After all the stories about the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus in chapters 1 and 2 Luke appears to start again from scratch quite abruptly. It is as if he pressed the re-set button.
Luke re-sets the stage and lists all the people who are in charge of things, or so they think. He starts with Emperor Tiberius. Then he lists all the governors in the various territories in the near East – Pilate, Herod, Philip and Lysanius. Then he moves on to the important religious figures like Annas and Caiaphas. These are the rulers of the earth.
But in the midst of all this Luke writes that “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
John is neither an Emperor or Governor nor a priest but the word of God comes to him. And it comes not in Rome or in Jerusalem, the centres of political and religious power but “in the wilderness”. The seats of political and religious power are circumvented as God speaks personally to someone “in the wilderness”
God coming to us in the wilderness – which may be a literal wilderness but can also be a metaphorical and spiritual wilderness is a common theme in the Bible. It appears to mean that only when we are churned up, when we don’t know which way to turn, when clarity has given way to confusion – that is the time when God can really reveal his presence to us.
Because our confusion and lack of clarity means that our ego has suffered a temporary setback. We are no longer in control and all the things we thought we believed in are turned upside down. In that state it is easier for the Holy Spirit to get a look in. Usually we are so set on our tram lines of belief, creed and sometimes ossified liturgies that the Spirit has very little room for manoeuvre. A jolt, despite being uncomfortable is what we need.
John’s call is to repentance, which in Greek is Metanoia. In the West this is usually explained as “changing your mind” and the unfortunate emphasis has been on guilt, but in Eastern theology it means something rather profound and means to go beyond or beneath your mind and speaks of the transcending of individual concepts and beliefs, instead placing faith in the divine.
The Greek term for repentance, metanoia, denotes a true change of mind, a reorientation, a fundamental transformation of outlook, of an individual's vision of the world and of themselves, and a new way of loving others and the Universe. It involves then, not mere regret of past evil as it does in the West but a recognition by a person of a darkened vision of their own condition, in which we see ourselves as separate from Deity, a perception that has reduced us to a divided, autonomous existence, depriving us of our natural peace and freedom. "Repentance," says Basil the great, the Eastern Father of the church is salvation, the healing of that false division - but not understanding that is the death of repentance."
Repentance thereby acquires a different dimension to mere dwelling on human sinfulness and guilt as we do in the Western church, and becomes an awareness of one's estrangement from Divinity and one's neighbour and a mind to re-claim that unity which we do every time we share bread and wine.