What do many people think of when they hear the word “repent”? Perhaps they will immediately think of an angry hell-fire and damnation preacher. Or perhaps someone with a sandwich board that says “REPENT THE END IS NEAR!” Or perhaps they will associate repentance with the requirement of giving up “fun.” It seems that even in Christian circles the word has fallen on hard times with people equating the need for repentance with “not being good enough,” and therefore with poor self-esteem. So repentance is out, self-help and acceptance is in.
But hold on, are we missing something? Despite the negative reactions to it, let us consider repentance more deeply:
Repentance is central to Christianity. Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the Gospels and he is very efficient with his words. The first thing we hear about Jesus’ preaching is:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15 NRSV)
Mark here is not telling us about Jesus’ first sermon, but the content of all his preaching. His entire teaching ministry is devoted to declaring the nearness of the Kingdom of God and the call to repent and be a part of it. We should also note here also that immediately following this Jesus calls Peter and Andrew with those famous words ““Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Mark 1:17 NRSV). We are meant to see that a kingdom declaration and a call to repentance will be central to the task of fishing for people, and therefore a central task of the Church.
Repentance is intimately connected with Good News. Look what is said immediately before and after the call to repentance and you will see a repentance sandwich. Before it is the “good news of God,” which can mean both good news from God, and good news about God. Following it is the good news mentioned again. Despite the negative reactions to repentance in our time and day, with Jesus it is intimately connected with very positive good news.
Repentance is a blessing because life in God’s Kingdom is better than life in any other kingdom. Our passage begins with a statement that almost seems out of place: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” Remembering that Mark is super efficient in his use of words, is there any reason for him to give us the detail about John’s arrest here? Yes, the arrest of a righteous God-focused man such as John does not happen in the coming Kingdom of God. It happens in Herod’s kingdom, it happens in Caesar’s kingdom, it happens all the time across our world. But such injustice does not happen in the Kingdom of God. It is a contrast. Life is better in the Kingdom of God where people like Herod repent of all injustice.
Well meaning souls sometimes carry sandwich boards that read “repent the end is near.” Jesus was going around saying something more like “repent the Kingdom is near.” Repentance is a turning away from the sin that churns out bad news reports one after another in our lives and in our world, to Christ and His Kingdom and the good news of salvation from sin.
The blessings of repentance reaches further than the repentant sinner. If Herod had repented, John’s life would have been spared, he would have been let go, restored to his loved ones and work. What a blessing repentance would have been. What a blessing when Kingdom things happen, when injustice is righted. Herod’s salvation, Herod’s repentance would have had a great impact on all who were impacted by Herod, not to mention all who were impacted by John. The blessings would move out like a wave from a drop.
Your salvation, your repentance affects more than just you. Yes, our salvation is about “getting to heaven”, but it is also about heaven coming to us. And this happens in little bits and pieces, it happens as yeast infecting the dough as Jesus teaches in a parable about the Kingdom. It happens though little changes and big changes in your life. It is not dependant on someone setting up a Christian nation somewhere. It is dependant on you being a Christ following Kingdom living person everywhere you are. It is dependant on your blessing others through your repentance, your reorientation to God. Imagine the difference repentance can make in the trouble spots of your life and family. Imagine the difference repentance would make to the trouble spots of the world.
Repentance can be enjoyed anytime. Some people see repentance as akin to taking out an insurance policy. “I have done what I need to do, I am good with God, and I might pull it out of the file to look at it once a year. Typically Christmas.” I only look at my insurance policies once a year. But I look at food all the time; at least three times a day, sometimes three times an hour. Repentance is more like that; it is a blessing we can enjoy every day, a continual reorientation of our lives to God and His Kingdom. A life without repentance is like a life without food: blessings are missed, wellness flees.
Repentance is a blessing because eternal life with God is a blessing. The book of Acts tells us that on the Day of Pentecost Peter preached a sermon to thousands of people who were enthralled with what was happening. At the conclusion of the sermon the people ask “Brothers, what should we do?” (Acts 2:37 NRSV) Peter responds with:
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him (Acts 2:38-39 NRSV)
Repentance here is a turning away from sin and turning toward God who has already turned to us in love and grace with the offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Repentance is that door to relationship, that act of acceptance of God’s offer. Putting one’s faith in Jesus without repentance would be like getting engaged to a person one has no intention of dating while still romantically involved with another. Such an engagement would seem hollow and hypocritical to say the least. Despite the negativity around repentance, it is a door to a relationship with God, one that lasts into eternity. What a blessing.
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