Repent the Kingdom of God is at Hand
Recollections from Childhood
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of attending church almost every Sunday. I still recall one week night after supper my Mother told us to get ready to go to church that they are “packing the pews” tonight.
I recall that I was intrigued by this unusual request. Now, I was aware that our church was in the middle of raising the funds to build a new sanctuary, so when I heard the words “packing the pews” my mind conjured up a picture of men in hard hats, operating cranes with ropes and pulleys, picking up the pews from the old sanctuary, loading them onto trucks and taking them to a new building. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Well, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out that “packing the pews” meant filling up the old sanctuary and listening to another appeal to fill the offering plates so we could finish the building fund drive.
I also have vivid memories of the “revival preachers” who would come to town each year. I remember their passion and how they would sometimes shout and sometimes whisper…and how they would preach a message of repentance, and salvation…and how they would motivate us to repent out of fear of everlasting punishment.
When they talked about repentance they made it sound like a rather dreadful process of recounting every terrible thing we had done, complete with the shame and self-loathing that comes with being a sinner.
It was a real challenge for me, at age 6, to think of what sort of terrible things I could possibly have done that would require this searching and fearless moral inventory, remorse, and repentance.
Enough of Childhood Recollections
Like you, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (NRSV)
Turn with me to the third chapter of Luke. Let’s take a look at the greatest preacher of repentance in our scriptures and see if we can find a more nuanced understanding of Repentance than I had as a child.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with[e] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.
And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (NRSV)
As heirs to the evangelical tradition in Christianity, we Baptists are inclined to talk about our “salvation,” that is, our decision to follow Jesus, as a one-time event in our lives. I remember that this was the central concern of preachers and Sunday school teachers throughout my childhood. It seemed that they were consumed with the desire for us to “make our profession of faith” before we had to face the trials and temptations of adolescence and young adulthood. And bless them for their concern.
But as we look at Luke’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist, it is clear that being baptized was more than a ritual and a single event in one’s spiritual journey. A baptism of repentance causes real change in how we live our lives.
Evidence of that real change is seen in our new thinking about the poor. We take on the responsibility to provide clothing to those who have none; and to share our food with the hungry.
We commit to live by a new ethic of honesty in all our business dealings.
And we will no longer tolerate the abuse of people by those in a position of power and authority.
So, the path is clear. Repent, be baptized, live a changed life.
But still the notion of repentance remained a bit of a mystery to me. What does repentance mean and how does this act of repentance have the power to change our lives and our conduct?
One day, a few years ago as I was writing a sermon, I decided to look up the Greek word that is translated “repent.” Much to my surprise, the lexicon said nothing about some kind of shame filled moral inventory and confession that those revival preachers talked about when I was a child.
What I found was simply this: think differently…think differently.
The Prophet Isaiah describe this kind of repentance in chapter 55:
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (NRSV)
What jumps out for me are the phrases “let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts.” Repentance leads to both changed behavior and changed thinking.
Even more significantly, we find ourselves dealing with a God that is not waiting to destroy the wicked and the unrighteous. Quite the contrary,
“let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
Mercy. Forgiveness. Pardon. These are the ways of our God; and they do not come easily for us; for God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
Here is the message that I take from this passage: we are not always inclined to seek God or to see the world as God sees us.
We want to punish the evil-doer; God wants us to offer mercy and pardon.
We are inclined to fear the immigrant who seeks asylum at our southern border; God has a different perspective.
We see the immigrant as a threat to our way of life; God sees one of his children seeking safety in the Promised Land.
What does God require of us?
To choose to seek the Lord, to choose to see the world as God sees us.
To Repent, to think differently; to climb to the higher ground of our faith and to catch a glimpse of the world as God sees us.
What do we imagine when we read the words of Jesus and John the Baptist before him when they say “the Kingdom of God is at hand?”
Clearly some of the people in Jesus’ time heard a promise the powers and principalities of that day might soon be overthrown, and that the Romans would leave Palestine and let the people resume their lives keeping their ancient traditions and practices.
Others were inspired by the hope that the powerful would be brought down and the poor and oppressed might be lifted up.
In our day as back then, the coming of the Kingdom of God almost certainly has many and various meanings.
But looking at the message of repentance given to us by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus himself, we can be sure that in the Kingdom of God we all learn to think differently. And by learning to think differently, we create the space for the Kingdom of God to break through and transform the world.
Sometimes we may be asked to give up completely a long-held belief.
At others, we may be asked to revise our thinking just a bit.
But in every aspect of our lives, we will be continuously asked to open our minds and hearts to the world around us:
To see the image of God in every person we meet.
To look for the divine spark within everyone, both those in whom the Spirit of God is alive and visible and vibrant as well as in those in whom it is hidden beneath layer upon layer of woundedness.
Are you the one or are we to wait for another?
Let me leave you with one final observation from Luke Chapter 7. This comes in one of the most moving and evocative accounts in all of the Gospels for me.
18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
20 When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”
21 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.
22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[e] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?
25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces.
26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (NRSV)
In past sermons, the reading usually stops here. But listen to how Luke completes the narrative:
29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.
30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.) (NRSV)
Jesus, like John before him, calls us to a life of repentance, a daily even sometimes, hourly discipline of thinking differently.
We can, and most of us do, give our attention over to those who confirm how we see the world.
We connect to friends who chant the same slogans, live with the same fears, and seek comfort from the same prophets. We continue to rely on old habits of thinking and just react in old, familiar, and un-examined ways.
But we have a choice.
We can choose instead to undertake the discipline of asking ourselves, is there another way to look at our world? Is there another way to respond to this person who does not think and speak and worship as I do?
So the word of God comes to us asking:
“Are we going to follow the one who calls us to think differently?
Will we take the risk of considering another point of view?
Will we seek to know God’s thoughts, and to see the world from God’s higher ground?”
Will we stand at the banks of the river of repentance along with the Pharisees and lawyers and refuse to enter baptismal waters and miss God’s purpose for our lives?