Seeing things from a new perspective: A sermon on Matthew 3

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oBy the Rev. Anna Doherty

Let’s be honest.

John the Baptist isn’t very Christmasy.

Frankly, he sounds difficult to be around, with his clothes of camel hair and his diet of locusts and honey.

Odds are, John the Baptist didn’t smell too good.

And his words are harsh.

John’s message of repentance is difficult to hear even now; how much so would it have been for the Pharisees and the Sadducees…

to whom John’s tirade is directed: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Repentance is always a difficult message to hear.

But how we receive and act on John’s call to repentance, depends very much on how we understand what repentance is.

In Hebrew, the word shiv, repentance, means a turning around, a change in direction.

And so, when John is referred to in the same words as the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

We can read, in John’s call to repentance, a desire to reorient our lives and behavior.

To walk the “straight path” towards God.

But repentance actually means something even more than simply straightening out our lives, difficult as that itself is.

Repentance means more than just acknowledging our sins.

The Greek word for repentance, the word that John the Baptist actually uses in today’s gospel lesson from Matthew…

is metanoia.

Metanoia means to have a new mind, or to suddenly see things from an entirely new perspective.

Or, as one biblical scholar puts it, John’s call to repentance is actually more of a call to “wrap your minds around this, for the kingdom of heaven has come near…’

I think it is important to recognize that John’s call to repentance is a call to open minds, to seeing things from a different perspective.

Human psychology, for example, shows us that simply telling people not to do things, doesn’t actually get them to stop doing them.

This is even more true when we come up against people’s deeply held beliefs and values…simply telling people that they ought to think differently isn’t going to change their minds.

Anyone who has ever had a political argument with a relative over Thanksgiving dinner knows this.

No, instead of arguing or lecturing, when people actually do change their perspective or their opinion on an issue…

…such transformation almost always come from an experience, most often found in relationship, of a different way of thinking.

Part of what has contributed, for example, to the radical ongoing change in perspective and acceptance of LBGTQ peoples…

is when individuals started to realize that people they knew and loved,

their children, their friends, their co-workers and family members identified as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgendered, or non-binary in their sexuality.

And suddenly they couldn’t only think of “those people” in one way.

This is metanoia, repentance as transformation of mind.

It is suddenly seeing things from a new perspective, and it is not only a changed mind, but a changed way of acting and being in the world as a result.

It is this kind of transformation of mind and action, through experience, through relationship, that John calls us to today.

See, the kind of Messiah that John tells people about is not at all the kind of Messiah people expect.

The kind of Messiah, the Davidic king, that people expect is basically the king that is described in Psalm 72 today.

An ideal, powerful, just, earthly ruler.

Jesus is just and powerful, but in a different way.

What bothers us, about John’s Jesus is that John’s Messiah is one that seems to bring conflict, rather than harmony.

As John says, “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 wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

This isn’t a warm and fuzzy Jesus; this is a Jesus who means serious business.

The work that he has come to do will not always make us feel safe or comfortable.

If people had expectations about a Messiah who exemplifies what it means to be an ideal earthly king…

To have power over ones enemies, to be rich and powerful…

Then John basically tells them to wrap their minds around this instead…

This messiah of Jesus is going to upend the boundaries between people, rather than reinforce them.

This messiah of Jesus has power, but he will exercise it on behalf of the poor and the lowly.

As the prophet Isaiah says this morning, “With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and deicide with equity for the meek of the earth.”

This messiah won’t make us comfortable, he will transform us into something entirely new.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is one of the most often and beautifully depicted Old Testament readings…

the vision of the wolf and the lamb living together in harmony, often seems so idyllic, so sweet, almost sappy…

But it actually speaks not to a simple let’s-just-live-together-in-harmony version of the world, but instead sets forth a radical, sudden shift in perspective for the vision of God’s own creation.

Of what God’s kingdom looks like.

Wrap your minds around this, a creation where even predatory animals no longer need to kill their prey.

Where poisonous snakes don’t bite.

Where children can lead lions and calves together.

Where they will not hurt or destroy on all God’s holy mountain.

Now we know, rationally, that this is not really the way creation works.

Meat eating animals eat meat.

Snakes still have poisonous bites.

And we are still hurting and destroying God’s creation all the time, even without intentionally meaning to.

But that’s how radically transformative God’s kingdom is in this world.

We, even creation itself will be made into something new.

If that isn’t metanoia, I don’t know what is.

The thing about a radical change of mind or position, is that it necessarily calls forth a change of life.

If you just change your mind, but not your actions, then it is really change?

Is it really repentance?

It may well be that in order for God’s kingdom to be fully and truly realized…for the lion to lay down with the calf, and the little child to lead them…

For the messiah that John foretells to do the things that God has called God’s people to do…

Judgement may need to be a part of that.

Can we have things like unity and peace without some judgement?

Not judgement as a means of separating people, not to divide people into who is in and who is out, who is righteous and who is not.

But judgement as a way of looking honestly at ourselves and at our world, and realizing just how short it falls from yet being the fully realized kingdom of God.

How our current leaders are so far from being that promised Messiah.

How we do still hurt and destroy on God’s holy mountain.

How we don’t always, as Paul urges us in today’s letter to the Romans, welcome others as Christ welcomes us.

That’s why John’s call to repentance sounds as harsh as it does.

As a radical change of mind, but one that is also accompanied by a radical change of life.

And this Messiah, this Jesus that John foretells…

In only two short chapters later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells will tell his followers exactly what John tells his:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

“Wrap your minds around this, God’s kingdom is coming.”

And it looks completely different from the kingdom where we live now.