“Repent and believe!”
Again, I say repent and believe!”
That sounds more like something a televangelist or cooky-street preacher would shout. Ask a friend sometime what they think of when they hear “repent and believe.” I bet (which for any Bishop or DS with us this morning I would never do) you will hear televangelist or street preacher and not Jonah or Jesus when you ask the question. Repentance is a word many of us are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with. Repentance is language we reserve for the preacher holding a tattered and torn KJV of the Bible in one hand, shaking it eagerly as he addresses his audience, while holding a handkerchief in the other to wipe the sweat from his brow and spit from his lip. It is one of those Bible words we would like to ignore if we could. We are OK with, we can tolerate words like “confess” and “forgive.” We may not be great at letting go of a grudge and forgiving someone but we are willing to at least consider doing it, knowing that our ten plus year grudge is no more healthy for us than it is for the one on the other side of the wrong. The word “repent” though is foreign language to us.
WHAT SEPARATES REPENTANCE FROM CONFESSION?
WHAT IS IT ABOUT REPENTANCE THAT MAKES US UNCOMFORTABLE?
REPENTANCE REQUIRES A RESPONSE. REPENTANCE REQUIRES MOVEMENT, AND WITHOUT MOVEMENT REPENTANCE IS JUST CONFESSION.
The first part of repentance is to recognize the wrong but then there must a reorientation. Think about our worship service this morning, later in the service we will confess our sins before God and one another, we will ask for and receive forgiveness but in our liturgy there is no reorientation that occurs. There might be an “a ha” moment but reorientation takes time. In Greek repentance is metanoia, meaning to change one’s mind, or develop a new way of thinking. It is no wonder then why repentance is a word we do not often use.
A few years ago I took Gallop’s Strength Finder test and discovered that one of my top strengths is “self-assurance.” Some of you might call this arrogance and thus not a strength, but self-assurance allows you to be decisive, which believe it or not is a good thing from time to time (especially when trying to figure out where to order takeout from). Because of my self-assurance, changing one’s mind or developing a new way of thinking, in my mind, is weakness, the exact opposite of what you conditioned me, and countless other millennial to do. After all, from the time we wrap up high school or college we are told that at the very least we need to have the trajectory of our lives mapped out.
We may not know the exact destination but we had better know which zip code we are heading to. Yes, to keep the metaphor going, there might be a few road closures or detours along the way but the destination is known. And because the destination is known, when the street corner preacher tells us to “repent,” we easily brush him off because we know where we are going. We have said, “Yes” to the destination, even if we mapped it out 10, 20, or 30 years ago.
In November I shared a little of my call story with you. When I graduated from college I knew I would do one of three things: work for the government, be a contractor working for the government, or be in the military. With two bad knees the military option was off the table and thus my life mapped out. It is no surprise then that some would say I have come kicking and screaming into ministry. It’s not that I did not want to be a pastor, rather, its that I had already figured it all out. I knew what I was going to do so there was no need to reorient my life. I did not need to change my mind. After all, being self-assured, if I was to change my mind and reorient the trajectory of my life I would be showing weakness and that is something self-assured people do not do.
Being called to repent, or face being “overthrown” by God, the people of Nineveh believed God. They repented. They changed their ways.
Even before the king of Nineveh got word of what was happening on the streets and made his kingly proclamation, a fast had been proclaimed by the people and everyone had put on sackcloth. Sackcloth was a fabric made of goat’s hair, coarsely woven, and worn during periods of mourning and repentance, during times of personal and national crisis. The people of Nineveh believed God and responded, even before they could be directed to act by their leader.
The people of Nineveh, including their king, would have been justified in laughing off the street preaching Jonah as he moved through the city over three days. We would understand Jonah being laughed from one end of the city to the next because Jonah did not have the greatest of track record when it came to repentance and reorientation. Jonah did not exactly submit before God when called. Regardless if you read the story of Jonah literally or as a fable of Biblical proportions, it is easy to see that Jonah messed up. When Jonah was first called by God to go to Nineveh, he instead boarded a ship headed for Tarshish, located in modern-day Spain, literally the edge of the world for the time. Running from God and his call by going to the end of the earth, Jonah thought he could hide. Jonah thought he could avoid metanoia. It was not until Jonah had been thrown overboard and swallowed by a large fish that Jonah repented and went to Nineveh. That story would be hard to sell to the people on the street and yet they heard God in Jonah’s voice and they believed God.
But what happens when God incarnate is the one calling us to repent and believe? It is easy to blow off the street preach as we walk out of Starbucks or to flip the channel when the slick-haired televangelist begins preaching. It’s easy to not make eye contact with someone on the street or turn off the television and go play with our kids. It is easy to write off the story of Jonah, but what are we to do when Jesus calls upon us to repent and believe?
As in many cases, Jesus by the sea is calling those not likely to be called. Instead of going to the temple in Jerusalem and waiting for a student to call upon him to be taught him the holy scriptures, Jesus heads to the docks and calls two sets of brothers, four fishermen. If you have ever been to a dock or to a place where fish are being or have been processed you know this might not be the first place one would go to seek out holy men. After all, “Cussing like a sailor” is not an empty phrase. And yet Simon and Andrew, and then James and John responded. Like the people of Nineveh, they reoriented their lives, immediately, and followed God.
In both instances, the focus was taken away from the prophetic voice and placed on God and God’s call to action. In the case of Nineveh, the time had come to acknowledge YHWH as God and in the case of Jesus, the time had come when God would restore all of creation. It was not enough to say sorry for fill in the blank sin. The people of Nineveh and the fishermen, believing God, followed and began living a new life. The people of Nineveh turned away from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands and the fishermen began a new rhythm. Both groups found a new identity.
The televangelist, street preacher, and even the prophet can become mad and discouraged when the people of God believe God and not the voice they hear. In following God, in believing, attention is taken off of the prophetic voice and placed on the one who called four men by the sea. But the joke is on us, the ones who become mad or discouraged, because the attention, the attention was never really on us. As self-assured as we are, that we think we are proclaiming the word of God or guiding people to God, it is never our work but rather the work of the Holy Spirit, sent by God to be used through us. Or to be used in spite of us. In our call to others to repent and believe, we too must repent and believe, reorienting our lives, removing ourselves from the seat of judgment that we prefer to sit on and hand over control, hand over power to the one who calls each of us.
What the televangelist and street preacher get wrong, is that metanoia is not our work at all. It is God’s work. Repentance is not something we can do on apart from God. Metanoia is not a work we perform or a decision we make, but instead is a gift from God. It is a gift that sees us through the space between Christ’s birth and death. Between Christ’s resurrection and the second coming of Christ.
As with the people of Nineveh and the fishermen by the sea, so with us, it is being encountered by God (in God’s word through Jonah, in Christ in Mark’s Gospel, and for us today through word and sacrament) that works repentance.
Like the parable of lost sheep, the sheep doesn’t get itself found. Like the prodigal son, he was fine coming home to be treated like a slave. He didn’t repent until the father embraced him and kicked on the party music.
The repentance offered by the televangelist, street preacher, and preachers in the pulpit is ultimately bad news because it throws all the work back on us and our ability to repent and that is what leads to judgment. Repentance becomes works righteousness. If my repentance is something I can accomplish, because of my strength finder score, then I’m liable to be judgmental about others who could not or chose not to. The good news is that none of us can repent on our own, we are all lost sheep in the process of being found and that God repents us is proof that forgiveness is prior to our repentance.