Repentance – now there’s a word worth exploring!
As a child, I got the distinct impression at Sunday School that repentance was all about being sorry. If I was only sorry enough for all the naughty things I did then maybe I wouldn’t go to hell… it was that kind of Sunday School… plenty of hell-fire and the threat of damnation kept me very “good” and compliant, specially as my mum used to say to me, when I’d been found out in some minor misdemeanour at home and was grovelling, “being sorry’s no good!” All of which might be why, in my more mature years (well OK then, now I’m old!) I set so much store by the overwhelming generosity of God’s grace, love and forgivenss, which can never be earned and is a free gift for us all at every moment.
Repentance is in fact nothing to do with feeling very sorry and remorseful, although such feelign can bring us to the point of willingness to repent. The Greek word translated as repentance in this passage is μετάνοια (metanoia), implyinga change of heart and mind. As Wikipedia says, “The repentance (metanoia) called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. ….. It is a call to conversion from self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion to obedient trust and self-commitment to God.”
Now that definition makes perfect sense. It also explains why Jesus, of all people, came to John to be baptised. For John was offering a baptism of repentance and in submitting to baptism Jesus was demonstrating both His complete identification with us in our sinfulness and His complete turning towards God in submission to God’s will.
The result of this complete submission was that He heard the voice of God declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. This was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and was followed immediately, as you may recall, by the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness, where He began to understand the full impact of the commitment He had made and what it would mean to live His life God’s way and to bring in the Kingdom God’s way and, indeed, the very nature of the Kingdom of God which is so very different from any earthly kingdom.
I don’t know whether any of you are familiar with the writings of Terry Pratchett. I’m not addicted to them – honest – it’s just that I happen to have all of his books on my bookshelf and reread them regularly. For those of you who don’t know already, the majority of his books are set on the Discworld – a flat world carried on the back of four elephants which are standing on Great A’Tuin, an enormous turtle swimming through space. (Did I mention he’s a fantasy writer?). This is a world which runs on magic rather than following scientific principles. One of the characters is Rhincewind, a failed wizard. Suffice to say that Rhincewind is a survivor – born lucky, you might say – whose main goal in life is to stay alive. He achieves this by knowing when to run from trouble, and more than once explains to bewildered companions who ask “where are we going?” ” ‘To’ doesn’t matter. All that matters is ‘from’ – ‘to’ will take care of itself!”
However, in the case of repentance, I venture to suggest that “from” doesn’t matter – “to” is the most important thing. we repent to God’ will rather than our own. And as we turn to God and away from our self-will then we too enter into His Kingdom.
Each act of repentance – of μετάνοια (metanoia) – will bring us to a new beginning in our lives. Our past rebellion ended and a new submission begun.
God give us the grace to repent continually – to turn continually towards Him and the light of His love. And may our repentance – our turning to – cause us to shine ourselves with His light and equip us to share His love with all.