Sermons

Sun, Jan 13, 2019

Divine repentance

Series:Sermons

It was the Friday of the second to last week of the school year…

at the end of year eleven.

Exams were over.

There was nothing left to do, but we still had to be at school anyway. 

Just before lunch, we were told that we all had to go up the road to Saints’ Boys…

to support our team playing them at cricket.

However, in a rare show of defiance, I absconded.

When none of the teachers were looking, I took off towards town…

stopping at the public toilets in the east parklands to change out of my school uniform.

I had brought casual clothes with me––

not intending to abscond…

but to change into in order to do some shopping in town later that day.

But now, safely incognito…

and feeling somewhat emboldened by my daring escape…

I made my way to the Richmond Hotel––

in the middle of Rundle Mall––

went into the main bar…

nonchalantly ordered a beer… 

and sat down to watch the real cricket on TV.

Alan Border had just gone into bat…

when in walked a group of three men––

one of whom was my English teacher.

Panic gripped me.

I tried to look calm––

pretending that I didn’t recognise him…

and acting as normal and as indifferent as I could.

I was certainthat he had spotted me…

and that, at any moment, he would come over and reprimand me.

But, to my surprise, he didn’t.

I finished my beer, then quietly left…

wondering what the repercussions would be when I got to school on Monday.

There weren’t any.

At one point, I happened to pass that teacher in a hallway.

Our eyes met very briefly, before we both looked away…

hurrying past each other…

silently and sheepishly.

Clearly, he wasn’t supposed to have been at the pub either!

Faced with a situation that’s awkward or embarrassing it’s human nature to try to hide it…

to try to cover it up…

to avoid talking about it…

to pretend that it didn’t happen…

out of fear of repercussions––

not least, the loss of public image or reputation…

and the loss of self-esteem.

 

In a sense, that is what’s happening in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel––

the story of Jesus’ baptism by John.

In the corresponding accounts in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew…

the authors structure an extended interaction between Jesus and John…

with Jesus verbally requesting baptism.

Although the meaning is not at all clear…

most scholars think that it’s meant to indicate Jesus’ solidarity with John’s ministry and message…

and his identification with the hopes of Israel.

But not so in the version in Luke’s Gospel.

Here, there’s no interaction.

There’s no dialogue or detail.

The author mentions the baptism in passing––

by means of a subordinate clause.

Grammatically and narratively, the author deliberately downplays it.

For him, it was what happened after that was significant.

His treatment of the whole episode reflects an obvious and genuine sense of embarrassment.

Maybe–– 

for the author of Luke’s Gospel–– 

the problem is a result of the way that he links John’s baptism with repentance.

Only this author offers us an extended exposition of what he thought John’s preaching entailed…

and how that connected to his baptising.

And all of it was connected, firmly and squarely, to repentance.

The author of Luke’s Gospel–– 

writing later than the authors of both Mark and Matthew––

begins a trajectory that will extend into the second century;

namely, an embarrassed struggle with the baptism of Jesus… 

because they couldn’t grasp why a sinless Jesus would need to repent…

and thus to be baptised. 

And yet, ironically, by so highlighting the connection between John’s baptism and repentance…

that’s precisely where our author leads us.

The natural conclusion––

surely the only conclusion that we are able to draw–– 

is that the historical Jesus sought baptism as a symbol of repentance;

as a symbol of his own repentance.

 

Heretical, I hear some of you think?

But is it really?

 

As I mentioned a few weeks ago… 

the Greek word that’s translated as “repentance” means–– 

quite literally–– 

“to change one’s mind”. 

But within the world and the culture of the first century…

the ‘mind’ was not understood in the same way as it is for us today.

They didn’t think of the ‘mind’ as the locus of rational or logical thought.

Rather, for them, the ‘mind’ was the locus of the volition or the will.

In other words, ‘repentance’ for them––

a change of ‘mind’––

was not, at heart, a feeling of remorse…

and certainly not a feeling of remorse for wrongs committed.

Rather, repentance was a fundamental change in one’s will–– 

a change in one’s motivation and one’s priorities.

And the will was also that mental faculty that initiates and elicits action.

So a ‘change of mind’––

in this sense––

inescapably involves a fundamental change in behaviour…

a fundamental change in way of life.

In other words…

in coming to John and in seeking to be baptised––

as a symbol of his ‘repentance’––

the historical Jesus was making a commitment to a fundamental change of behaviour…

a fundamental change in his way of life.

Jesus was making a symbolic commitment to be a different person…

and to live a different life.

In a sense, this was the moment in which he accepted…

and lived out…

his identity and his calling.

Now, in a way, that makes sense in the life of the Historical Jesus––

in the life of Jesus, the man.

But, at the same time, it also raises a profound theological question.

What does this mean in the “life of God”?

Given that––

however we choose to understand it––

the tradition presents Jesus as not just a man but…

in some way…

as one who embodies, and manifests, and incarnates God.

And unless we want think in terms of a divine-multiple-personality-disorder…

then, surely, this is suggesting that God, too, repented;

that God also changed God’s mind;

that God also made a commitment to a fundamental change of life and behaviour.

 

And why not?

 

In one sense, that’s precisely what the incarnation entails.

Through the person of Jesus, God revealed God’s self to us;

and God revealed that God is not who or how we usually imagine God to be;

nor that God is, or thinks, or does, what our ancestors in faith have led us to believe.

In one sense, the incarnation was…

fundamentally…

an act of repentance.

We crave a God of certainty––

fixed…

immutable…

impassive.

But what if God isn’t?

What if God’s being is always becoming?

What if God is also evolving?

Perhaps, as the Process theologian, Bruce Epperly, puts it…

“God is constantly growing in God’s experience [of] and response to the evolving universe”.

As the world changes… 

and as humans evolve… 

so too does God’s experience of, and relationship with, us. 

But what would it mean to worship such a God––

a God who evolves;

a God who repents?

 

At the very least, it invites us to consider change––

and repentance––

to be divine attributes.

And it reassures us that it is precisely in change and in repentance…

that we encounter God.

 

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