John the Baptist is our main character this morning. Matthew’s account makes sure that we experience John as powerful, strong, fierce, dramatic. He’s not someone to be passed over or ignored – he may only appear as an adult in one brief passage of Scripture, but it’s certainly not a passage to be skipped over. He was a person who commanded interest and engagement from the people who encountered him. And I guess that people trusted him – they were coming to confess their sins and to be baptised with John’s baptism of repentance. They clearly valued what he was able to offer.
So people came to John at the banks of the Jordan and they ‘fessed up. They held up their hands and admitted to the wrongs they had done – or the good they had not done. And the baptism washed away their sins and they understood themselves to be good as new. They could start again, and again.
We know that John recognised the limitations of his baptism – he was clear with people that something far more significant was just around the corner. A different kind of baptism was just out of sight, just out of reach, but was God’s promise for all people.
John’s baptism of repentance feels like something that resonates in our contemporary world. In fact, I might suggest that it feels like something that twenty-first century self-help has reinvented. There are many sources that will tell you how good it is to unburden yourself from the weight of guilt that you carry. Sources that encourage truth telling, public self- shaming, and sometimes even tracking down people who you wronged many years ago. And there is no doubt that telling all can help people to feel better about themselves. The problem is that it often stops right there. It’s one thing to bare your soul; to own up to some home truths and to even dare to speak all of that out loud. But it’s quite another thing to do something to change our own patterns of behaviour.
It’s relatively easy to say sorry, to be sorry, at any given moment, but that’s not enough. We need the baptism of Jesus to help us towards fundamental change. Our prayer book absolution spells out the theology of our church: May the Almighty and Merciful Lord grant unto you (pardon and remission of all your sins), time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.
The theology of our church is rooted in our Baptism into the Body of Christ. The absolution that is offered each time we come before God to own up to our own sinfulness spells out what is required: true repentance and amendment of life.
And that is where it all gets a bit more challenging – not just for those who commit crimes or easily recognised bad behaviour towards others, but for each and every one of us. We can all look around – at those who commit acts of violence; those who undermine or intimidate; those who abuse their power – and identify the need for change. How much harder we find it to identify the ways that we need to make fundamental change.
Most of our sinful behaviours are habitual; we don’t even always notice that we do them, or we haven’t worked out ways to manage them. We’re not good at noticing the things we could have changed, but don’t. And I would suggest that many of those behaviours are rooted in our own insecurities and the damage that has been inflicted upon us by others. Those hurts and the ways that we hide them are all too familiar to us, and all too difficult to let go.
We don’t always realise that we choose not to take responsibility for making changes. We can be quick to excuse ourselves and slow to recognise the challenges that others live with. We might like the idea of amendment of life rather more than we like the reality.
Amending our lives is hard. It means actively choosing to behave and respond differently from the ingrained patterns that shape our lives and that are pretty well instinctive. Amending our lives usually means facing up to the darker parts of ourselves, taking stock and not shying away from what we find.
And Advent is an ideal time to grapple with all of this. It’s a time to watch and wait, a time to prepare to welcome the Christ child, the one who came to offer us unconditional forgiveness and the opportunity for real and lasting change.
Listen to what John told his followers about the baptism that Jesus would offer: He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
This new baptism will be a dynamic baptism. A baptism that will bring the energy of fire into your life alongside the support and comfort of the Holy Spirit. This new baptism brings with it a new confidence that fundamental change might be both possible and manageable.
Speaking about bringing fire into our lives suggests something that is alive, something that we keep alive when we give it oxygen and fuel. We talk about having fire in our belly; being fired up; being on fire – all of those phrases carry a suggestion of active engagement. There’s nothing passive about this baptism into the ways of the Christ. It’s a demanding and active commitment to a distinctive way of life.
It’s not just about putting aside today’s sin and finding ways to be and do good; it’s about committing to repeating that pattern day after day – and re-committing when, inevitably, we fail. It’s about firing up our commitment to the promises we make – in baptism, in confession, when we receive absolution. It’s about giving oxygen and fuel to those promises so that they have life and become life giving.
One of the things people experience when they actively repent, is that they make room in their heads and their lives. If you’re not carrying a burden of guilt, you create a space to carry something else. You create a space for the Holy Spirit to be an active part of your life. A space for the Incarnate Christ to have access to oxygen and fuel, to grow and deepen and transform.
Our Baptism commits us to active engagement with the ways of God. To taking seriously the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Taking seriously the promise that we are forgiven, and setting that promise of God’s forgiveness alongside a promise to ourselves to find different ways of being and responding and living.
John’s baptism of repentance shows us the direction of travel, helps us to begin that journey towards true repentance and genuine amendment of life.