Sermon Ideas For Luke 3:16 Part 7
Human beings both desire and fear their own transformation. There is desire for transformation when we look with regret at our world and ourselves. We desperately wish things were different. There is fear that we might be transformed by the often-destructive results of our own powers and wishes, or the destructive powers present in this world.
Art richly documents both the human fear of and desire for transformation. The fear is chronicled in works like Ovid's Metamorphosis, where human beings are victimized, usually by the gods of Rome, by transformations that strip them of their humanity. Then, more recently, there is Kafka's short novel, Metamorphosis, where an ordinary office worker wakes up one morning transformed into a hideous insect.
However, in addition to this fear, art also expresses the desire of human beings for transformation. The Hellenistic classic The Golden Ass is the comic narrative of a wanderer, Lucius, who desires to know the freedom of a bird, to soar high above the human world and view its miseries from a distant height. He encounters a sorceress that gives him an ointment which she promises will bring about the desired change. Eagerly seeking the change, he applies the portion and watches in amazement as the appearance of his arms slowly changes. Interpret
ing this as the early formation of wings, he excitedly flaps his arms. However, the sorceress has tricked him. The ointment is producing a change—but not of man to bird—he is changing into a donkey. The sight of this man-donkey trying to flaps its arms in flight is a comic reflection of the human attempt to escape the facts of its own condition, while in the effort, becoming something less than human.
"But no down appeared; no wings burst out. Rather, it was obvious that my hair was hardening into bristles, my tender skin was roughening to a hide."1
It is against these horizons of human desire for and fear of transformation that John the Baptist's invitation to a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin must be understood.
The American classic novel, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville contains a dramatic rendering of the psychological process of repentance. The rendering of repentance is found in a sermon. The sermon, by a Father Mapple, uses the text of Jonah to deliver the saving message of God to a group of sailors. In the text of the sermon, Jonah is a fugitive, buying his escape from God by obtaining sea fare to Spain.
Everyone on the ship notices Jonah's guilt. He cannot hide from them the guilt he carries in his flight from God. They know the risk of accepting, like contraband, this man on the run. But Jonah's money secures passage and he bunks in a small, dark cabin in the bottom of the vessel. The room contains a cot lit by a lamp that swings back and forth from the ceiling, as the ship is loaded with cargo. The swinging lamp moves the shadows, creating a disorienting environment as the guilty Jonah attempts to plunge his guilt into a restless sleep. It seems to the tormented man that "...the floor, the ceiling and the sides are all awry." Referring to the swinging lamp, Jonah sighs, "So my conscience hangs in me."2
A storm at sea imperils the craft, and the crew realize the hazards they incurred in accepting a fugitive from Israel's God. Jonah is ultimately cast overboard, overwhelmed by the sea and entombed in the belly of a fish. There, beyond all aid, the prayer of repentance emerges from Jonah's soul. God's aid then finds him at this depth.
This repentance is one which operates beyond the frontiers of human will and hope. It is like the repentance that William James describes in Varieties of Religious Experience, quoting the author of Theologica Germanica...
"...And therefore he will not dare and desire any consolation or release; but he is willing to be unconsoled and unreleased; and he doth not grieve over his sufferings, for they are right in his eyes, and he hath nothing to say against them. This is what is meant by true repentance from sin; and he who in this present time entereth into this hell, none may console him."3
The human dread of and desire for change encounters the amazement of John the Baptist's invitation to a baptism of repentance. On the far side of human hope God's aid descends to the depths with forgiveness, and with this forgiveness, a freedom is born in the hearts of men and women which no longer is subject to the world's fearful powers or enslaving passions.
Father Mapple ends his sermon on Jonah by pointing toward this radical freedom, evoked in John's baptism. It is a freedom somehow known beyond fear and desire. Father blesses the one who knows of this freedom:
"Delight is to him—a far, far upward and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self.... Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages..."4
Imagine the freedom this delight represents. The powers of this world that injure, deform or enslave no longer rule.
It is the advent of this delight that John the Baptist signals with his invitation to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Mt. Vernon, IL
1. Apuleuis, The Golden Ass, Translated by Jack Lindsay (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1960), p. 84.
2. Herman Melville, Moby Dick, p. 44.
3. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 43.
4. Melville, p. 48.