John the Baptist calls us to repent

John the Baptist’s words in our Gospel reading (Matthew 3:1-12) spoke to my current mood.  I am full of dismay at the general election, as so many of us.  Horrified to be faced with a PM who says racist things – challenged by a Leader of the Opposition who fails to tackle racism.  A PM who is a known, inveterate and unrepentant liar.  I feel very ready to start shouting about vipers and God’s wrath.  But I don’t want to blast you with my anger.  I don’t really believe I am John the Baptist, with a hotline to the Almighty!  And I know many of you are as concerned as me – on the evidence of this week’s hustings, at which the biggest category of questions related to the state of our democracy.

So what do John’s words have for us?  He says three things, and I want to reflect now on each theme.

The first is, repent;

Then, do not rely on your inheritance.  (My interpretation of John’s words, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.’”)

Third, change is coming (John points forward, to the advent of “one greater than I”)

“Repent.”  Let’s first get clear what the word mean.  It does not mean “be sorry”, which is an emotion.  In the jargon of moral theology, being sorry is “contrition”.  That is an emotion.  But Repentance is its fruit i.e., change.  In Greek, repentance is metanoia meta-, change, –noia, of mind.  So it’s, first of all, a cognitive matter, in which we take a decision; second, a practical one about what you do; your emotions are not much involved.

And John’s teaching (in Luke’s version, not what we read today) is strictly practical: share what we have with the needy; for tax-collectors and soldiers, cease to abuse your power.

What does repentance mean for us?  Most pressing and near at hand is the general election.  John’s advice seems very relevant.  Elections are very much about the most practical way we can share with the needy, which is tax.  Now, I’m sure you will be glad to know that I’m not going to tell you how to vote.  But I will say this: you must decide how to vote based on what is in the common good.  To determine your vote on the basis of personal interest is sinful.

Second, do not rely on your inheritance.  “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” meaning “we are in a category of people who will be fine, by definition.”

This applies to our politics.  We English do tend to think this – we are very proud of what we call “the mother of Parliaments” – we think that whatever we do is, by definition, democratic.  But we have drifted, so that we are barely democratic at all.  Having elections is not enough – Russia has elections.  There is a growing sense in the country that politics is done for the benefit of a governing elite.  My point is that we must not be complacent about being a democracy in the first place; democracies can and often do slip back into rule by unaccountable elites.

This principle about not relying on our inheritance also applies to church.  Do we do our services in the way we do them because this is the most effective way to proclaim the Gospel?  Are our liturgies visibly about the Kingdom issues in our lives and our community?  Or are they a particular cultural expression – we do it this way because this is the way we like it.  Nostalgic religion was precisely what John the Baptist was talking about when he addressed the Pharisees and Saducees in such immoderate terms.

John’s third theme is, “change is coming”.  That is surely true now.  Our society seems to be deadlocked already, unable to resolve the basic issues we face.  But we face greater change in the future, not less: we can see coming towards us greater upheavals than in the last lifetime – for instance, the deep changes needed to avoid destroying the planet – or the mechanisation which will replace perhaps half or two-thirds of current jobs. 

From where will solutions come?  Solutions that will change our hearts, drawing not on fear and anger but on hope and compassion.  Change, so that people are willing to sacrifice their own interests, for the common good, and for the good of future generations?  From where is such change to come?  John the Baptist gives us a partial answer, so does Jesus Himself.  Solutions come from the outside, and from the bottom.

We are dismayed because the core of our society and our politics seems to be rotten.  To remedy this, we look to a restoration of that core, for the people with power to heal themselves of their corruption and greed and self-centredness.  But this never happens.  Change in history always comes from the outsiders.  And so we, who look for renewal, do best to look to the powerless, the insurgents.  To the schoolchildren, whose protests have spoken more truth about our selfish destruction of the environment than any politician.  To the first non-European Pope, who brings renewal to a rigid institution.  Above all, to the little bastard baby, born on a heap of straw in a Bethlehem backstreet, a powerless peasant in the middle of nowhere.

During Advent, we wait.  What are we waiting for?  For a feast of gluttony and consumerism?  Of course not: we wait for God’s renewal of all things.  For an end to warfare and conflict.  For lions to lie down with lambs.  For all nations to turn to God.  For healing, and renewal, for beauty and peace.  All this is promised, and it will come to pass.  And, when it comes, it will proceed in the way which we learn from Christ is God’s characteristic way of working.  It will begin with the small, the disregarded, the powerless, the despised.

In fact, it has already begun.  Have you noticed?