Sun, Jan 09, 2022

A "repenting" God?

A sermon for Baptism of Jesus
Duration:13 mins 49 secs

When I was a young child, I was given a teddy bear.

For some reason––

and I can’t explain why––

I named him “Bluey”, although he was yellow.

I didn’t play with Bluey.

And I never carried ‘him’ around with me––

he lived in my bed.

But the only way that I could get to sleep each night…

was to lie on my tummy…

with my right arm wrapped around Bluey…

who acted as a sort of pillow to prop up my right side.

From my earliest days…

as a baby…

I had always had trouble going off to sleep and staying asleep…

and Bluey made a huge difference––

both to me and to my parents.

That just became the way that I went to sleep each night.

And I thought nothing of it.

Of course, it wasn’t an issue when I was a young child.

But, around the time that I started primary school… 

my parents began to encourage me to give Bluey up.

They would tell me that, when I was a “big boy”, I couldn’t sleep with a teddy.

And, from time to time…

at their urging…

I would try to sleep without Bluey.

But it didn’t work.

So I just kept doing it.

But, when I was ten, a new school friend invited me for a sleep-over.

I knew that I couldn’t take Bluey with me.

My new friend would think that I was weird, and would probably stop being my friend;

and, worse, it would get out…

and I would be the laughing-stock of school.

That’s when I stopped sleeping with Bluey.

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…

or to pretend that it didn’t happen…

because we’re afraid of the repercussions––

not least, the loss of public image or reputation…

and the loss of self-esteem.


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

the story of Jesus’ baptism by John.

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

those authors craft an extended interaction between Jesus and John…

leading to Jesus verbally requesting baptism.

Although the meaning of the act 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 between them.

There’s no dialogue… 

no detail.

The author simply mentions the baptism in passing––

by means of a subordinate clause.

Grammatically, narratively, the author deliberately downplays it.

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

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


for the author of Luke’s Gospel–– 

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

After all…

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, with “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 and beyond;

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… 


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 have explained a few times previously… 

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 by us today.

They didn’t think of the “mind” as the centre of rational or logical thought.

Rather, for them, the mind was the centre of the volition or the will.

In other words, “repentance” for them––

a change of “mind”––

was not, in essence, a feeling of remorse…

and it certainly was 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 understood as that mental faculty responsible for initiating and eliciting action.

So a “change of mind”––

in this sense––

inescapably involves a fundamental change in one’s behaviour;

a fundamental change in one’s 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 in 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 is the moment in which he accepted––

and began to live 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 to 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.


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;

and that God isn’t like––

or doesn’t think like––

our ancestors in faith have led us to believe.

In one sense, the incarnation was…


an act of God’s repentance.

We crave a God of certainty––





But what if God isn’t?


What if God’s being is always becoming?

What if God is also evolving?


Perhaps, as the theologian Bruce Epperly puts it…

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

As the world changes… 

as societies and cultures change…

and as humans evolve… 

so too does God’s experience of us… 

and God’s 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 fundamental divine attributes.

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

that we are living into the image of God in which we were made.


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