Imagine that you’re standing in a crowd, surrounded by strangers. For as far as the eye can see, there are countless people in every direction. All of these people are talking loudly – about what, you can’t be certain, as nothing is readily intelligible within the din. Initially this is interesting to you – so much to look at and be curious over; so much “business” to stare at. But within time, as the noise level rises, you begin to feel unsettled. No one is seeking you out; no one is saying your name. You begin to feel anonymous, and you start to wonder who you even are: we make sense to ourselves according to how others relate to us, and no one is relating to you. You’re afraid.
Now imagine that, in the midst of all the hubbub, you hear a familiar voice. You hear the voice of the person who has loved you the most all of your life, calling your name. Imagine the intense sense of relief and safety you’ll feel upon hearing that one familiar voice that stands out amidst the chaos and confusion. You know that that voice means you are not alone – there is someone who is looking for you, and who has found you. This singular voice silences all of the others, and gives meaning to your own identity. This voice heals you. It is the answer to the questions of your existence and your direction.
What’s the most natural, visceral response on your part? You turn toward that voice. You turn your body as your eyes scan the mass of people all around you, seeking that beloved person whose voice is a home-coming. You allow yourself to hope: it’s almost as though you can feel the heaviness of despair fall from you. You turn yourself until you see the person who is calling to you; you find his eyes. And then? Do you simply stand there and wave to him, over the sea of thousands of strangers? No. You run to him. That is the only sensible thing to do.
This is what John the Baptist meant in the Gospels when he spoke of “repentence”: the original Greek word being metanoia. He was literally imploring the people to turn toward the face and voice of Christ. His words then to the ancient people of Israel are just as relevant to us now, in our present day and age, and in our personal lives.
I want to briefly look at the translation here. The Greek word, metanoeo, has not been translated very tidily into English. Sometime during the 2nd century, the original Greek word metanoeō/μετανοέω was translated into the Latin poentientiam agite, and from the Latin it was translated into the English “repentance.” Along the way, the original meaning of the word was obscured, and went from meaning a very specific “change of heart and life” to implying an act of sorrow in which one examines and acknowledges one’s sinfulness and failures and begs forgiveness. Granted, we need to examine our lives and recognize the areas we need to change, and the attachments we must unfurl our fingers from — these movements are part of the reorientation of Metanoia; but in order to understand the full dynamism of Christ’s first call to us, we need to look even further into the text, and recall the original meaning of the phrase. The original meaning is an all-encompassing, utterly hope-filled command to Arise, turn, and walk in the footsteps of Christ without looking back: to turn our minds away from those things and attitudes we have knighted as the goal of our lives, and to come back into the life of God.
I want to point out one of my favorite examples of this Metanoia occurring within Scripture. Matt 4:17-22.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Let’s consider what’s happening here. It starts with Jesus beginning to preach – notice that his first commission to the world is that of the message of repentance, meaning, Metanoia. Jesus is echoing what John had already been saying earlier- check out the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew. As we know, John’s mission was to prepare the way of The Lord, saying, “Turn around! Look here! If you remain in your old attitudes, if you persist in that dead-end direction, you will miss the tremendous event that is occurring – turn around!” – and now Jesus, the “tremendous event,” is actively present. John’s preparatory words of expectation have been fulfilled.
Now, as we consider the encounter the first four Disciples have with Christ on the Sea of Galilee, let’s go back for a moment to the image of being in a crowd of thousands of garrulous strangers, with thousands of voices crowding insensibly into your ears. Imagine again that one meaningful voice that calls out to you; a familiar voice that beckons you home. I imagine that the disciples experienced something like that in this scene on the sea of Galilee, when Jesus called to them from the shore. The amazing thing here, though, is that they’d never seen Him before, as far as we can tell. They just heard his voice and they knew it.
Here is a most marvelous image of being utterly magnetized. Irresistibly drawn. They dropped everything and went to Him. They went to the source of this voice, the source of this invitation. They physically oriented themselves toward Him, turning their muscled shoulders and raising their honest heads, and they spiritually oriented themselves towards Him as well. There was no pausing to dwell on their unworthiness, their self-concept, their routines or the opinions of those around them: they just went. They heard the Voice above the fray and turned towards it. That is Metanoia. It’s hearing the invitation from God to let go of the things you’ve defined yourself by, turning towards Him, and going to Him.
Not all of us will experience the dramatic conversion as described in the passage we just read: most of us will have to choose to be converted again and again throughout life, and we will have experiences of metanoia until the day we die. And if we’re being entirely honest, we all know that “turning toward Christ and changing our attitudes” can be extremely difficult, often because we’re attached to the habits and the sins that we’ve come to identify ourselves with. The thing that keeps us from experiencing the full lavishness of God – the thing that hinders our natural range of motion – is our attachment to worldly things that we think we need.
I’ve said this before, but I want now to say it again: Metanoia means more than just the act of turning away from old sins and habits because we know they’re bad. It means we change our attitudes and habits because of the presence of God before us. We’re not responding to an idea or to a set of principles: we are responding to the living presence of God, as he is perfectly revealed through Christ. We are responding to a Person. It is the presence of Christ that demands a change. We cannot see Christ without experiencing a deep, deep call to unite ourselves to Him and to his Cross. To do this we have to choose, again and again, to turn away from our former attitudes and sins, and turn toward Christ.
What is the senseless hubbub in my life? What voices do I strain to comprehend, but inevitably find to be meaningless and dissatisfying?
And when I hear the Voice of the One who knows me out of the crowd, the one who seeks me in my seeking, do I turn my head and raise my eyes to find Him?
Am I relieved to be known, to be anything but anonymous, or am I resistant?
And when I see Him, He whose eyes never waver from me, do I go to Him?
Or do I let the crowd define me, hinder me, deafen me, and nullify my craving for infinity?
…Closing with a song that I think somehow weirdly (and perhaps unwittingly) captures the ache of the soul when faced with the unfathomable mercy of God, whilst simultaneously becoming more fully aware of just how much junk needs to be turned over to His severe and tender hands – how many idols need to be broken, how many ties need to be cut.
“I didn’t know I was broken until I wanted to change. I want to get better.”