Grand Canyon by David Hockney
Today we meet the hermit from the bush. The bloke who ignores the social requirements for appropriate dress and, by the smell of him, for the use of water for something other than drinking, a man who is on the outside looking in, John The Baptist, so named after the rite he made his own. It is interesting he wasn’t called John Camel Hair or John Who Needs A Bath or John the Vegan, but he wasn’t. He is John the Baptist.
John is also remembered for his aversion to sin. His baptism was predicated on repentance, the recognition of sin by an individual who then takes steps to repent of that sin through the cleansing and renewing act of baptism. Now sin got a bad name when I was growing up. It seemed to include everything that was enjoyable – eating too many lollies, drinking too much soft drink, getting your sibling into trouble, dipping the pigtails of the girl who sat in front of you in the inkwell and many more mortal acts. The last may very well have been mortal if she could run faster than you at recess!
Sin has been trivialised to many normal and ordinary acts of being human and it seems it is still in that place. Yet John the Baptist’s idea of sin was much expanded on that of our parents, nuns and the morality police of our youth. John refers to the systemic sins maintaining the status quo, the sins of entitlement due to right acting, of doing what was expected of you and reaping the rewards. It was the sin of identifying clearly the status of each individual, their rights and their responsibilities. It was ensuring those born into privilege maintained that privilege. It is about exclusion of others from the benefits you have based on class, skin colour, health or otherwise, gender and age.
2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” In other words, the possibility of instituting the promised kingdom does not belong out there, to others or to the future. It belongs here, in you and now. It is calling you and I to make it real – to put love into action and respond to the covenant requirements of kindness – respect, justice and compassion. It is not a task of people like John or even those whom he spoke harshly about; the first is just one man and the latter group won’t change until they have no choice. It is up to you to ensure they have no choice by you own love in action for yourself, others and the world.
John wasn’t interested in who stole the cookie from the cookie jar, but who stole the cookie jar and who allowed the cookie jar to remain stolen. He was particularly tough on those in privileged positions and saved his strongest words for them, but he didn’t let the ordinary folk off the hook either. John’s expectation was that is if you recognised your complicity in this corporate sin, then you needed to show evidence of a change of heart, mind and action. He says: “8Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Bearing fruit can be as little as sharing the troubles of those who live next door, advocating for a fairer share of society’s wealth for all, ensuring those who on the outside get to come in side. There is no prescription for bearing fruit and there is no particular type of fruit – love, justice, compassion, kindness, advocacy, giving and more – all work if that is what the situation needs.
Ben Witherington suggests: “Repentance, or metanoia, to use the Greek word, refers to far more than a simply being or saying one is sorry for past sins, far more than mere regret or remorse for such sins. It refers to a turning away from the past way of life and the inauguration of a new one, in this case initialised by an act of baptism.”
And this isn’t easy. Those who describe the Christian life as easy and a cop out haven’t tried to live it! It is incredibly difficult to live in such away that each day is a further step toward wholeness and another from stuff we have held onto and has held onto us. It is being prepared to shed our previous static identity and accept the uncertainty of unfinished business.
Crabs and other crustaceans do not grow in a linear fashion because of their hard outer shell. Up to 20 times in its lifetime a crab moults, in effect moves out of the old shell and grows a new one. This happens 6 times in the first year. It is a difficult and excruciating time, not to say a vulnerable onee. If your shell is your protection, wandering naked around the sea floor is not a comfortable place to be. Yet it must happen if it is to grow into maturity.
Repentance requires we shed our tough and hard formed identities both as a society and as individuals. What served us well in another time and place no longer does. What we have come to accept as the way things are, no longer is appropriate and we have to change structures, ideas, ideologies and religions.
John the Baptist calls that the coming near of the kingdom of God – the ever evolving recognition of a new way of seeing. David Hockney, the wonderful English artist, paints what he sees but what he sees in isn’t always what is physically there. He suggests we see two ways – physically and psychologically; physically by recognising objects, like a camera. Seeing psychologically is different. If we look at a scene we will focus on one particular element that takes our eye in that scene. Because we do, that tree, face, animal, colour becomes clearer and larger in our view and seems to be larger and more significant than the rest of the scene. There are a whole lot of reasons why this happens but we rarely if ever see what is there. We see what we see.
In art this works well, in community and individual life here is a glitch to be aware of. What we think is the case may not be so because we are seeing, hearing, engaging with it as we see the world – focusing on what is important to or has a specific meaning or interest to us. We may miss what is really happening. We are not called to see physically or one dimensionally as a camera but we are to be aware of the psychological pre-determinants affecting our response to the world.
John the Baptist calls us to confront society and ourselves to engage in the very difficult process of moulting, like the crab, and to recalibrate our seeing. In this way we begin to recalibrate the world by helping to break it out of its restrictive shell and welcome in relational wholeness empowered by love – the kingdom of God.
Oh and this won’t get easier when Jesus enters the picture. It gets harder, because he increases the requirements and calls more from us. “11He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Seeing through the eyes of Jesus changes everything.
John’s repentance is the ongoing reassessment of self and society required of all who profess faith. It requires action and outcomes and can’t be avoided. It is our vocation. How will you see differently when you leave here this morning?