John the Baptist, as his epithet suggest, baptised people and with it he preached repentance. There is quite a widely shared and deeply rooted confusion what he actually meant.
For John and in the Bible - repentance has little if outright nothing to do with guilt feelings or displays of self-affliction or self-denigration. The New Testament was written in Greek (Hellenistic Koine) and repentance in Greek is METANOIA μετανοια that literally means a thorough reorientation of thinking, of outlook on life. But John the Baptist did not speak Greek - his language was either Aramaic or Hebrew. In Hebrew repentance is TEŠUVAH תשובה . This word is derived from root ŠVB שוב which means turning around, going one direction and then ŠVB turning 180 degrees and going back - that is repentance - redirecting of our life. No melodramatic outpouring of our inner spiritual feelings and our yearning for personal salvation. True repentance is a down to earth practical reorientation of our individual and communal lives, eventually an ideal redirection of the entire society.
For that reason in the past four years at Rutgers we adopted in our worship at least once a month this litany of renunciation and acceptance.
We renounce falsehood, lies, deceitful words, and actions.
We take up truth, honesty and openness.
We renounce anger that leads to harm with words and actions.
We take up words and actions that help create peace.
We renounce egotism, selfish grasping, and stealing.
We take up honest work and care for others.
We renounce racism, nativism, and dividing people to us and them.
We take up divine love which embraces all people.
We renounce insults, slander, and evil judgment of others.
We take up what encourages, comforts, and offers hope.
We renounce bitterness, violence, and the desire to cause harm.
We take up kindness, gentleness, and work for divine justice and peace.
We do it, because we want to live out biblical repentance and its true original meaning and ethos. Depending on the socio-political context it can be quite a radical part of liturgy. The more dire situation we live in the more radical it feels.
And that was also the situation of John the Baptist and what he had in mind when he preached repentance - reorienting lives to be in harmony with God’s will. And conducting baptism - through baptism opening up a new realm - welcoming people to God’s future.
On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday we want to do just that. Reaffirm our Baptisms and commit ourselves to God’s will and God’s future.