According to the Gospel of Matthew the first word of Jesus public ministry was: “Repent”; “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you.” The fourteenth verse of Mark’s Gospel is similar. “After John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: ‘The time has come; the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and believe the Gospel.’”The author of II Peter declares that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It seems the options are repent or perish. That’s pretty blunt. Do you think that the contemporary church makes enough of this clear call to repentance?
Sept 26, 2010
“Redeemed Through Judgment”
Repentance was the primary subject of the prophetic message of John the Baptist. In Luke 5 we are told that Jesus declared that the purpose of his coming was to call “sinners to repentance” . When Jesus sent out his disciples to preach “they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). It was after Luke reported Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we are told that he declared that “repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations”. In each of Peter’s two recorded sermons after the day of Pentecost he told people to repent. Acts 17 records Paul’s sermon to the Athenians where he said that God “commands all people everywhere to repent”. He said that the message he declared to both Jews and Greeks was that “they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). The author of II Peter declares that God is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). It seems the options are repent or perish. That’s pretty blunt. Do you think that the contemporary church makes enough of this clear call to repentance?
Somewhere along the way we’ve picked up the notion that repentance is about feeling sorry. Matthew’s story of Judas helps clarify that repentance is not remorse. It says that Judas was seized with remorse, returned the thirty pieces of silver, admitted that he had sinned and was even prepared to make restitution—but he didn’t repent. Feeling remorse isn’t repentance. Now the fact is that guilt, shame, sorrow, remorse, a sense of judgment coming on us or simply awareness of our estrangement may lead to repentance, the church for centuries has sought to guilt people that way – but it’s not repentance.
Essentially repentance is that process by which a person who is away from God recognizes that situation and turns back to God. It is basically a U-turn. Instead of going away from God, or ignoring God, you turn around, go toward God and choose to give God God’s rightful place in your life. Repentance, therefore, has more to do with the exercise of your will than it has to do with your feelings.
The Greek word translated “repent” in the New Testament, meta-noia, has the basic meaning of “changing your mind”, you could actually translate it as ‘after thought’. It means to think differently afterward. It means a change of mind or heart. If you are to live in a meaningful relationship with God it means that there must be a willingness to let go of those things that are inconsistent with living in fellowship with God. You are prepared to follow Gods desire about how you live rather than making your own rules. Early Quakers spoke of the terror and power of the Spirit. The terror is sensing one’s separation, alienation, estrangement from God – like being under judgment. The power is knowing the experience of grace, God at work in your life, doing what you are unable to do for yourself, restoring a right relationship. It is not something you can to do on your own. The experience of many is that Christ will come into your life in the person of the Holy Spirit and begin to change you.
There’s another little thing that can get in our way of understanding how enormous this is in our spiritual life. We can delude ourselves into thinking it is just about some thing we have done wrong – possibly the way we have treated another person unjustly. So we confess our little sin and seek absolution in God’s grace. Actually that may be a wonderful starting point for you. But so is wondering what living in the Kingdom of God of Jesus’ proclamation may mean. So is a growing awareness that living outside of a relationship with one’s creator is less than a full life. Repentance begins in recognizing that your life is on the wrong track and is going the wrong way. Repentance is fulfilled in some spiritual round house where that which pulls your train is now taking you in a new direction. Peter Kreeft says: In that word (repent) John summarizes the message of all the prophets, all the preparation for the Messiah. Repent: that is, turn. Turn around, face God instead of running away from him. Face the light, so that when the light comes to you with a face, the face of Jesus, you can meet him face-to-face.
According to Eugene Peterson, “Repentance is a realisation that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts. Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.”
Repentance is about change in us. At one place in that book that Norm put in my hands written by the Monks of New Skete, one monk says of his experience of change: “I can’t believe how ingeniously change slips by our consciousness unnoticed. When Susan and I were in Woodland Park Zoo recently we had our picture taken. The other evening she pulled out a picture that was taken of her just before our wedding and a picture that I had done when I went to work for FCNL. The question isn’t whether we change but how we change. You can read the Gospels as a story of resistance to change by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. I see the same thing repeating generation after generation as those who have things the way they want it struggle against change with all the energy they can muster. Change is anxiety producing. We see that being played out in all the fear and hate that seems to dominate our political discourse. I guess change is a pretty wonderful testimony that we are alive. Everything that is alive changes.
Change can be painful. It necessarily requires us to give something up. I recall the struggle my father had when he received a promotion at the oil refinery where he had worked for a couple of decades. He had always been an hourly employee, a union man, but then he was offered the job of shift foreman, and to take it meant he would become a company man. The additional income, the freedom to come and go from the plant, and other perks were attractive. But it would mean that he was now the supervisor of men with whom and at time for which he had worked. All those relationships changed. Imagine a young couple becoming new parents, celebrating the safe birth of a healthy child. What a wonderful thing – but at what cost?
Joseph Daniels in his book “Begging for Real Church” remarks that ‘A lot of people get comfortable with being lame. Sometimes it is more comfortable to be lame because escaping a stuck situation is difficult.” Sometimes the longer you are lame the less you think that change is possible much less necessary, and the burden of the condition takes away any energy you might have to actually get out.
Of course the fact is that nothing ever stays the same. Life doesn’t hold still. And since we are not fine the way we are, or we can’t survive the way things are, change can be an opportunity to make the best of a new situation. Repentance is about the changes needed to get us on the road to wholeness. And guess what – this is what really stirred the Pharisees and Priests of Jesus’ day—when you change everyone around you has to change. Change doesn’t occur in isolation. Susan was told by her doctor to get her cholesterol level down. We eat at the same table. On a global level the U.S. and Russia have a new agreement for reducing nuclear weapons. What do you think that means for weapons manufacturers? Russia recently extended its policy of not exporting wheat. What are the implications of that decision on Washington’s wheat farmers? The point of course is simply that when someone changes, it changes everyone else. I know of couples where one decides to break free of drugs and alcohol and it destroyed the marriage. We are all tied together in the web of life.
We had a chimney sweep make a visit to our house. I love to have a fire in the fireplace but if the accumulation of soot catches fire it could destroy the chimney and possibly the house. It reminds me of what Job Scott intimated in his prayer. He prayed that God would continue the work in him until all that is offensive to the purity of God’s holiness is consumed, until his will becomes conformable to that of God. It’s another way to speak of repentance, of spiritual change. Yes, in a moment you can decide to turn things around, but like trying to turn an eighteen wheeler, it’s not done on a dime, and it isn’t done in a moment. For most of us, it’s a life long spiritual pursuit. The Holy Spirit, invited into our life comes with a search light and begins to search out the dark corners, hidden crevices, places where we have tucked away things that keep us from being more fully usable in the Kingdom. It is no different than the old story of William Penn’s sword – when it is laid on our heart that there is more to be cleaned away we again have a choice. Repentance is turning toward the very light of Christ. Job Scott says that it is like judgment as that light searches us out we have new opportunities to become the person God intends us to be so we may more fully be about the ministry that for us God intends.