The first word that John (the baptizer) says, as recorded by Matthew anyway, is ‘repent.’
I’m guessing that it wasn’t the first word he ever spoke, mind you. John was fully human. He would have done and said everything that a child says and does. But John grew up knowing that he was fulfillment of a prediction.
When we listen to Luke tell the story, we find
- that John’s dad was in the temple,
- that he was doing spiritual work,
- that an angel told John’s dad that John would be great in the eyes of everyone,
- that John would be like Elijah
- and that because dad wanted evidence that he could believe the angel, the angel shut his mouth til John was born.
John knew that he had a calling and that arguing with angels has consequences.
When we think of repent, we think of guys with beards saying “repent, the end is near.” John’s message feels very different: “repent, the kingdom of heaven is near.” In the former case, repenting feels like judgment avoidance. In the latter, repenting feels like preparation, like getting ready for something wonderful.
The image of repenting is the image of turning around, of an about face. In the mouth of John, it means that we are going the wrong direction and if we turn around, we are heading toward the kingdom.
And the king.
John is saying, “You know the way you are trying to do things? The way that is so frustrating and confusing and painful? The way that is so twisting? How’s that working? You could turn around, you know. You could open up to the king. He’s near. ”
People came to listen. People came to watch. Some saw no need to turn around and turned away.
They turned around.