Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.”
– Mark 1:14-15
I attended my first Ash Wednesday service this morning. It was a Protestant iteration, but still with songs of lament and thoughtful readings of confession and repentance. I’m new to Lent, but it seems to mean all sorts of things in American religion; often it’s seen as an opportunity for self-improvement, like abstaining from unhealthy food or Facebook (as announced on…Facebook). It’s wrapped up in Western selfishness and consumerism.*
But as far as I can tell, the cash value of Lent is repentance. It’s a chance to confess and consider the consequences of our sins. It’s a chance to ponder death, life without redemption, considering even the “loud cries and tears” of Jesus himself, who “learned obedience through what he suffered,” and in his perfect life “became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Heb. 5:7-8). In other words, as others have pointed out, it’s not about what you give up but what you take on: meditation, prayer, Bible reading — however each of us can best consider Christ. How much chocolate you do or don’t eat is of little consequence.
In the text above, Mark has just finished describing in a torrid pace the baptism and desert testing of Jesus — both, we are told, being the work of the Spirit. After overcoming his foes in the desert (something I’ll say more about in a later post), Jesus enters Galilee and proclaims the advent of the kingdom — God’s restorative reign not just over Israel, but over the whole earth.
After centuries of anxious waiting, Israel will now see the coming of her king, and his kingdom comes with him. Look! Demons are cast out**, a leper is cleansed and restored to the community, a paralyzed man is healed and has his sins forgiven, huge crowds listen to Jesus preach the gospel — and that’s just the first three chapters. The reign of God is here, right now — starting small and ostensibly as inconsequential as a mustard seed but growing into a tree, spreading so large that the birds (i.e., all people of the earth) can nest in its shade (Mk. 4:30-32, cf. Ezek. 31:6, Dan. 4:9-14).
And central to the coming kingdom are the two imperatives Jesus invokes: “repent and believe.” As we all heard in Sunday School, to repent is to make a radical turn, to suddenly change course, to about-face. This not only validates Jesus’ ministry by connecting it with John’s (1:4), but it also resonates with the regular prophetic call in the OT for Israel to turn back to Yahweh and obey him.
This, Jesus tells us, is the right response to the inaugurated kingdom. When God’s reign suddenly and dramatically breaks into our reality, no matter what else is going on, we repent and we believe. This is why I think Lent, thoughtfully celebrated, can be helpful — not because we labor to look good before God and others, but because we turn from our sin right where we are and look to God for forgiveness. We instead admit we’re not good, we’re actually really, really bad, but we trust in the anointed Messiah to heal us and forgive our sins (cf. 2:8-12).
The kingdom is here. You might not be ready, but it’s okay. Repent, and believe the gospel.
* Sorry sorry, I promised on Twitter to not be didactic anymore, sorry.
** Interestingly, they are the only ones who see Jesus as the Son of God he really is (see 1:24, 1:34, 3:11). There is a profound spiritual battle going on beneath the surface of the Gospel accounts, perhaps even extensions of the showdown with Satan in the wilderness.