Second Sunday In Advent
S. Advent 2.23 Mark 1:1-8
“John appeared… proclaiming a baptism of repentance…”
This is the first thing of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the τελος the purpose and point, the gist of the whole thing. And if you don’t get the first thing—the end in view, right, you’ll just be… lost. It’s like a journey. If you want to go from Raleigh to California, you need to head West. If, instead, you head due South, you’ll never get there…
And the first thing that John the messenger, αγγελος, of Christ does to prepare the LORD’s way is to baptize for “repentance” as all English translations render it. Except… that’s a lousy translation of the Greek word μετανοια. Not too good, Bob! D+ (grading it generously 😉 It’s pointing you dead South instead of true West on your California odyssey.
“Repentance”, from the days of King James till now, means, in standard English usage, being sorry for your sins, wanting to do better. It’s a moral term, and since the so-called “Enlightenment” of the 17th century, sin has been reduced first, to a tendency not to obey the governing authorities, the elites of society, and second, to offend against Puritan morality.
This is largely because the old, cardinal virtues of courage, truthfulness, justice, magnanimity, faith, love, got trimmed down in the 17th century by Kant, Adam Smith, Hume, and then in the Victorian Age (as Alasdair MacIntyre demonstrates in his classic, must-read book “After Virtue”) to the singular virtue of following the rules of governing elites. The Society for the Prevention of Vice—an actual and influential group in 19th century England—did not care about eliminating lies, greed, or atheism but were concerned exclusively with female chastity (men were accorded more “freedom”) so as to guarantee legitimate heirs for men to bequeath their (questionably obtained) property to.
And so it is today. The unquestioning disposition to “follow the Science”—I guess anything the technocrats deem necessary for preserving their power and our “health”—seems the only “virtue” today. The insistence that by obeying all their (often confusing) rules, death can be practically defeated seems ridiculous. So I can treat my neighbor primarily as a source of contagion without doing any harm? I’m dubious of that one. Was Jesus worried about catching a cold, or leprosy, when he embraced all those sick folks? Didn’t he prove love conquers death?
It seems, these days, the only thing the virtuous citizen must do is: vote for congress, celebrate diversity, and fight the enemies of the state—especially where “The Science”—whatever that is—is concerned.
So, to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, to the modern ear, suggests something quite different than the original Greek μετανοια—the word translated for us as “repentance”—would have suggested to the hearers of John the baptizer, Jesus, and his apostles in the 1st century.
μετάνοια is a metaphysical not a moral thing, a compound Greek word: μετα meaning “change” and νους meaning heart/mind/soul. νους is a Greek concept that we have hardly any single English word to render. It is most literally “mind” but the ancient Greek idea of “mind” is utterly different than modern “brain science” has taught us to conceive of “mind”. νους is the essence of the person. It is a combination of what we metaphorically mean by the mind, heart, and soul triad. It’s our thought, emotion, passion—our embodied life. It’s the way we see the world, grasp its τελος, the story, the point and purpose of God’s creation and our place in it all.
“Change of heart/mind/soul” would be a much better translation of what John’s baptism is producing, what Christ comes to effect in us all. But it’s not just changing what you think, or how you feel. It’s changing how you see yourself in relation to God and his creation, how you see your powers and purpose in relation to God’s.
As Luther beautifully puts it, in the Large Catechism (which we’ll begin reading together in Wednesday evening book club, starting the Wednesday after this one) the Ten Commandments set out the teaching, the law—really, as C.S. Lewis best translated the Hebrew word torah: “The Way” that God has set for us to walk in to find him and his everlasting joy and life.
The First Thing, and, according to our Lord Jesus’ catechesis, the Only Thing, really! is: to love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, and soul (your νους!) which the first 3 commandments show us, and the other 7 are just corollaries on this: of how loving God leads to a very particular love of neighbor in: honoring parents, not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, lying, or coveting. This is the Way! Truly. Really. Seriously. This is IT!
So what needs to change, according to the Gospel, is not, first, our relation to earthly authorities’ dictates on family, church, or morality; but first to change our relations with the Triune God—which means changing our heart/mind/soul, the Way we see…
Being holy isn’t a matter of following rules, divine or human. It’s a matter of receiving God’s gifts…
Faith, as Luther well defined it in his exposition of the first three commandments of Moses’ “Way”, is to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. To be absorbed, as Erich Auerbach put it beautifully in the 1st chapter of “Mimesis”, into the story the holy scriptures tell, so that it becomes, for us, the only real world and the adoration of God our only real goal, our journey’s True End…
Because, the one sin God is most concerned with, as Luther well says, is unbelief. It is not Adam and Eve and their sinful progeny God is mad at, Luther memorably observes, but our unbelief that really gets God’s goat. Because unbelief is the only thing that keeps us from the adoration of God. Unbelief keeps us from walking the rite Way, arriving at the end of the road where Aslan’s country is finally discovered as our own. What actually makes God mad is how we cheat ourselves out of the indescribable glory he’s created us to enjoy.
See how getting a single word from the original Greek of the NT rite [sic!] makes all the difference? If μετανοια doesn’t mean feeling bad about our obstinate resistance of the (quite popular) New Puritan Tyranny that hates God and faith most of all—if sin isn’t failing to “do whatever the TV tells us”, but is, rather, anti-Xn unbelief, well then… we just need a change of heart—the mind of Christ swapped for ours…
C.S. Lewis said (paraphrasing, slightly): if you find you’ve taken a wrong turn at a fork in the road (taking Siri’s superhighway “shortcut” 😉 and have gone hundreds of miles the wrong way, the only way to go right, is to retrace your steps back to that fork, and take Robert Frost’s road less-traveled-by. So… go West, young traveler! All your wanderings to the South are only taking you deeper into the Sahara Desert, to die of thirst. You need to know that, for Lewis: Numinor, Christ’s own Country, is always the True West.
I feel like we’ve been led, in the Post-Enlightenment world, down a wrong road! But it’s never too late to turn around—to change, heart/mind/soul, the direction of life, back towards Christ’s Country.
Such μετανοια is impossible for us to effect. Only God can do it.
But, as with John, the Forerunner of Christ, God keeps doing that impossible thing with impossible people, like us 😉 By Holy Baptism, he changed our stony, grinchy hearts from unbelief to faith. And by his Word in our ears, his Body and Blood in our mouths, he’s got us heading home, by faith in Christ Jesus alone. Amen.