Letters from the Wilderness: 1

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.’” — Matthew 3:1-3

What do you mean, John? What is this action you command, this preparatory step for road-building and way-making? What are we to repent of? What is repentance?

The term John the Baptist uses here in Matthew is the Greek metanoeō, a word meaning to change one’s mind, to think differently, to reconsider. Our word “repent” comes from the Latin roots re- and paenitēre, the second of which also gives us our word “penitent.” Paenitēre means “to feel regret,” and re means “again and again.”

I think we’ve lost some nuance of meaning in our word.

The notion of repentance isn’t exactly a popular one. Of course, nobody likes the idea of feeling regret again and again. But perhaps the real reason we don’t like the command to repent is because of the sense of the Greek word; none of us like being told we need to change our minds or our point of view. You see, repentance involves submitting to someone else’s ideas, to someone else’s perspective, to someone else’s rules for how the world — and our lives — should be run. Repentance involves realizing that we do not have ultimate authority over ourselves, that it’s not our right to have the final say in what happens or how we live. Repentance means taking that Someone Else’s perspectives and ideas for our own.

When we talk about the need for repentance, we are acknowledging the fact and the presence of sin — another unpopular concept and word. People can debate all day long what particular things are or are not sins and why, but, at its root, sin is a heart attitude that distrusts the perfect goodness and love of God and demands its own way, whatever the cost. Sin is a condition in which we essentially believe that we are the most important being in the universe, and that we can do no wrong. Sin is a fundamental denial of Who God is — and of who we are ourselves.

Repent. Reconsider. Unlatch the windows of your heart and let the light pour in. What does it reveal? What thoughts, habits, inclinations, motivations have been driving you? What do they say about Who you believe God to be — and what do you really believe about yourself?

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. The true King is coming; your delusions of rule have no place here.