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John the Baptist’s Lamentation Leads to Repentance
Lamentation Is An Essential Part of Transformation
I grew up in a Middle Eastern family and so I was quite familiar with the concept of shame, or “haram.” My mother used to say “shame on you,” or “haram aleyk” when we misbehaved, especially if we did it in public, bringing shame upon our whole household. Shame is an important part of Eastern Culture because it extends individual wrongdoing and rightfully connects it to the whole community.
Our actions aren’t done in a vacuum, and so when we sin, it not only affects us, it affects our community, and it even affects God. The shame that God endured when humanity fell, or sinned against God, was enough that God needed an infinite sacrifice, the god-man (as Anselm named Jesus), to “atone” for our sins. This is just one of the ways to explain how and why the cross works, but the shame/honor culture that I come from makes it particularly salient for me.
Shame is not an idea that Westerners favor. Brené Brown distinguishes it from “guilt.” She says:
“I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful—it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort… I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
I appreciate this distinction within the context that Brown is talking. For me, guilt is something that is largely individual, but shame is something more bodily and communal. Brown is operating within a Western framework, but it falls flat for me as an Easterner. I offered, on my Twitter account, that leaning into her dynamic too much can result in some Eastern erasure and racism.
Furthermore, without a possibility for salvation and transformation, I believe Brown is right: that guilt is more appropriate than shame because we are trying to transform our behavior, as opposed to our whole selves and our community. But Jesus transforms us, so we are free to lament the ways we used to be and the occasions that we fall into our old selves. I do not think repentance is condemning, though, nor do I believe lamentation about the state of the world or ourselves, in this in-between time, is a sign for condemnation. The reason we can lament and repent is because of the transformative work of Jesus.
Jesus empowers us to name the worst things about ourselves and world. The first thing we need to understand before we do that is that God has an endless love for us and an endless capacity to forgive us. We are loved by God fully and completely, and nothing can take that away from us. From that position of no condemnation, we can lament and repent without fear. John the Baptist knew this, and so his calls for repentance were especially pronounced and dramatic. He was serious about it because he was making a way for the one who would make a Way for all of us.
John the Baptist, the last prophet before Jesus
John the Baptist and Jesus are closely related, in terms of their time, in terms of their mission, and also in terms of their family. Luke tells the story of John the Baptist leaping in his mother’s womb when she learns that Mary is expecting. There’s a joy in little John the Baptist’s heart at the advent of the coming savior. There is a lot to unpack about this story, but I’ll leave you suspended in the mystery of the possibility that the prophets have a common consciousness and connection with God that even John had in the womb. It’s a wonder how the Lord works, and allows the mystery to carry you when the mere verses we have that discuss this don’t offer us much of any clarity:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.—Luke 1:41-44
Nevertheless, we see the connection between John the Baptist and Jesus. And if you keep reading, and you pay attention to other accounts of John’s life, you’ll see that John the Baptist was making a way for the Lord. He was preparing a path for Jesus to enter in on. And the key thing he was doing was offering a public lamentation and an opportunity for confession. He is preaching in the tradition of the Psalms and the Prophets when he calls people to repent because the Kingdom of God is coming and has arrived. He quotes the prophet Isaiah in Luke 3:
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John reiterates what Isaiah did before him. Scholars think he is from the tradition of ascetic Jews known as Essenes (they are another sect of Judaism, not unlike the more known Pharisees and Sadducees), so he is emerging from that wilderness to make a way for God. Our repentance makes our paths straight for Jesus, when we fill the valleys and lower the mountains and hills; when we make crooked paths straight, rough ones smooth, everyone will “see the salvation of God.”
Lamentation is an essential part of this. When John offers this harsh rebuke, he is practicing the discipline of lamentation:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. Even now the ax 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.”
John laments the corruption of his generation, of the people around him, and how far they’ve strayed from God. He calls them to repentance. Yes, he uses a hyperbolic exhortation, but his point is clear: the repentant bear fruit of repentance. It’s not good enough to say the right things. We need to actually offer fruit of our change. Jesus comes to save us by grace through faith, but when we repent, we bear fruit of that change. This is why James tells us that “faith without works is dead” (James, in my opinion, is correcting an errant understanding of the theology of Paul in Galatians and Romans, but that’s a matter for another blog post).
Let’s clear the path for Jesus together
Making the path clear for Jesus means repenting, turning around, and lamenting the sin that we’ve participated in and been complicit in. The opportunity for repentance is one for transformation and not condemnation. It’s an opportunity to change and let go. This Advent season, as we await the coming of our Lord, we have an opportunity to lament and turn it toward repentance and changing. We don't need to fear the shame of our former selves because God is making us and has made us new.
Our active repentance and lamentation in this season isn’t just liturgical practice as we await Christmas Eve. We are actually preparing a way for the next coming of the Lord. And so an essential part of doing this is following in the tradition of John the Baptist. Maybe you will feel incensed this week at the evil around you and declare, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” There is space for that.
But may we also look inward at where we need to change, how we need to grow, and how we can do our part in making the way for Jesus to return. When we lament, when we repent, we make a way for Jesus. And all who see us see the salvation of God. A repentant, transformed body shows the world the love of Jesus through us. That's what motivates us.
How we do make paths straight? How do we fill valleys and lower hills? What does it look like to make what is rough smooth? What does it look like to have outcomes and fruits of repentance. The world gives us a clue. What divides us? What oppresses us? What is wrong with the world? Look for where death is happening and you’ll find it. That is what the wages of sin are.
The pandemic kills thousands a day—our inability to hold the common good together is something we must repent of. Racialized police brutality continues with impunity and it leaves us with dead bodies—we need to repent of our complicity. The climate catastrophe takes lives—we can’t seem to agree on solutions (or even if the problem isn’t a hoax)—we need to repent of our in-fighting at the expense of the planet. War, greed, hatred. These are what we must turn from. And move toward faith, hope, love—the antidotes to this evil, the fruits of our repentance. Blessed Advent to you.