On Repentance and Renewal
“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’ Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”
“Teach us to number our days that we may incline our hearts to wisdom.”
The seasons of the church calendar help us to number our days. They give rhythm to our years and through the seasons of life. They mark off regular times to delve into essential emotions like lamentation or joy, and to celebrate the blessings of God’s forgiveness, renewal of life.
We are in the four-week season of Advent. It’s a time of expectation, preparation for the birth of Jesus, and of watching for the presence of God’s Spirit in our midst at all times.
Since Advent is the beginning of our church year, it struck me as a good time to take stock, to reflect on where I have fallen short, to seek forgiveness when appropriate from someone else—surely from God—and to change my ways. In other words, it’s a time for me to repent. You recall that the Greek word metanoia, which we translate “repent,” means a deep change of heart and mind and behavior.
“Repent!” That was John the Baptist’s first word from the wilderness.
Great crowds from Jerusalem, Judea and the surrounding region had come to see him on the banks of the Jordan River. Most traveled very far into the wilderness—a full, long day’s walk. No one made that trek by accident, nor in idle curiosity.
En masse they followed John’s call to confess, receive God’s healing forgiveness and be baptized as a sign of their repentance.
As faithful Jews, they knew that the wilderness was a place to hear the voice of God.
The late Lord Jonathan Sacks, emeritus Chief Rabbi in the UK, wrote:
“While almost every other civilisation has been a culture of the eye, Judaism is a culture of the ear – of words, speech, listening, interpreting, understanding, heeding….It is in the wilderness that the Israelites hear revelation, the word or speaking of God.… Only in the emptiness of the wilderness is the eye subordinate to the ear. Only in the silence of the desert, can the sound beneath sound be heard… “
We all have wilderness experiences. Some we seek out: on retreat, or on sabbatical. Others come upon us, suddenly and unwelcome. It may be the loss of a life-long job or career, a relationship, a home. It may be our own illness, or the illness or death of a loved one.
I spent summer 2000 as a seminary chaplain intern at Ben Taub Hospital, Houston. Looking back I see that its level 1 trauma ER unit is both a wilderness and an oasis. It’s an oasis of hope with superb care for a life that is hanging in the balance. It is a wilderness, too, for those close to the patient. With the ordinary duties, pleasures, and distractions of life stripped away, they can only wait. And in the waiting, they may better hear the voice of God.
Wilderness experiences lend perspective to our lives– however they come, however long they last. As a result they may lead us to confess and seek forgiveness, to change, to repent.
Wilderness times can bring an entire nation, city, or state to repentance. Germany was the aggressor in the Franco-Prussian War and in both World Wars, whose deaths totaled 80 million including the 6 million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. In the bombed-out ruins of their own country, in 1945 the German people began their repentance for the devastation they had wrought, particularly in the Nazi regime.
After three generations of wars with their neighbors, few could have imagined allying with Germany to form the European Union. It would have seemed as utopian as Isaiah’s prophesy.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
But it happened. Germany repented and was reborn as a thriving democracy, and leaders in creating the longest period of peace in modern European history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine broke that peace, but it has only strengthened European unity against tyranny.
Thanks be to God, we live in a time of global repentance. Powerful Western nations, including our own, are recognizing our histories of injustice and oppression, offering apologies, and making amends as we can.
In the United States there’s a grass-roots movement in East Coast cities and towns from Portsmouth, NH to Galveston TX, including Newport, to acknowledge our role as ports of entry the African slave trade. Our purpose is to honor the enslaved who perished on the Middle Passage voyage, and–even more—to celebrate those who survived and whose gifts help build the fabric and culture of America.
Outstanding among those ports was Charleston, South Carolina, where more than 150,000 enslaved Africans were brought between 1783 and 1808. In 2015, the hateful murder of nine worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston spurred an ongoing repentance for their history of racial injustice.
Now, in January, bearing “fruit worthy of repentance,” Charleston will open the International African American Museum, a $100,000,000 structure built on Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River, where the enslaved first landed.
Its mission is to: “explore cultures and knowledge systems retained and adapted by Africans in the Americas, and the diverse journeys and achievements of these individuals and their descendants in South Carolina, the United States, and throughout the African Diaspora.”
To “explore cultures and knowledge systems retained and adapted by Africans in the Americas”. Here’s just one example. The enslaved people from West Africa came here with a centuries-long knowledge of wetland rice farming. Their skill in adapting that knowledge to the Carolina Lowlands was the foundation of Charleston’s enormous wealth from the cultivation of rice.
Our history of slavery is horrendous, painful, and shameful. The people of Charleston have learned that denial not only prolongs the pain and shame, it leaves the root cause festering and lethal, the wounds unhealed. It keeps everyone locked in the sins of the past.
The truth is setting them all free to build the future together. In 2018, in a lengthy, detailed resolution, the Charleston City Council formally confessed and apologized for the city’role in the sin of slavery as well as its long history of discrimination in education, housing, healthcare, and employment. In the same resolution, the city committed, again in detail, to redress those historic and present-day inequities. It is an amazing document.
Confession is the essential first step in the renewal of life—for a person, an organization, a city, or a nation. As a priest, I heard confessions from individuals who came for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In every case, the person left with a lighter heart, forgiven of a burden long borne, and freed to begin again. Confession does that. It frees us from guilt and shame. It opens our hearts to receive God’s forgiveness, and to start anew.
Holy One, teach us to number our days that we may incline our hearts to wisdom. Amen.