Earlier this year I was in Bangladesh. I arrived on Ash Wednesday and was invited to help distribute communion during the Church of Bangladesh service in Dhaka. I was put next to a retired priest who spoke English and could interpret for me.
Part way through the sermon he nudged me and said: ‘The bishop’s talking about repentance. They all need to repent, the lot of them.’ On two more occasions he nudged me and repeated that the whole congregation was in need of repentance. Well, it was Ash Wednesday, I thought.
A few days later I was at a church festival where thousands came together to sing, listen to preaching, eat together and to dance. Each community tried to outdo the others, dressing up in the most wonderful costumes and telling their story through the dance. In the middle of all this I felt a tap on the shoulder and the retired priest told me: ‘That dance; it’s all about repentance’!
Now maybe he was a tiny bit obsessed but the idea of repentance doesn’t sit comfortably with western Christians, as a rule. However, in this coming Sunday’s gospel reading from Luke, John the Baptist is telling anyone who will listen that they need to respond in repentance.
John was shocking the Jewish community as he stood outside the city and told them: ‘you’re not as secure as you thought you were’. For him the baptism of repentance was more than just a ritual act in response to preaching or a religious experience, it demanded a change of attitude and lifestyle.
His hearers were obviously stunned to be told they had to ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’. It’s also interesting to see the groups Luke picks out. They were:
- ‘the crowd’ – perhaps today represented by public opinion
- tax collectors – the civic authorities who could stand for today’s government, telling us who pays and what’s going to be cut
- soldiers – the military power who could today be any power which imposes its will on us
They all want to know ‘what shall we do?’. John’s answer is quite forthright: do the right thing. It can be looked at in three phases:
- Repentance – turning around and heading in the right direction. All John’s hearers were told their perceptions of what was right needed to change.
- Make a public declaration of it – in Luke’s story the response – the public act – is to be baptised. Of course, the real shock is that this is targeted at Israel, not the unclean Gentile outsiders. The chosen people haven’t understood that being children of Abraham wasn’t enough.
- Live as though it matters – let your outward actions reflect the change.
That’s something we need to listen to. Be different, not just say that we are different. It’s an uncomfortable reading for the approach to Christmas but a timely reminder. We don’t like being told that we need to repent – turn around – or to make sure our lives are decorated with ‘fruits worthy of repentance’.
That 20th Century theologian Eliza Dolittle (My Fair Lady) sings ‘don’t talk of love, show me’ in a confrontation with professor Henry Higgins. He had taught her all about the right words to use to be seen as a lady, but he had failed to demonstrate any of the fruits of being a gentle-man.
John’s message to the crowd, the tax collectors and the soldiers – and to us – is a similar one. The question for us, and our generation, is what sharing coats and food, or financial honesty, or refraining from threats and false accusations look like for our communities.