A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Fordingbridge on the Third Sunday in Advent , 2015.
A glance at the TV screens this week has brought home in a dramatic way the need for agreements in Paris on global warming and climate change. The protracted negotiations for such an agreement also spell the costliness of such change which is required to reduce the emission of gasses into the air by as little as 1.5% by 2050.
Important and crucial as that is I want to reflect on a different kind of ‘climate change’.
Some words of John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel this morning,
“…bear fruits worthy of repentance”
I love words and language. Language changes over time and comes to change meaning over time. There was a time when the Prayer Book was composed by Cranmer that ‘to prevent’ meant to ‘go before’ as opposed to our modern meaning of ‘obstruct’. Take the word used by John and subsequently used by Jesus-‘repentance’. What images does that conjure up for you? Doing something seemingly naughty and feeling guilty? Had a bit too much to drink and made a fool of yourself? Flew off the handle at your best friend? And then feeling sorry!
Repentance is such a central word to the message of both John and Jesus and yet it means much more than being sorry. In fact it means something a bit different. Now for the Greek lesson-are you ready? The Greek word which is normally translated as ‘repentance’ is a lovely word called, ‘metanoia’. It comes from two Greek words: ‘meta’ meaning ‘change’ and ‘noien’ meaning ‘to think’. You might recognise our word ‘nous’ when we say, ‘didn’t show much ‘nous’’ meaning he didn’t think or use his head. ‘Metanoia’ means a profound change in the heart and mind of an individual what I want to call a personal ‘climate change’. So all you have to remember is that ‘repentance’ means a personal climate change a total change of the heart and mind of the individual.
The crowds came out to see John the Baptist-he must have been quite a sight with his camel hair tunic and his sandals and probably wild hair blowing in the wind. I imagine he was a fearsome character and somewhat uncompromising. He comes inviting the crowds to baptism and repentance. There are many records attesting to Jews involved in ritual washing to remove pollution that would defile the temple. John connects repentance with baptism a sign of renewal and cleansing.
John is calling for climate change on a large scale. He somewhat dismisses superficial attempts by the Jews’ appeal to Abraham as their illustrious ancestor. And he has strong words for the crowds-if you have two coats share with anyone who has none; a warning for tax collectors not to cheat and for soldiers not to exploit the weakness of others. Repentance and baptism involves a total change in perception and behaviour.
What might climate change look like for you and I? As climate change takes hold in our planet creating ice floes to melt, ocean water to rise, creating freak storms etc we witness a slowly developing change to what we can expect in the life of our planet. It is the same with the climate change which John and Jesus invites of us through the notion of ‘repentance’. Let me explain.
Two examples. One, Beth runs a local choir. She is very good at choosing an appropriate repertoire of music for different voices. She has a knack of being able to get the choir to raise the game to great heights especially at local concerts. She knows in her heart of hearts she has more in her, greater things to achieve and she decides to enter a national conducting competition, and wins. She becomes a conductor, no mean achievement for a woman in today’s world. She is realising the huge potential bursting to get out of her and she begins to lead a more deeply satisfying life albeit a more demanding one.
Two, Alex and Annabelle espy one another at a local gig, like the look of each other and begin dating. Each in their way are embarking on a journey in which each is risking themselves to each other, discovering that life together is more satisfying than when they were single. Each evokes in the other deeper and richer ways of being and living. Their life becomes more demanding as they start a family with the inevitable costliness of their love for one another.
I want to suggest that both undergo climate change-a kind of metanoia as they begin to see themselves and others differently and realise that they themselves are full of unrealised potential, Beth with her talent in conducting and Alex and Annabelle in their new found partnership.
Both required a willingness to open themselves to new possibilities they never dreamt of. Both required a willingness to surrender to a past life. Both had a vision of a more fulfilled life.
The crowds, the Jews, the tax collectors and the soldiers were all warned by John that real change of heart is required for those who would follow ‘the one is to come who is more powerful than I’, Jesus himself. It is a combination of climate change and renewal, repentance and baptism.
Would that a message that our political leaders and church leaders could hear. Let us cut out the spin about how brilliant our policies and plans are and somehow just what people need right now. John and Jesus call for a climate change.
What might metanoia look like for the Church right now? We much work to do and issues to resolve-church unity, styles of ministry and how to pay for it, the real acceptance of those in the ministry with gay and lesbian orientation, how to maximise the use of our church buildings and plant. John and Jesus call the Church as a community to a real climate change in their attitude to these questions.
John the Baptist was not a popular character in his day and don’t suppose he would top our X Factor chart today. John like the prophets before him challenged his hearers to take responsibility for their actions and urged them to change the world to the kind of place it was meant to be. He offered them the possibility of a changed heart, a climate change, and a mirror of themselves in the pool of water in the Jordan River to encourage them to make a renewed attempt at life by gazing on the one who is to come Jesus who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, both images of cleansing. Of course like his master he came to a sticky end. Living with uncompromising people like John shows up the seamy side of us and the cracks in our veneers.
Our Advent journey then is not a smooth path. The path is uncertain in places but full of possibility and hope for a better future to help us ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance (metanoia), that divine love may rule our hearts and minds as we seek to serve God and his church