Repentance and the Kingdom

Aside

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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.

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* 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.

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Hearing then speaking

So hi. After a lengthy break I want to start blogging again, because I’m tired of not having a writing outlet. I don’t know what I’m going to write about, or how often, but I need to get back into the habit of putting words on the page (or on the interwebs, potato/potahto). Seminary has done a lot of good for me, but it’s also taken a lot of my attention obviously and my creative output has all but dried up. Going with that metaphor, it’s time to repair the well.

During my absence I sometimes considered with guilt why I wasn’t writing more often, and by that I mean, at all. I think outright laziness had something to do with that, but I did quite well in my classes so that’s not all of it. I think I can explain it as a kind of blogging existential crisis. I came to a similar point once with exercising — it seemed so futile, meaningless, and vain that I couldn’t get myself to the gym every day.

With blogging, I began to feel like I was just doing it to exercise my own ego, since when people like what we write we feel good about ourselves. At the heart of all my vanities, or most of them at least, is pride — in my case, an unquenchable desire to be respected, well-thought-of, smart. I doubt I’m alone here, but I can only speak for myself. For example, I don’t mind “losing” arguments with people or “being wrong”, so long as my interlocutors think that I’m intelligent. So what I’m saying is that I’m a self-important person who takes himself (and his writing) way too seriously.

But the thing is I like writing way too much to go without it. So I’m writing again, considering the weighty words of James:

“Know this, my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger — for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness, and received with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

My blog presents an opportunity to listen, then to speak. Notice the prepositional phrase right at the end: “receive with meekness the implanted word.” Seminary teaches us how to proclaim with boldness the implanted word, but in truth that only happens after we humbly receive. Listen. Consider.

Come listen with me.