I preached this sermon on Sunday at the 4:00 jazz service at Fourth Church. It is a reflection on Jesus’ baptism and the notion that changing one’s heart and life is a more appropriate understanding of metanoia than the traditional connotations of repentance. It also suggests that what young people experience in confirmation is a repeatable experience appropriate for people of all ages. The sermon texts were Isaiah 43:1-7 and Matthew 3:1-17.
It is a perennial question among children, youth, and those learning about the Christian story—more specifically the story of Jesus—for the first time. Why was Jesus baptized if he was supposedly without sin? Truth be told, it may be a nagging question for those of us who have been studying and living Christianity for a long time. Heck, we’re told that even the guy who actually baptized Jesus—his cousin, John the Baptist—wasn’t so sure about it. “I need to be baptized by you,” he said, “yet you come to me?”
After all, John’s baptism was all about repentance. For what did Jesus have to repent?
And Jesus’ answer isn’t very clear or satisfying. “This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness,” he says.
What does that mean? Why is it necessary? Who ordained that it must be this way? There’s no reference to an Old Testament prophecy being fulfilled. There certainly wasn’t any kind of precedent to follow. There is no sophisticated theological rationale offered here. Jesus just says, “This is the way it must be.”
Curious, isn’t it?
We might suspect, I suppose, that the whole notion of Jesus being sinless was a belief that developed in later periods of Christian history and that this story of his baptism only became problematic when considered in light of this later conviction. We don’t really know anything about the first thirty years of Jesus’ life. There are a few childhood stories in the canonical gospels and a few more in non-canonical sources that we’ve discovered. But the gospel accounts we have in our Bibles more or less jump from his birth and childhood right to the story of his baptism—which makes our own celebration of his baptism just a few weeks after Christmas somewhat fitting. In the Gospel of Mark there are no Christmas stories at all. The story begins with this moment of Jesus submitting to the baptism of John.
Maybe we’re reading too much into this notion of repentance. The Greek word behind this concept is metanoia. Some have suggested that repentance in the sense of being sorry for our mistakes is a mistranslation of metanoia dating all the way back to the Latin translation of the New Testament in the second century. We have turned metanoia into a word of judgment, a word of guilt, a word of condemnation. Metanoia literally means “a change of mind.” It indicates a change of status, a change of attitude, a change of perspective.
This actually fits this moment of Jesus’ life quite well. Whatever it was that he was doing for the first thirty years of his life, at the moment of his baptism he is embarking on a radically new journey. Whatever came before has ended. Now is the time for him to get down to business. Now is the time for him to do what he was chosen to do.
The King James Version of the Bible—and most of the English translations that followed it—translated metanoia as repentance, so English speaking Christians are predisposed to think about this story in those terms. But some more recent translations are attempting to shift this longstanding interpretation.
The Common English Bible, published just a few years ago on the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, describes John’s message in this way: “In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, ‘Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!’” Metanoia!
This same message was picked up by Jesus after his baptism and desert ordeal. “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” Metanoia! Metanoia that leads to the emergence of God’s kingdom.
When the sky parts and God’s Spirit descends and a voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as God’s own son, Jesus is set apart. His special connection to God is revealed and consecrated. He puts aside the person he had been and becomes the person God called him to be. He experiences metanoia. He changes his heart and life. He sets off in a new direction along God’s path.
It’s remarkable that this is the way the story of Jesus’ ministry begins. He comes to his cousin John to be baptized as a sign and seal of the new thing God is doing in his life. From the waters of the Jordan River he goes into the wilderness to fast for forty days. It is a spiritual journey of preparation. And in his weakness he is tempted by the adversary to reject his trust in God. Yet he prevails over these temptations and emerges from the wilderness a changed person. He continues to experience metanoia.
Called by God in righteousness, protected and guided by God, he is given as a new covenant to God’s people, a light shining in the midst of darkness. He is compelled and empowered to open blind eyes, to set prisoners free, to preach good news to the poor, to liberate the oppressed. “Now is the time!” he says. “Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”
Jesus embraced metanoia and he invites us to do the same. We are called to do as Jesus did, and so we too submit to the waters of baptism. We commit ourselves to change our hearts and lives. We let go of who we used to be and follow God’s path in the way of Jesus.
Yet in a church like ours, how many of you actually made that choice at your baptism? How many of you made a conscious decision to change your hearts and lives and follow God in the way of Jesus? How many of you were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of your baptism? Did you miss out on that moment of transformation, that moment of commitment and dedication?
As Christianity developed, for many good reasons, baptism eventually became a practice associated with infants. It signifies God’s free grace and love, extended to us from the very beginnings of life. It makes baptism a family affair that involves a network of love and support that is both deep and wide.
But like Jesus’ baptism, infant baptism makes problematic the notion that baptism is primarily about repentance. For what do little babies have to repent?
Yet little children know a lot about change. Their lives are in a constant state of flux and development. They are always growing, always learning, always making course corrections, always changing their hearts and lives as they mature into the people God has called them to be. They follow Jesus in the ways of metanoia. And so we do for them what Jesus did. We baptize them at the beginning of the spiritual journey that is their life.
But does it end there? Is that all there is to this baptism of metanoia? Is it a “one and done” experience?
One of our sacred traditions suggests that it is not. Though it has something of a peculiar history, we practice the rite of confirmation precisely because we believe that there is a time for young people to choose to adopt for themselves the promises and vows made on their behalf at baptism. Confirmation is a moment of commitment and dedication. It isn’t the end of a journey as much as it is the beginning of a new chapter. It is an experience of metanoia.
Yet again, we must ask if this is the end. Can it really be the case that a decision made by a fourteen year old, with all the uncertainties and turbulence of that time of life, is the completion of the journey initiated in baptism? Surely not.
Among others, practical theologians Robert L. Browning and Roy A. Reed argue that what happens in confirmation is a repeatable act that should be experienced at various moments of life. Our whole lives are a spiritual journey, and at numerous stages along the way we should pause to answer God’s call to metanoia—God’s call to change our hearts and lives. Not once but many times we should reaffirm our baptismal covenant and recommit our lives to the way of Christ. Not once but many times we should mark life transitions by remembering the waters of baptism that shape our identity. Not once but many times we should do what Jesus did.
Young children need to be continually reminded that they are loved and accepted by God, that they too are God’s children with whom God is well pleased. Adolescents need to find their identity in Christ on their own terms. Young adults need to figure out their place in the world and how they fit in the big picture of what God is doing. Mid-life need not be a time of crisis but ought to be a series of reassessments and recommitments. Older adults in the twilight of life should return to the waters of baptism as they near the end of their journey.
At each of these stages and in countless moments in between, we do what Jesus did. We remember his baptism. We remember our own baptisms. We remember who we are, who God calls us to be, what God calls us to do.
Where are you right now? Where in your journey of faith, in your spiritual journey that is life, do you find yourself? Is God calling you to make a change? Is God calling you to recommit yourself? Do you need help discerning the way forward?
If so, do what Jesus did. Come to the waters of baptism. Come to the waters of rebirth. Come to the waters of new beginnings and new journeys. Come to the waters of metanoia, the waters of change.