In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight.’” Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance…” (Matthew 3:1-8)
“Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
St John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance and heralding the coming of the Messiah. The Prophet Isaiah in the quote above gives us one sense of the meaning of repentance: it is a call to work for justice in our lives for the powerless and oppressed. The evil which Isaiah and other prophets warn against is the selfish and self-centered attitude of extreme individualism. The justice we are to work towards is God’s justice, not a human sense of justice. It is a call to develop a social conscience, because God’s justice is love and love always involves and is oriented toward the good of others (read Luke 3:10-14 to see the practical meaning which St John the Forerunner gives to repentance – it is all about our relationships with each other). Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement explains:
“St Isaac of Nineveh, in writings inspired by perfect adoration, designs and paints an icon of God’s crazy love for humankind, an icon as beautiful and disturbing as the fresco of the descent into hell at Chora.
No, the Lord’s compassion will not be defeated. For it must indeed be said, ‘God is not just’, not as atheists say, who only see the earth and do not notice on it the cross or the empty tomb, but on the basis of the cross, the tomb and Easter. This contradicts many theologians who are petrified in their own human idea of justice, and seek to impose it on God. Many indications in the evolution of Jewish thought suggested, and still do suggest, that the essence of biblical justice is Love. An evening prayer of the synagogue says: ‘Almighty Lord, King of heaven and earth, I give thee thanks for the gift of the Law by which I can impress on my flesh my love for thee.’ The Law is already an exchange of Love. The ‘Lord-Love’, the ‘Love without limits’ in the words of a ‘Monk of the Eastern Church’… completes his self-revelation on the cross. God is not just. He is infinitely more than just. He is the foolishness of love that never ceases coming down into our hell to raise us up again. Each one of us is the laborer of the eleventh hour of whom nothing else is asked but a cry of trust and hope. The only sin, in fact, is ‘not to understand the grace of the resurrection.’ (THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 305-306)
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7)