Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. And the people throughout the whole region came to John for baptism and the confession of sin.
It’s super snotty, but there have been times in my life where I’ve read a sermon title in the bulletin in order to decide whether or not I want to commit the next hour to sitting in a pew. If it’s a sermon about tithing or church growth, then you can find me journaling in the foyer. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never willingly listened to a sermon entitled, “Repent Now.”
But these are the first words we hear from John the Baptist, who shows up on the scene as the forerunner preparing the way for Jesus—the Messiah who has come to save the world through restoration and reconciliation with the Creator.
And John is big on the concept of repentance. I’m assuming he wouldn’t be invited into many pulpits today. Repentance has become an abrasive word associated less with “seeker-friendly” churches and more a message of “fire and brimstone.”
Maybe it’s because across church life, we feel uneasy about talking about sin—even though we all have an experience of it and we all want out of it. We’d much prefer to camp out on the message of God’s patience or our call to be conduits of compassion.
I grew up defining repentance as feeling badly that you’ve failed and experiencing shame and guilt for your sin until God felt you were sorry enough. I’ve always read John’s message as the historical equivalent to the phrase “Turn or Burn.”
It feels like a guilt-producing street preacher yelling about my one-way ticket to hell.
If this is true about repentance, this guilt and shame, this sin-focused message, then why would people come to John?
I doubt people came to be shamed. The religious establishment was already doing a bang-up job of piously ostracizing those who were imperfect.
Why wouldn’t the listeners respond like me and go journal at the other side of the Jordan til Mr. Crazy Pants stopped yelling?
What was so compelling about John the Baptist’s words that so many were drawn out to the wilderness for baptism?
John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
And the people came in droves.
Repent. The Kingdom of God is immanent.
Either these Jews didn’t understand the concept of good news or we don’t understand the concept of repentance.
Israel knew repentance was never solely about sin. It wasn’t a reprimanding call God issued to correct behavior. The call to repent was the call to identity. It was an offer to turn toward the God who had called and provided for his people. The God who had delivered and had covenanted to love.
Repentance is the message of hope and freedom through embracing our identity.
The call to return isn’t in opposition to a message of God’s forgiveness, grace or patience—it’s an avenue to experience God’s forgiveness, grace and patience.
Re-member. Re-turn. Re-focus.
This message is exciting to those of us who feel the unshakable weight of sin. Who feel like we are our own worst enemy.
And for those of us longing for the rescue of God, the words of John are salvific and our way to see and experience the Christ.
If the Kingdom of God is immanent, then tomorrow could be different than yesterday, then disillusionment and failures don’t get the last word. A new way of life is here.
Repent—say yes to who you are. Say no to who you aren’t. Move toward the God of grace. Move away from that which is destructive.
You don’t have to keep wandering aimlessly.
People flocked to John the Baptist because they were compelled by the hope of the coming King.
Of course, repentance includes the element of confession. But it’s more than feeling guilty for our sin.
Repenting doesn’t mean we feel shame, it means we take the hand that Jesus extends to bring freedom in places of destruction. It means we grab on to the grace that willingly pulls us into light. Connection with Jesus isn’t about the pursuit of perfection—it’s about a life of dependence.
Thus repentance is marked by the goodness of God and his amazing work of reconciliation. It’s the act of looking to God and allowing this God to do what he has done and will do again- deliver, restore, and transform.
Through repentance, I don’t have to keep doing the things I don’t want to do. I don’t have to continue holding on to hate or unforgivenness or my futile efforts to make others happy.
John calls us to be changed and renewed.
And in so doing, we open ourselves up to see the transcendent God who is also immanent. Emmanuel—God with us