By Rev. Kit Billings
February 27, 2005
There once was an old evangelist, the Rev. W. P. Nicholson of Belfast, Ireland, who in the early 1900’s would preach to the dock workers with powerful enthusiasm and faith. He caused conviction insisting on repentance! Many men accepted Christ and started to change and turned a new direction in life. In fact, they brought back everything they had stolen from the shipyards. In the end the authorities had to make a public announcement: “Will all those attending the meetings of Mr. W. P. Nicholson please stop returning stolen goods. We have nowhere to store them.” Let’s face it: repentance sometimes creates some excellent problems to solve.
The Season of Lent means different things to different people. Personally, after many years of studying God’s Word and the doctrines of our church, for me Lent is about taking time once a year to more deeply embrace what John the Baptist called everyone to do—to repent, and therefore pave the way for God to make another new and more mature entry into my conscious mind and life. For as we know from our church teachings, nearly every character and storyline within the historically accurate as well as the historically inaccurate aspect of the Bible represents some aspect of our minds. Thus, as we recall the profoundly selfish, and sometimes evil, characters like Herod the Great, the Roman rulers, as well as Caiaphas and Annas (the high priests of Judaism back then), we need to remember that we are likely to have to do battle within us with unhealthy affections and thought-patterns symbolized by these bad characters.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that for everything there is a time under heaven. There is a time to focus on celebrating God’s greatness. There is a time to focus on the inherent goodness that the Lord has sown into the fiber of our being and to sing about these good things. There is a time to give thanksgiving to God and to look at how we need to share the bounty God gives us to those less fortunate than we are. And, there is a time in life for reflecting deeply together about the “three R’s”, as we used to call them in seminary: repentance, reformation and regeneration. And this morning, I would like to focus especially with you on John the Baptist’s message, repentance.
Lent, I believe, does involve getting a “tune up” about the skill we call “repentance.” Our theology, in fact, reminds us that repentance involves using one of the greatest powers God gives us—the power to examine ourselves carefully in light of the truths and values we find in God’s Word, and when we have found unholy things within our selves or our lives to repent of them before the Lord with remorse, feeling the effects of the poor direction we had been going in, and this leads us into hopefully condemning whatever evil or sin we may have discovered and praying to God for serious help in changing our hearts forever so as never to get caught in that particular evil again. Repentance is a key ability within the strong and growing Christian. It is the forerunner to reformation, when I actually make whatever crucial changes into my new routine and direction in life while still asking the Lord to help me with my new direction. And these two amazing choices then, to repent through self-examination and then walking a new direction through reforming my habits and thinking, opens my heart to God’s transformative grace, His power of regeneration! And this is how the Lord saves and changes our hearts and minds from being oriented around evil and falsity, to instead be fully inspired by God’s love and truth—He does this by steadily infusing more and more of His love into my natural mind, what some call the “lower mind.” This morning, let us focus particularly upon the starting point of the “three R’s” as my professors and I used to talk of them—let us more deeply consider, repentance.
John the Baptist was a great character within the Lord’s Advent. He had an extremely important job to do as one who prepared the way for God-incarnate, for Christ, to bring new light, life and meaning into our broken world. In addition, his presence and ministry marvelously connected the substance of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, where the last book of the Old Testament leaves off (and where other prophecies of the forerunner of the Messiah shine too), the New Testament picks up! Both John and Jesus fulfill the great prophecies that had brought hope and faith to generations of Jews before them.
If John hadn’t come to prepare the people of Israel through repentance for the coming of God-in-Jesus, then the Lord could not have Redeemed humanity, simple as that. There was just too much muck and disorder which had become terribly routine for the people of Israel, in part due to the flood of false doctrine which the rabbis and Pharisees had become addicted to. A new base of simple, behavioral (yet spiritual) goodness needed to be founded within the people of the Holy Land before the Lord could enter the scene, and only calling everyone to repentance and telling people about the Messiah coming to them could bring about this vital preparation for Jesus’ ministry soon to come. In fact, Swedenborg wrote in reflection about God’s Word in Malachi:
“John the Baptist was sent before [the Lord] to prepare the people for the reception of the Lord by baptism, because baptism represented and signified purification from evils and falsities, and also regeneration by the Lord by means of the Word. Unless this representation had preceded, the Lord could not have manifested Himself and have taught and lived in Judea and in Jerusalem, since the Lord was the God of heaven and earth under a human form, and He could not have been present with a nation that was in mere falsities in respect to doctrine and in mere evils in respect to life; consequently unless that nation had been prepared for the reception of the Lord by a representation of purification from falsities and evils by baptism, it would have been destroyed by diseases of every kind by the presence of the Divine Itself; therefore this is what is signified by ‘lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.’” (A.E. 724.16)
Thus historically, as well as spiritually on a very wide scale, God could not have come into our world unless John had done his great work of brining people into repentance, which the Lord was inspiring him to do. There is a real sense in which the overall scene back then functions today within our own lives, since we have inherited strong inclinations from our ancestors to have attitudes and ideologies ruling our minds that are symbolized by Herod the Great, by the Roman rulers, and by the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. It can be tempting indeed to want to either remove and banish the Lord from having primary authority over our lives, as well as to spiritually kill Him off outright. We do this when we replace the love and compassion and faithful, true thinking and living God revealed in the Ten Commandments with their opposites: loving any thing or any one more than God; taking God’s name in vain; ignoring the wisdom of observing the Sabbath Day; not honoring our mothers and fathers; lying; stealing; committing adultery; killing; and coveting what belongs to others. I appreciate what Paul adds to this list through his teaching, some of which are greed, strife, malice, arrogance, boastfulness, gossiping, slandering, rejecting faith in God, and of course ruthlessness.
John preached loudly and passionately to the people of Judea that the great and awesome Day of the Lord was at hand, that God’s kingdom was finally coming to them, and that therefore everyone needed to cleanse their lives of unjust and hurtful behavior, which carves an important inroad for the Lord to have an entryway into their hearts and minds with genuine goodness and faith. It was John’s job to preach that everyone had better clean up their lives, which is why he baptized them in the River Jordan, symbolizing their great need of their thoughts and actions needing cleansing and washing through the truths of God found in His Holy Word. This preparation would enable the Lord to follow John’s ministry and baptize the people with His living truth and love, also known as Christ’s Spirit and fire.
The baptism with which many, if not all, of us here this morning had done to us in infancy, childhood or adulthood symbolizes the simple truth that we acknowledge that a vital part of the journey of being the Lord’s disciple is that we need to follow John’s calling into repentance now and then and let God wash us in the River Jordan also, which we understand spiritually to mean to wash our thinking and attitudes and living with the base truths found in the literal sense of God’s Word. Our deep need of such cleansing was underscored by the choice Jesus Christ made to have John baptize Him in the Jordan also. For while the Lord never once chose to let the false doctrines, impure thinking, and evil affections he inherited from humanity by means of the inheritance He received from Mary flow into actual behavior and sin, Christ clearly had a life-long journey ahead of Him of glorifying His humanity by means of rejecting those impurities in favor of His Divine goodness and truth. This, we learn, is why Jesus wanted to be baptized too: to symbolize His journey of purifying the evil humanity He inherited from Mary, and to underscore the immense importance of every one of us following in His direction and footsteps.
And like many healthy habits in life, repentance is something that needs to become habitual. Rather than seeing it as something foreign to my general life routine, repentance can become a repeating theme, reminding me to truly examine my own life after I have chosen to re-immerse my understanding of God’s truth found in the Bible. And this sets up an ongoing pattern for spiritual growth and transformation, which still works wonders for us today. For ONLY when human beings choose to live outwardly in accord with God’s core truths and commandments do our spirits become further opened down deep for the Lord to make His way in through the nooks and crannies of our minds where His great and awesome work of transformation takes place. In this way do those spiritual “broods of vipers” and those creepy-crawly spiritual “scorpions” get burned up (that is, transformed) by the regenerating love of Jesus Christ, symbolized by the fires John spoke of in his preaching.
John the Baptist was a wild, roughhewn character. He showed true grit in the face of the religious and moral opposition of his day, which is why he wore a skin of camels hair and a leather belt and lived in the wilderness where life was desolate and where snakes and scorpions lived, which he saw dash to and fro whenever a spontaneous brush fire would get sparked. John told it like it was and had no fear of tearing apart religious leaders who were not only full of themselves but who also were blind guides at leading other people toward God. He ate locusts and wild honey, which represented the base, literal truths and simple delights we need to allow the Lord make them a real part of our lives.
The natural lifelessness in which John lived and worked were a strong symbol of the spiritual condition of the Israelitish Church of his day, and of humanity in general. Over thousands of years of preferring to worship other gods and of ignoring basic truths in the Ten Commandments and God’s Law concerning how to support and love our neighbors, people had become very hard-hearted, self-righteous and unconscious to the warmth and goodness and tenderness of God’s love. Israel had become inwardly lifeless and barren, and they needed a strong reformer to prepare the way for the Messiah’s presence and ministry. John the Baptist was that great reformer, which ultimately cost him his natural life. But his legacy lives on, as he reminds us of how passionately vital it is that we not allow the skill and import of repentance to leave the scope of our Christian living.
Let me close with you this morning with this beautiful quote from Henry Ward Beecher:
When a man undertakes to repent toward his fellowmen, it is repenting straight up a precipice; when he repents toward law, it is repenting into the crocodile's jaws; when he repents toward public sentiment, it is throwing himself into a thicket of brambles and thorns; but when he repents toward God, he repents toward all love and delicacy. God receives the soul as the sea the bather, to return it again, purer and whiter than he took it.
May both the awesome presence of John the Baptist’s character within the pages of God’s Word, and especially the wisdom of repentance and reformation as preludes to the Lord’s spiritual regeneration of our hearts and minds be more than enough to inspire us to respond to John’s calling of us today: “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Amen.