“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Matthew 3:2
What does it mean to repent? What does it mean for us to turn from one’s own ways and instead to go God’s way? The Gospel reading for today has four pairs of things from the natural world which can help thoughts: locusts and wild honey; stones and children; trees and fruit; and wheat and chaff.
Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 4 says, “Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
Locusts were well-known in Scripture. The eighth of the ten plagues sent on Egypt in the book Exodus was the plague of locusts. In the pages of the Old Testament, locusts are a destructive power, something to be feared because of their capacity to destroy the crops on which people depended for their survival. Joel Chapter 1 Verse 4 gives a hint of the devastation that locusts could cause, “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” John the Baptist takes insects that represented the loss of food, insects that could bring hunger and starvation, and makes them into something to eat.
Locusts are said to taste like sunflower seeds, or like shrimps, but having been something destructive, they are turned into something nourishing. Does repentance not mean that one takes things in the world that may have been used in destructive ways, and uses those things for good? Look at the uses of technology, the uses of science, they can be used in very destructive ways, but they can be turned around and used for good.
John also eats wild honey. In the story of Samson in the Book of Judges, there is wild honey. Samson kills a lion and bees swarm in its body, “out of the strong came something sweet,” says Samson in Judges Chapter 14 Verse 14. Something found by chance becomes useful, Samson makes the most of the opportunities he is given. Like Samson, John the Baptist makes use of something he finds along the way.
Does repentance mean that one should be sorry to God for not making use of the opportunities he has given? Does it mean one should be more careful about the chances one has? Does it mean one should be open to seeing God at work in unlikely ways?
John the Baptist rejects the idea that being born into a tradition is enough. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 9, he says, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” John’s words would have sounded outrageous to those who regarded themselves as the chosen people, as God’s elect. To suggest that God might make more from the rocks that lay around on the dusty ground than from those who had upheld the religious traditions would have offended any of those who observed every rule and regulation. The problem was that their religion had become as dry and as dead as the stones, it had become lifeless, it had become a matter of outward observance.
The book of the prophet Ezekiel Chapter 36 Verse 26 talks of God taking away people’s “heart of stone” and giving them instead a “heart of flesh.” John’s speaks of God raising up children, new people, people willing to learn, people who have not the hard-heartedness of those who have gone before. In the ministry of Jesus, one sees him using children as an example of how his disciples should be. Children listening to the voice of their teacher are very different from the dead stoniness of the religious people.
Does repentance mean that one should be sorry to God for being too often like stones? Does it mean being prepared to become like little children in order to better follow Jesus?
Locusts and wild honey; stones and children; the third pair of things is trees and fruit. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 10, John the Baptist says, “Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In the Scriptures the people would have heard read, trees that bear fruit are a symbol of faithful people. Psalm 1 Verse 3 says, “They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” The Scriptures also warned them that turning away from God would mean being like a tree that bore no fruit, Leviticus Chapter 26 Verse 20 says, “Your strength shall be spent to no purpose: your land shall not yield its produce, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit.”
The people listening to John the Baptist understood the warning he was giving, they understood that their faith demanded more than simply keeping rules and regulations. The people had gone out to John to be baptized because they wanted to change, they wanted to bear good fruit. What will it mean to be people who bear good fruit? Saint Paul tells us in Galatians Chapter 5 Verses 22-23, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
Does repentance mean that one recognizes the failure to be like the fruitful trees in Scripture? Does it mean that one makes a greater effort at showing the fruits of the Spirit in one’s own life?
The final pair of things is wheat and chaff. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verse 10, John the Baptist speaks of the one who 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.” Being like wheat, and not being like chaff, means being faithful. We read in Jeremiah Chapter 23 Verse 28, “let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord.” Jesus uses wheat as a picture of faithful people when he tells the parable of the wheat and the weeds in Saint Matthew Chapter 13.
The people would have known about the threshing-floor and the winnowing fork. The wheat was within the chaff, only when the winnowing took place were they separated, the good grain being separated from the useless chaff; the grain being stored in barns, the chaff being used on the fire. Chaff might have appeared to contain something, but was empty. They would have understood that John was warning them that it was not outward appearances that mattered, but what they were like on the inside.
Does repentance mean one recognizes that one has been too concerned with outward appearance? Does it mean that, inside oneself, one tries to be one of God’s people?
Locusts and wild honey, stones and children, trees and fruit, wheat and chaff: each calls people to repent.