Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.

Fr Alec
Sunday, December 8, 2013 - 9:30am



This week, we heard the sad news that Nelson Mandela had died. His death was, I hope, a happy release from a long illness, but his passing calls to mind for all of us the legacy that he left. No-one else, perhaps, in our lifetimes has set such a public example of peace and reconciliation, as he led South Africa out of the wickedness of apartheid, and into a new era of equal


It was not an easy path to tread, and along the way there must have been constant temptations to respond with anger and bitterness to the regime that had imprisoned him and subjugated the black majority. A settling of old scores might have seemed entirely justified, and the slowness of progress must have rankled cruelly. The quality with which his friends most commonly seem to have described him is ‘humility’, and we would do well to recognise the strength that this humility gave to his words and actions.


Now, humility comes principally from looking beyond our own immediate situation. It comes from putting ourselves in the shoes of others, and recognising, and understanding their different perspective on the same events.


South Africa, for example, is a country whose image of itself has been marked by two very different journeys, each in their own way a parallel to the Exodus of the people of God out of Egypt.


The first was the voyage of the Dutch and Afrikaans settlers, the Vortrekkers, out of the British Cape Colony to find a Promised Land in the South African interior. This was the foundation story that Boer farmers would tell their grandchildren: How God led them out of oppression, and into a new land. How they faced hardships and privations. How the tribes they encountered broke their treaties, and came against them in overwhelming numbers, and how God delivered them from the hands of their enemies and gave them dominion over their new home.


Of course, we must set against this another journey. The Long Walk to Freedom of the Black South African majority, who found themselves second class citizens in their own country- disenfranchised, victimised, and shut out from education, healthcare, and the good things that white South Africans enjoyed as a matter of course. Here the Promised Land could so easily have taken the form of a violent ejection of White people, not unlike the tragic mess we find in Zimbabwe today. It took a breadth of vision born from humility to triumph over deeply embedded resentment, and make things otherwise.


Now as we consider John today, baptising people in the River Jordan, it is easy to miss the full significance of what he was doing. The Jordan was not just any river, but the boundary that Israel had crossed to enter the Promised Land. God had opened the waters for Joshua as he led his people out of the wilderness, and into the Land of Milk and Honey. By calling people to come and be washed clean, John was making a statement about moving from slavery to freedom, from dislocation, to homecoming.


But how was this to be achieved? ‘Repent,’ he said ‘for the kingdom of Heaven has drawn near.’

As we consider repentance, we need constantly to be reminded just what this means. It is too easy to cast repentance simply in terms of saying ‘sorry’, or feeling bad for the things that we have done. But that would be to make it too negative an act. Repentance is a positive act, an act of imagination and humility, by which we seek to come to grips with the wrong we have done, and make a positive change.


I am often asked why I prefer the old fashioned Lord’s Prayer to the modern one. Am I just being a crusty old fogey? Well, maybe in part, but the main reason is the way in which it translates the Greek word hamartia. The modern version translates this as ‘sins’ – ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.’ But the traditional version uses ‘trespasses’, and this is much closer to the original meaning. Because when we sin, we trespass, we go astray, we miss the mark, we stand in need of metanoia, Repentance, a change of mind, an alteration of trajectory. Repentance is not an act of scourging, but an act of healing, of rediscovering the truth about ourselves and the world.


So it is that when the Pharisees and Sadducees come to John, he gives them short shrift: Do not presume to say to yourselves “We have Abraham for our ancestor”. In other words, don’t suppose that you can justify yourself by looking backwards to your foundation story. You are not made righteous simply because you are a Jew, because you are a chosen people. Where is the righteousness of Abraham? Where is his faith? What are you doing in the here and now to make those things real? What are you prepared to change?


In the same way the people of South Africa had to repent, had to rethink the stories that justified their sense of entitlement, or their sense of grievance.


Likewise we, this Advent, contemplating the drawing near of God’s kingdom, should be asking ourselves where we have gone astray, and how God is calling us to be changed. We should turn to the east, and wait with eager longing for dawn to break on a new world, a new Kingdom, a Promised Land of healing and hope.