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Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party was interviewed on the Today programme following their success in the Oldham by-election. Turning the conversation to Ken Livingstone, who had recently been obliged to apologise for remarks deemed offensive to the mentally ill and who had been criticised for calling for the de-selection of MPs who had voted in favour of action in Syria, Humphries asked whether in the interests of Labour party unity it wouldn’t be better if Ken Livingstone “shut up for a while!”

“Well, John,” said Tom, trying to cosy up to his tormentor, “maybe so but that seems like an impossible dream.”

Our reading from Zephaniah which comes at the very end of the book, follows two and a half chapters full of strong language pronouncing God’s approaching judgement. To give you a flavour of this here are some of the section headings:

Judgement on the idolators in Judah, Wailing throughout Jerusalem, The inescapable days of the Lord’s wrath, God’s judgement on the nations with a lengthy list of them all ranging from Philistia to Jerusalem itself. Then, following the detailed predictions of judgement, punishment and destruction, in the paragraph just before the piece that Jane read to us we hear:

“The remnant of Israel will do no wrong, they will speak no lies, nor will deceit be in their mouths. They will eat and lie down and no-one will make them afraid. Now comes the seemingly impossible dream: “Sing aloud daughter of Zion, shout O Israel ..” in other words here are the promises for the remnant who repented.

John the Baptist uses the same approach. Using the striking image of snakes fleeing before a fire (there is a film with a scene showing a great fire and black snakes slithering away speedily in great numbers - Gone with the wind? Rebecca? I don’t remember.)

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John invokes God’s judgement telling his listeners that the only thing to do is repent. That comes a as shock to the Jews who have gathered for previously the world had been simple: Only the pagans would be judged, they the Jews would be OK. But, John says, don’t rely on that, yes you may have had Abraham as your ancestor but be in no doubt that will be insufficient, you must bear good fruit. He goes on to explain what repentance means and it means of course changing your ways.

This is Tom Watson’s implied question - he seems doubtful of Ken Livingstone’s repentance. Tom wonders aloud, Ken may have said sorry and stepped back a little from divisive remarks but has he really changed?

Against the risk of “being cut down and thrown into the fire” John’s preaching is not especially radical. If you have two coats then why not give one to someone without, why should soldiers not be satisfied with their wages and not resort to extortion? Why should Ken not toe the line a bit? But these things have to come from within. It is not for example, simply because of heavy prophetic warnings and literally graphic images of diseased lungs that people give up smoking we have to want to do it. Repentance is about truly |making new lives.

As so often the Book of Common Prayer seems to strike the right note. Here is the introduction to confession from the communion service:

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. Draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession meekly kneeling upon your knees.

I think John the Baptist would have approved of that.


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