2nd Sunday in Advent
S. Advent 2.22 “The One Thing That Needs Changing Is Your Mind” Matt. 3:1-12
Repentance. It’s what John the Baptist came preaching, right? And what do you think of, when you think of repentance? Most people probably think of moral renewal, correcting bad behavior, being nicer to their spouse, obeying the posted speed limits, keeping the 10 commandments, etc.
Would it surprise you to learn John the Baptist actually proclaims something quite different? That moral renewal was actually far down his list of concerns? Well, it’s true. According to John the Baptist: the one thing [the only thing, really] that needs changing is… your MIND! That’s it, really. That’s what John actually says—what holy baptism promises to effect…
For John (as for all the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles too, BTW) a change of mind is like the first domino lined up in front of all the other dominos of your life. Knock that first one over, change your mind, and the rest tumble…
Oh, I know. I hear you. “But, Pastor! The Bible says very clearly: repent! And we all know what the word repentance means (look it up in Webster’s Dictionary!): it means moral renewal, improved behavior, and perhaps some spiritual renewal too, as a result of cleaning up our act.”
Well; there, you’re wrong. Rather disastrously wrong, linguistically, if I may say so. Wrong in the way of the man who puts his cart right in front of his horse and wonders why they don’t move.
But it’s not entirely your fault. You have been lead astray by the puritanical Calvinism of the majority of the King James Bible translators and by the intellectual (and, ironically, moral cowardice of all the English translators who followed them—too afraid to fix the King’s mistakes)!
OK. It’s a little bit my fault, too. Because I love to say “Hey! If the King James Bible was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!” But I’m joking when I say that. Jesus didn’t use the King James Bible. [It came along in 1611. Jesus’ earthly ministry was 4 BC—30 AD]. Jesus didn’t speak English, either. He spoke and taught in ancient Greek and surely also read and spoke Hebrew, Aramaic, and some Latin as well. It was a different time—a very multicultural time, 1st century Judea—you understand. English didn’t exist then, which is why no one spoke it. (Jesus wasn’t an American either 😉
The Old Testament is written in Hebrew—a bewilderingly bizarre language if I do say so myself. At least its vocabulary is tiny and its verb conjugations and noun declensions fairly regular—especially compared to Greek’s festival of irregular verb forms. But Hebrew is a very foreign foreign language. Its sheer strangeness is cool though, as is the absence of vowels and the backwards writing. Hebrew turns the world on its ear… 😉 And I flunked it. 🙁
So, fortunately for me, the NT’s in Greek—which I fared better with—because I finally had a good language teacher—Peter Lange—peace be upon him! My Latin teacher for 4 years in high school, Mrs. Martin, was a cruel old crone; my French teacher in college was an airhead; and Walt Rast my Hebrew teacher, while a brilliant and kind man, admitted my failure to learn Hebrew was his fault.
God changed his mind on Hebrew rendering the bible in Greek in the 3rd century BC and speaking it himself during his public ministry. Greek is an elegant language, a sexy language, the language of kings, poets, conquerors, philosophers—and God! (Latin is the language of sanitation engineers, tax accountants, and government bureaucrats—not that there’s anything wrong with any of those necessary occupations! ;-). Greek looks cool and sounds even better. The French can only dream of such an elegant and sexy language!
So, when you tell me, “Pastor! I can read! In Matthew 3:11, John says he baptizes with water for repentance, and Miriam Webster says repentance is “the action or process of repenting especially for misdeeds and moral shortcomings.” I will reply, in a slightly condescending tone [that means talking down to you] that the New Testament is written in Greek and the Greek word translated here as “repentance” is μετανοια which is actually a compound word: μετα which means “change” and νουσ which means “mind” so “mind-change” is what John is actually proclaiming as essential (and promises his baptism will actually effect 😉
If you want to be one of the cool kids in bible class—and don’t know Greek, it’s best, when discussing a tricky Gospel passage, to ask the pastor about a key word in the passage, go: “Pastor; what’s the original Greek, here?” Then you look erudite and put the pressure back on him!
Jesus also came preaching μετανοια because the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Now, why would the King James Bible translators choose so… poorly, here? Well, to their credit, the English word “repentance”, way back in those days, had more the connotation of “change of mind” than “correcting behavior” or “moral renewal”. In 1611, you would repent your answer on a math quiz; you’d repent your initial thought that the pretty girl in religious history class would be great to date. “Repent” (in 1611) meant more “change of mind” than “change of morals or behavior”.
But; many of those KJV translator dudes were Puritans, so the shift from “change of mind” towards “change of behavior, or morality” wasn’t one they’d totally repent [see what I did there?] If you change your mind on sin, grace, heaven, hell, girls, or God, it’ll definitely affect your behavior. If the cart’s behind horse, see?
So, as I said, according to John the Baptist, the only thing that really needs [as Bowie put it] cha-cha-cha-changin’ [sorry!] is your mind! Now, maybe, you think it’s easier changing your mind than your behavior? Well, let’s test that hypothesis! Honestly: are you totally convinced that I (Hebrew flunky, just one Greek class 😉 am completely correct about μετανοια and what it really means? Or perhaps you’re thinking: “He’s just one (kinda contrarian 😉 guy; and: if it’s obviously wrong, why haven’t they changed the Bible, for Christ’s sake! Hmmm?”!
OK. But you’ll act like you believe me—lest I hand you a middle Liddell lexicon and go: “Here; show me where I’m wrong!” You might think you’d try it, since you were in a frat and know the Greek alphabet. But, pro tip: ancient Greek’s written all in lower case and you only learned upper case at the frat. So you’d mistake a lower case μ for a “u” and look… silly.
See? Mind-change is much harder than changing behavior, yet; much more crucial! Now, what would John and Jesus change your mind about? Well, about… everything!
About sin, grace, Greek, heaven, hell, girls, God, man, free-will, mercy, truth, beauty, goodness—and more. Basically, John would have you think everything you naturally think good is really not because sin has made us servants of self; and, as Luther said: the worst part is that even when we become “godly” we seek the things of self in the service of God!
But… John doesn’t tell you to change your mind, yourself. He promises, rather, holy baptism’ll do it, for you! John says he baptizes not “for” μετανοια—like a process you must complete—the Greek preposition here is εισ, literally “into”, not for… (Liddell’s handy if you need to check…)
In Baptism, God changed our minds about… everything. So now, we see the fire that Jesus is bringing for a sinful world is something to look forward to—to get rid of the rot in us—like the Zombie Apocalypse, which is sounding better, all the time! But the devil is always changing our mind back, asking: “Do you think God really meant all that stuff?”
By Word, Sacrament, Worship, God changes your mind into Christ’s—the only change you really need; which the Holy Spirit grants you, here, now. In the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.