Benediction Online

Sunday, December 07, 2014


Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a

Some of you will remember the beginning of the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral  where the Hugh Grant character wakes late and realizes that he is horribly late for a friend’s wedding. 

In the couple of years after I graduated from college, several of my friends got married. Often in towns I had never visited. As the owner of a car it was my job to collect other friends and get us all to the church on time. Even then I tended to under-estimate how long things take and so we were often, like Hugh Grant, in a mad dash to get to the church on time. On one occasion we were cutting it very close and were having a very difficult time finding the church, when we passed the bride riding in a be-ribboned chauffeured car. She was going in the opposite direction.

You can be sure that we turned around as quickly as we could. Fortunately she had seen us too and took a leisurely drive around the block so that we were well in our seats, though a little breathless, when she made her grand entrance.

The Greek word for that kind of U-turn is metanoia. It’s quite a pragmatic word, which doesn’t carry a lot of emotion or other baggage. We saw the bride and immediately performed a metanoia because we realized we were going the wrong way. Like High Grant, we probably used a few choice words, but we didn’t wring our hands or fall on our knees in anguish.

In the account of John the Baptizer calling people to repentance, the Greek uses this same word, metanoia, to turn round. Many of us have come to think of repentance as a big emotional thing. It has gotten tied up in ideas of being convicted of sin, or revival meetings, of coming to God with tears running down our faces as we realize that up until now we have been worthless sinners. Now those all have their place and if that has been or is your experience, I’m not knocking it. But I want to point out that John the Baptizer says nothing about looking back at your past life with sorrow, regret or reproach.

If your intention is to follow Jesus and as you’re headed down the road you see him coming towards you, what are you going to do? You’re going to turn around and go the way he’s going. It’s metanoia.
John the Baptizer is an important figure in the Gospels. Today’s reading is the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. He doesn’t bother with Jesus’ incarnation but instead has one prophet pointing to another prophet. Isaiah points to John who points to the “one who is coming.” Every one of the four gospels includes John as a precursor or a witness to Jesus. This is really quite remarkable since they often tell a story in different ways, or include different narratives or have Jesus taking different routes. Their unanimity on John means that we can’t just treat him like a garnish on the plate, where Jesus is the real thing.  We can’t just push the decorative leaves aside and eat the meat.

We have to take John the Baptizer seriously. His is the voice literally in the wilderness – outside the city, beside the iconic River Jordan, calling for us to make a u-turn.  Before Jesus comes, the prophetic voice calls for us to change.

John does not ask us to regret our past actions. John does not ask us to be sorry. John asks us to completely change our lives. This understanding of repentance is foundational to our spiritual path. A fundamental change in heart and mind, a metanoia, is a necessary ingredient, in fact the single most important ingredient in accomplishing God’s plan for salvation and community for everyone. Without it, we are just going along in the same way, fondly imagining that we are headed in the right direction but completely missing the point.
John the Baptizer baptized as a sign of metanoia; a sign of the intention to live differently. When Jesus started his ministry his message was a little different –“the kingdom of God is close at hand, undertake metanoia and believe the good news.”(Mark 1: 15) Metanoia is a prerequisite of the reign of God.
We are called to participate in God’s plan for salvation. We are called to work towards a new heaven and a new earth, a commonwealth based on love and compassion. But in order to do that, we have to change our minds and our behaviors. We have to start living as though that new commonwealth is here and now, not just some future hope but a present reality.

This is not quite as simple as a u-turn in the street because we are complex beings and our attitudes and behaviors are influenced by so many different factors. It is a u-turn that goes on and on and on. There is always some part of us that is in need of metanoia. There is always some part of our lives which is not yet fully turned around. There is always more to learn and more to transform. That is part of the great project, the great cosmic metanioa, in which we are engaged.

It can seem overwhelming, especially when we are dealing with an entrenched pattern or an attitude which we can justify a million times over. But that’s where the power of the Holy Spirit comes in. We are friends and servants of the all-Compassionate, living God who can use our intention and our desire for metanioa to bring about so much more than we can imagine.

Sometimes we feel like Hugh Grant in Four Weddings and a Funeral, who in spite of all his best intentions, despite all the alarm clocks he has set, oversleeps and has to run, cursing, to try against all odds to do what he has intended - to support his friends at their wedding. Our own strength is not enough. But we are given divine support, divine power. Whenever we make a metanoia at the level of our intentions and give this to God, powerful things follow.

But the object of all this is not just that we become happier better-adjusted nicer human beings. The point of all this is that we take our full part in the work of building the reign of God, of developing kinship with those who are different from us, of giving up privilege so that others may have enough. John the Baptizer preached and baptized for metanoia in the hope of the one who would come after him, but we have the joy of knowing the one who came after. We are called to follow Jesus in working for the reign of peace and justice.
When the angels sang “Peace on earth and goodwill to humanity” they were not just singing a Christmas card from God; they were proclaiming the reign of God that was beginning. That reign is still unfolding and you and I are part of its unfolding. We have the joy and the privilege and the hard work of being an integral part of that new reign.

And it starts in metanoia. It starts in a complete re-orientation of heart and mind. It starts with the cultivation of inner peace. As the second reading said, “beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.”  What a difference it would make if each of us were to be peace.

Our peace comes from trusting that underneath are, always, the ever-lasting arms. As Isaiah said,
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

Metanoia is allowing the great Shepherd to feed us and gently lead us in the paths of peace.


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