Grace Presbyterian Church
January 26, 2020, Epiphany 3A
Repentance Comes First
“Repent” is one of those “churchy” words. Within the sphere of the church it is a fairly commonplace word, but outside of the church context it is heard only sparingly at most, if at all.
Funny thing, though; as much as it is tossed around in the church, much of the time it is used without a whole lot of clarity about what exactly it means to tell someone to “repent.” If anything, in certain church contexts, the word “repent” can be as much an accusation as it is a verb, intended to provoke fear more than to produce any tangible result. It ends up being defined either not at all or in the shallowest and most incomplete way possible.
That’s too bad, as it turns out that repentance is an extremely important idea in the Christian life, so much so that in Matthew’s gospel, “repent” is the first word from Jesus’s mouth as he launches his public ministry. And it’s not even a new word at that.
Our reading from Matthew today picks up after his baptism by John, which we heard a couple of weeks ago, and his period of temptation in the wilderness, which due to the quirks of the lectionary we won’t hear until March, on the first Sunday of Lent. Upon departing from the wilderness, Jesus somehow learns (we aren’t told how) that John has been arrested. The details on that story don’t get revealed for quite a while in Matthew’s gospel, not until chapter 14, but the news itself seems to be enough to spur Jesus to action, and quickly. He doesn’t stay put in Judea, nor does he return to his hometown of Nazareth; instead he sets up a headquarters, so to speak, in a place called Capernaum.
This gives the gospel writer another opportunity to pluck up an old prophetic oracle and tie it into Jesus’s life. Capernaum was in a region known by the tribal names Zebulun and Naphtali, evoking two of the original twelve tribes of Israel and the sons of Jacob from whom their names and original occupiers descended. These regions were on what might be regarded as the borderlands of Israel; far to the north and east across the Jordan. This was problematic, as it turned out; being set so far on the fringe of Israel’s territory meant that historically, Zebulun and Naphtali were usually the first regions of Israel to get overrun by those invading armies coming from the north and east. This had happened enough times that the regions had been run down and ruined more than once, as invoked in the oracle of Isaiah (heard in our first reading) that Matthew so closely quotes in his gospel.
Because of this location and history, the region also had come to have a Gentile (or non-Jewish) population about as plentiful as its Jewish population. By setting up shop in this region, Jesus is just about guaranteeing that his ministry and his works will come into contact with both Jewish and Gentile peoples.
Once he is in place, Jesus begins to preach, and his message is familiar to Matthew’s readers who have been paying attention. John the baptizer’s public witness had been introduced in 3:1-2 with the exact same phrase: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
There’s that word – “repent.” It comes up frequently in the prophetic literature, and will be quite prolific in the gospels as well.
From here Jesus will go on and start calling disciples – Peter and Andrew and James and John just on one stroll along the Sea of Galilee. This is the popular part of this lectionary passage – how they all immediately follow Jesus, James and John even ditching their father.
As challenging as it might be to imagine dropping everything in an instant and following this wandering teacher, this is still the part of this reading that we typically tend to skip to immediately. We gloss over Jesus’s relocation and such and don’t necessarily pay attention to his picking up the same theme that John had been preaching. And even when we do, we are still operating under the rather incomplete concept of “repentance” noted earlier.
For the most part even serious Christians have little concept of repentance as involving anything beyond “being sorry for your sins.” On a good day we can go so far as to speak of seeking forgiveness for those sins, which mostly get defined as bad things we did. And let’s be clear, being sorry for, and seeking forgiveness for, the wrongs we have done are indeed a part of repentance. A part. Frankly, a very small part.
But by no means can “being sorry for your sins” or even asking forgiveness for them be equated to the full and complete experience of repentance. Such steps, necessary as they are, bear about as much relationship to full repentance as a quick spin on a space-travel simulator (say, something like the Mission: Space attraction at Epcot) does to an actual trip into space. It’s likely a necessary step (you shouldn’t just hop on a rocket ship with no preparation), but it’s not the same thing, not even close.
After all, when you exit from Mission: Space for example, you are still right here on earth, still stuck in Epcot, with Test Track off in that direction and, right now at least, a lot of construction nearby. You’ve had a nice exhilarating experience, but your situation has not changed. Likewise, a prayer of confession is a good and necessary thing – we do it every week, after all – and it is a needful first step on the road to full repentance, but it isn’t repentance. The road is still quite long from there.
The Greek verb from which we get this whole idea of repentance is metanoeo. Its root meaning is “to turn around.” (Those mentions of repentance in the prophetic literature use a Hebrew word, shub, with the same meaning.) Repentance is not merely about saying apologetic words over your wrongs, but actually turning away from them. And “to turn around” from sinfulness is a dramatic thing indeed.
Notice that turning around changes what one sees. If I turn around here in the pulpit [turn around, carefully], I don’t see you out there in the congregation anymore. I see…well, a wall, and the choir off to the side. My perspective is completely altered. So it is with repentance. To turn away from sins, wrongdoing, etc. is far removed from merely apologizing; it is a complete change of perspective. It is to no longer see not only the sins but the sinfulness. It is to turn away from not only wrong deeds but to turn away from the whole perspective on the world and how it works that led us into those sins and that sinfulness. It is to turn away from the basic mindset of how the world works – the accumulation of power, the drive to get ahead at the expense of those around us, the factional strife that sets peoples against one another (that Paul was warning about in the Corinthians reading), the very Roman-Empire way of doing things that loomed over the world in which Jesus taught and which has any number of modern equivalents, similarly “imperial” mindsets that rule over our minds and hearts without our even being aware of them.
Going back to that original topic sentence of first John’s preaching and now Jesus’s, the importance of repentance becomes clear. John didn’t preach “repent or you’re gonna get it,” or “repent or you’re going to Hell,” and that wasn’t Jesus’s message here either. No evocation of hellfire and damnation or anything like that is found in this statement. The message here is not about that kind of warning, but a different kind of warning altogether.
It doesn’t matter how spectacular the sunrise is; you’ll never see it in the morning if you keep looking to the west. Similarly, when Jesus says “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” it’s as if he’s saying turn around or you’ll miss it. You will never see the kingdom of heaven if you keep looking at the ways of the empire, no matter now near it comes.
As Jesus begins to teach in earnest, we will get a glimpse of what this turning around truly entails. Next come what we commonly call the Beatitudes, in which the ones Jesus calls “blessed” really don’t sound like the folks we tend to think of as blessed. As Jesus continues to teach in chapters 5-7, the people’s understanding of what it is to be righteous gets exposed as so far short of that standard. In short, to see the kingdom of heaven is to change basically everything about the way you see the world. It is to be so turned around that, to borrow from that final verse in the reading from 1 Corinthians, the cross that looks so foolish and weak to the world is no less than the power of God to us.
Being sorry for your sins matters – you won’t turn away from sinfulness as long as you continue to love your sins and the fruits thereof. But it really is only a step on the road of forgiveness, a road that runs in completely the opposite direction that the empires of the world would direct us to go. And if we don’t turn away from that, we ultimately drown in it.
Repentance – fully turning around and away from the way of sin – is the first step to this whole business of following Jesus. Turning away from the world’s ways of assigning value and accumulating power, and turning towards the kingdom of heaven, is Jesus’s first call, and all else will follow from this.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #401, Here In This Place (Gather Us In); #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #170, You Walk Along Our Shoreline; #720, Jesus Calls Us