didn’t bother memorizing it. I had no intention to follow up and get more information on his group.
The nudist fellow aside, the call to repent is usually understood to be a stern warning. It’s a demand to get your act together! If you have ever encountered any of those oddballs on the sidewalks, it would be easy to get that idea. Or maybe you’ve been in church with a wild-eyed preacher pointing and shouting, “Repent, ye sinners!”
The fellow in Matthew 3 could fit the bill. “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (vv. 1-2). He seems to be a rather formidable force, with a bit of fanatic thrown in, at least according to polite society.
“In those days” he appears. No particular time period is intended. We might think of life going on as normal, when suddenly this prophetic figure arises. It happens in the wilderness—a region “off the grid,” so to speak. The reason for repentance is due to the kingdom of heaven as drawing near, as being at hand.
It’s right here, within our grasp. The pure of heart are graced, as the gospel later tells us, to “see God” (5:8). The kingdom can be sensed in moments of awe.
We’re told John is prefigured by Isaiah with the message, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (v. 3). By this time, those in the Jewish faith had come to see this as a messianic scripture, a reference to the end times when the Messiah will establish universal peace. There’s a slightly different spin from Isaiah 40, which says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
Being in the desert, in the wilderness, is far from the structures erected by human ingenuity. Having said that, the wilderness is less about outward structures than it is about inward ones. The desert is a place of utter openness, of exposure that is complete vulnerability.
The clothing of John the Baptist has been an inspiration for those characters I mentioned earlier. It’s not exactly what would be seen on the runways of fashion capitals around the world.
How about his menu, consisting of locusts and wild honey? In Leviticus 11, which deals with ritually clean and unclean food, “locusts of every kind” are pronounced kosher (v. 22).
On a side note, locusts have been and are still eaten in many parts of the world. They are rich in protein, and can be prepared in many different ways, including frying in olive oil, perhaps with a dusting of salt and spices. They are a tasty and crunchy biblical food! So accompanied with wild honey (as opposed to the product of domestic bees) we have a combination of savory and sweet.
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says of him, “When John waded into the water with people, he was cleaning them up for their audience with God, which he believed would take place very soon. He begged them to change their lives in preparation for that event, and he was not below scaring them half to death if that was what it took.”
That especially applied to the Pharisees and Sadducees who approached him, who he referred to as a “brood of vipers” (v. 7). John compares them to snakes fleeing a fire. In doing so, he’s hardly saying their ministry and leadership are based on such noble and godly qualities like love and concern for the people.
He warns them against relying on their status as sons of Abraham. Quit acting like big shots. Demonstrate a conscientious desire to serve the Lord.
Taylor continues, saying John “offered to hose them down, if they were willing. If they could come out of their comas long enough to see what was wrong and say so out loud, then he would wash it away for them, forever. Or God would. The same God who could make children of Abraham out of river rocks could make children of God out of them right there, if they were willing. All they had to do was consent, repent, return to the Lord and they could start their lives all over again before they even dried off.”
That was an amazing gift. “The past would lose its power over them. What they had done, what they had said, what they had made happen and what had happened to them would no longer run their lives.”
Too often we want to hold on to the past, even a past that was destructive and hurtful. Have there been voices in our head telling us, “You’re dumb. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. You’re an embarrassment”? Or maybe we’ve inflicted that kind of pain on others, possibly without even intending to.
“As scary as John was,” says Taylor, “it was a pretty great offer. No wonder people walked days to get to him. No wonder they stood around even after their turns were over, just to hear him say it again and again. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ What sounds like a threat to us sounded like a promise to them. We hear guilt where they heard pardon, and at least part of the problem, I think, is our resistance to the whole notion of repentance.”
Remember the wild-eyed guy I mentioned yelling, “Repent, ye sinners”? As just noted, where we hear a threat, they hear a promise. That goes to my title: the gift of repentance. If that sounds counter-intuitive, please know there are scriptures in the Bible making that very point. I could cite several, but I’ll just give one from both Old and New Testaments.
In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet speaks the word of the Lord to the people in exile in Babylon. They are promised return and restoration. “A new heart I will give you,” says the Lord, “and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26). They are promised outer restoration (their nation), and inner restoration (their spirit).
In the New Testament, Peter is describing to his fellow Jews how God directed him to go to the home of the Roman centurion, Cornelius. Understand, Jews were forbidden to visit Gentiles—and certainly not to sit down and eat with them! Peter said, “as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” that is, on the day of Pentecost (Ac 11:15). How do they react? “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the gentiles the repentance that leads to life’” (v. 18).
The Gentiles received the gift of repentance. Do we also not play a role in that? Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
Repentance leads to life. The chains of death and darkness are shattered, torn asunder. We are set free from the power of sin. We are slaves no more.
However, having those shackles removed doesn’t mean we won’t be aching to put them on again. Sometimes we don’t want to be healed. Sometimes we like being stuck in the mud. The hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” cries out the plea, “Take away the love of sinning; Alpha and Omega be.” Poor wretched creatures that we are, we are prone to not only choosing sin, but loving it.
We don’t want to give up the fun of spreading rumors or talking smack behind somebody’s back. Why forego the enjoyment of berating the driver who cut us off in traffic? Why is it called road rage when it’s such a thrill? Why deprive ourselves of the pleasure found in getting revenge, which is a dish best served cold?
Worst of all, we too often refuse the love of God, who calls us to do the things—or calls us to love the ones—we would rather not do. We might even notice our ignoring Ezekiel’s caution about hearts turning to stone.
Repentance is indeed a gift, but it also must be sought. Without a desire to change, without a desire to know Jesus more deeply, there is no repentance.
John is baptizing, but he knows very well it’s not about him. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (v. 11). Now he really sounds like that wild man from the wilderness.
If John the Baptist hoses you down, the one to come (a perfect image for Advent) sets you on fire. Jesus is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He wields a winnowing fork, throwing the wheat into the air and allowing the breeze to blow away the debris.
The chaff will be consumed by flame. It takes up space but contributes very little. It’s not terribly nutritious. It provides some empty calories, so to speak.
There is chaff within us to be burned away. (I’m addressing this to myself more than to anyone.) It can be quite painful; burning usually is! As noted before, sometimes we don’t want to be healed. We want to remain stuck. We love our sin. And to submit to it being wrenched away feels like we’re losing part of ourselves. And guess what? It’s true, and it needs to go.
Once we let that stuff go, we find a liberty we couldn’t imagine. A burden is lifted. Dare we look inside and have the courage to face it?
We are freed to love and serve whose advent is nigh, Jesus Christ, the one who comes to us.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Journal for Preachers, “A Cure for Despair: Matthew 3:1-12,” 21:1 (Advent 1997), 16.
 Taylor, 16.
 Taylor, 17.