“I baptize you with water for repentance,” said John the Baptist, “therefore bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
Fruit worthy of repentance.
What do you think of when you hear that phrase fruit worthy of repentance? What happens in your heart, what goes through your mind, when you try to imagine the fruit that you would bear in repentance?
I think for many of us the first mental picture we would get would be something like clasping our hands and hanging our heads and adopting some posture that would show we were humbled, humiliated even, by the knowledge of our sinfulness, by the burden of our penitence.
Perhaps for some of us the fruit of repentance would be primarily emotional: a deep sorrow for the things we’ve done wrong, the remorse of conscience – the “agenbite of inwit,” as an Old English text calls it – that gnaws at our hearts with regret for the ways we’ve sinned.
Perhaps some of us think of the things we might do to please God, to win back God’s favor, if only God would forgive us. Fruit of repentance might be a kind of bargaining with God: “God, if you’ll just forgive me this one time, just get me out of this one scrape, then I promise I will volunteer in a soup kitchen, and quit drinking, and go to church every Sunday – well, every other Sunday. I promise.” Maybe that’s fruit of repentance.
What all these versions of fruit worthy of repentance have in common is the notion that repentance is essentially a negative thing, that repentance is in essence a rejection or reversal of all that is bad in us. Repentance is at root taking a stance of being anti-sin. But as the philosopher Martin Heidegger pointed out, the problem with identifying yourself as being “anti-something” is that you are trying to take your identity from what you are against, and that sets up a fundamental paradox, a fundamental contradiction, that makes the whole Self unstable. If repentance is merely negative, then it really can’t be the foundation of good news.
But when John the Baptist told people he was baptizing them for repentance, he actually used a different word. The word in the original gospel language is metanoia, and that literally means “a change of thinking,” “a transformation of mindfulness.” It means a new way of knowing what is real. When we repent we not only turn away from the bad we have done, we also turn toward the good that God can do with us.
So what if fruit worthy of repentance could mean fruit of transformation? What kind of good fruit for God could we bear? What positive outcomes of relationship and well-being could the Spirit of God achieve through us if we were to change our very way of thinking?
We get one kind of look at what fruit we might bear in transformation in our reading from Isaiah this morning. “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” Isaiah says. This image of children playing safely with snakes is part of Isaiah’s much larger vision of the “peaceable kingdom,” the resolution of all violence and predation throughout the natural and human worlds by God’s grace.
But what interests me about this image in particular is the way it signifies the end of fear. Fear of snakes seems to be one of those hard-wired, genetically-built-in basic phobias of the human psyche. Most of us automatically say “Snakes? Ew!” without even thinking about it. But these babies, young enough that they are still nursing, or maybe just stopped nursing, are playing over asps, putting their hands in with adders, and are not afraid. To me this seems to be a symbol for what we can do when we are not bound by fear.
Can you imagine what it would be like not to be afraid? I’m not talking about being foolhardy; I’m not talking about being reckless; I’m not suggesting taking all kinds of crazy risks without knowing what you’re doing. What I am talking about is not being anxious, not being fearful, not being timid about trying out abundant life. What might it be like for you to try something new if you were not afraid of failing? What might it be like for you to be generous if you were not afraid of not having enough for yourself? What might it be like for you to pray if you were not afraid that you didn’t know how to do it right, or, even worse, afraid that no one was listening? What might it be like for you to love if you were not afraid of being hurt? How might you live if you were transformed in your thinking to be like the nursing child playing over the hole of the asp and the weaned child putting its hand on the adder’s den?
And Isaiah is very clear about what it is that produces this change of thinking in us, what it is that gets inside us and changes the very way our perceptions and feelings work. What makes that change is the Spirit of God: “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the awe of the Lord.” This new kind of thinking is not something we have to produce all on our own, it’s not a repentance we have to make to show God how sorry we are. But this transformation in us is a gift from God, the working in us of God’s Spirit, that comes to us when we turn to God in hope and joy.
And it is that sort of repentance, that opening to metanoia, that is signified in the water of baptism. It is that turning to the way of transformation that comes from being baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire. It is that way of living with a changed mind into which we invite Jack today, in covenant and anointing and blessing which we all share as we join in this baptismal service. John said “I baptize you with water for repentance” – and that waters our spirits to grow and bear fruit for transformation.
And so this Advent, I pray for you that you will bear fruit worthy of repentance, that you will be opened in mind and heart and spirit to a new way of knowing truth and doing truth in God. With that kind of repentance, that metanoia, this Advent, may we all celebrate the Incarnation of Jesus at Christmas with greater depth and greater love and greater joy. Amen.