Summary: Love doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry; it means being loved before you've even said it.
They came, streaming down to the Jordan from Judea, Galilee, Perea and
Decapolis, Jewish men, women and children, hoping to hear the word of God. And they saw just what they expected. They saw a wild man, a hairy man, a man straight out of the Old Testament tradition. He was dressed, so Matthew tells us, in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, just as the Scriptures described the prophet Elijah. And what's more, he came out of the wilderness, the barren land between the Dead Sea and the hills of Judea. Prophets always come out of the wilderness. There in the desert, the dryness and the dust, the hunger and the thirst scours the city out of them, the cities and towns choked with commerce and politics, smelling of ambition and compromise, success and failure. Prophets step into our world from outside of time, to remind us of the eternal. And the ones who came to listen were the ones for whom the present wasn't good enough. The ones who came to hear God speak were the ones who wanted something to change.
And they heard what they expected, too. John's message was straight out of the
OT tradition, they might have been listening to of Elijah or Amos or Joel calling for the people to prepare for the day of the Lord. And just as Amos had, John wakes them up to the fact that God isn't going to deliver them from Rome the way he did from Egypt, or during the time of the Judges when all they had to do was promise to reform and God would send them a rescuer. He expects them to change first. Because the day of the Lord isn't going to be a walk in the park. "Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD!" said Amos. "Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light." [Amos 5:18] The world is going to turn upside down, and if they're going to survive it, they have to be made ready. They have to undergo some kind of transformation.
The way John phrases it is, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." [v. 2] What does that mean? Now, the Greek word for repentance is: metanoia.. This doesn't just mean being sorry. The word means literally to change one's mind. It also means a change of heart and a change of direction. "Repent" doesn't really convey all that, does it. Maybe a more comprehensive English term would be "convert." But that, too, has had a whole lot of baggage added to it over our centuries in a quasi-Christian world, hasn't it. That's why I want to use the word "transformation," instead. It's a word that means to become different in kind, not just in outward appearance, or visible behavior. Or how about just "change"? "Change, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
One of my mentors when I was in training for the ministry had a really nifty gimmick he used to describe what happened to people when they were baptized, but if I tried it here I'd probably be drawn and quartered. He would roll up a newspaper and set it on fire. That was his illustration of what happens when sinful people approach a holy God. Or, to go back to the image of the Day of the Lord, when God appears, mountains melt and people go up in smoke. And so if the kingdom of heaven is drawing near, if John's listeners don't do something drastic, they'll burn up - literally. "One who is more powerful than I is coming .... His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Oh - you want to know what my pastor friend Richard did with the burning
newspaper? He had brought a pail of water and hidden it behind the pulpit. Just as the people were wondering when his robe was going to catch on fire he doused the newspaper.
And then he took out a fresh newspaper, rolled it up, and doused it in the bucket
as well. And then he tried to set it on fire. You know what? It wouldn't catch! The
water had protected it from the flames!
And that's what John offered the people. He offered them a way to get ready to
meet God. He knew that they couldn't change themselves; why if the Jewish people had learned anything at all over the past few centuries it was that no matter what happened, everything stayed the same. There's a French proverb that goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same." No matter who was ruling, whether it was the Persians or the Egyptians or the Greeks or the Romans - or even the sort-of-Jewish Idumeans - there was injustice and cruelty and oppression and betrayal. So John offered them a chance to change.