“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
I don’t know if I like this Jesus, proclaiming about this ‘repent’ stuff. Whenever we hear anyone start a sentence with “repent”, it’s like our ears turn off because that term is just so loaded. When we hear “repent”, we think of those eccentric looking preachers wearing a “Jesus saves” sandwich board over their body while standing on a literal upside down soapbox with a megaphone telling everyone that they need to repent… or else face the wrath of God. But hey, God loves you… as long as you repent. Otherwise, God is powerless to do anything to save your unrepentant soul.
To me, that just doesn’t sound like good news.
To me, it isn’t good news to hear how much I suck. Or how much of a disappointment I am. Or how badly I fail regardless of how hard I try. I mean, I heard that enough from my dad, from friends that I’ve had and lost along the way, maybe even sometimes from my wife, who will remain nameless to protect her identity. It isn’t good news when “repent” has become a condition, a prerequisite, a command that I must do before I can get any good news at all about my relationship with God.
You know what I mean, don’t you? I don’t think I’ve ever felt good about myself from someone telling me how bad I am. I don’t think I’ve ever thought, in the midst of being insulted and put down (however true those words might be), that you know, maybe I should be better. Not once have I ever felt drawn to follow someone who just goes and points out my shortcomings and asks me to, no tells me to, actually no, demands that I change myself and repent.
Yeah thanks, but no thanks.
So I don’t like Jesus saying these words. And if you’re like me, you probably don’t either. Just like I don’t like the soapbox guy saying them. Or my dad. Or this unnamed wife that I’m sure I’ve done a great job in protecting.
So why does Jesus say these words? We might say something like Jesus will say what Jesus says, it’s not up to us or our hurt feelings. Or maybe Jesus said this to get a reaction out of us and force us into contemplation of our future and impact on the world. Or maybe still Jesus said this simply because it is true, in spite of how much we like or apparently don’t like them. Repent, or die.
Well, I’m not going to deny that Jesus did say these words at all, just because I don’t like them for the very weighty stigma that comes with them. I mean, I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure if he said them or not. But I will say that I think this stigma that I just mentioned does change the meaning of these words for us.
Because right after it is recorded that he says them, people followed him. People heard this message for the first time and they dropped everything to go along with it. People heard these words that I so very much despise, and they called him Rabbi and Messiah for it.
So that leads me to believe that these words fall on different ears these days. That we hear something different from what they actually mean. That we can’t get past our own stigmas to get to the real good news of “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
See, we hear “repent” as something we must do in order to be saved, and we hear “for the kingdom of heaven has come near” as a warning that time is running out, so better repent while repenting’s good. But what if… what if “the kingdom of heaven has come near” isn’t so much a warning as much as it’s a promise? And then maybe saying “repent” wouldn’t be a command or a demand, but rather a gift of something we can do that we weren’t able to do prior to the kingdom at hand.
Can you imagine? That before the kingdom had come near in the ministry of Jesus, it wasn’t a matter for people whether they wanted to repent or not, but it was about the ability to do so. People simply wouldn’t be able to repent at all, because they just didn’t know how, they didn’t have the strength, they didn’t have the assuredness of forgiveness.
See, repenting isn’t just about stop sinning and doing bad stuff. It isn’t about shunning all that is wrong with you in the slight chance of improvement. It isn’t even about your own salvation. Rather, repentance is about being able to accept and love yourself in spite of your failures. Repentance is about learning to let go of the guilt of sin, trusting that your position in God’s grace hasn’t and won’t ever change. Repentance is about having the confidence to live our imperfect lives in this imperfect world, knowing that our value and worth and identity lies not in our actions or outward appearances, but solely on what God declares us as. And God declares us as beloved children, redeemed and forgiven, lifted up and made whole, invited and welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom and community.
And so, as were the disciples, we are invited to join in on what God is doing in the light of this promise. We are welcomed to follow Christ in the way of grace and mercy. We are called to be disciples, that is, disciplined learners of right relationship and community.
But make no mistake, this isn’t an easy call. Just because we are invited and given a gift, it doesn’t mean we’ll want it. And just because we’ll live in community it doesn’t mean that we won’t have our own level and fair share of drama.
John the baptizer was put in jail. The Corinthian church was full of squabbling and infighting. The called disciples immediately abandoned their families and all they knew. We come and enter and we have our baggage too.
Maybe there are still skeletons in our closets. Maybe there are still unresolved issues from the past. Maybe we just can’t get over our own selves and let go enough to see God at work in us and around us. And that is ok. It is ok that we aren’t perfect, because that isn’t what we’re supposed to be. It’s ok that we have baggage because that is what Jesus carries with us. It’s ok that we have issues and maybe don’t like everything and perhaps even feel a bit angry, because the kingdom of heaven, this glorious and gracious community, this vast and eternal body of Christ, this gathering of God’s people has come near, which reminds us all just how ready and willing God is to forgive, and how much each and every one of us is dearly beloved. And that, my friends, is what allows us, frees us, and motivates us to repent.
This is why we have many elements of our service. We start with the Confession and Forgiveness which I think is pretty straight forward. We hear the Word reminding us of God’s character of grace and mercy. We share the Peace, saying that hey, we have our problems, but God remains with us and eventually heals us. We celebrate the Eucharist, breaking bread and eating together as a community and family that puts all things behind us and together looks to the future with hope. And the Blessing, in which God builds us back up, reminds us of our call, and sends us out into the world as faithful witnesses to God’s promises, God’s love, and God’s kingdom come near.
And so we repent. Not to earn our place in this kingdom, but because we have already been welcomed into it, and we begin to see how this kingdom will be a better place for all as we live in this right relationship as a community, together worshipping this God who is full of love and forgiveness, and collectively making a difference in the world.
In this season after the Epiphany, may we continue to see Christ in our lives, in our relationships, and in our call to be faithful disciples and servants of the Most High. Thanks be to God. Amen.