‘In those days,’ as Matthew’s Gospel tells the story, ‘John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”’
When the kingdom of God is near, we’d best repent. Or we may miss it.
The kingdom of God is full of grace, peace, justice, hope, love and joy.
The kingdom of God is greater, wider and deeper than we can possibly imagine.
The kingdom of God is full of people from all races, languages and cultures. Repentant people. We’d spoil it if we didn’t repent.
I want to talk today about the repentance that is needed for the coming kingdom of God. I’m going to do it in two ways:
- Firstly, repentance from sin;
- Secondly, the repentance needed as we grow in maturity.
Repentance from Sin
This is the usual way we think of repentance. The classic prayer of general confession includes the words,
We repent, and are sorry for all our sins.
So repentance is all about being sorry for our sins, right? Wrong. That may be part of it, but repentance is more.
The Greek word for repentance in the New Testament means to change your mind. The word is metanoia if you’re a geek for Greek.
So if I decide to put long pants on, then change my mind and put on shorts instead, I have repented of wearing long pants. But it’s not a sin to wear long pants! I just changed my mind.
But if I realise that I am doing something that is wrong and I change my mind, that’s still repentance, but this time I have changed my mind about something sinful.
In the Old Testament, the word for repent is shubh, to turn around. I’m happily driving my car and I realise I’m on a one way street. Going the wrong way. I turn around, and go the right way.
Or I may be nursing hard feelings about someone. I’m holding a grudge. I need to turn around and let it go.
Or I’m lying/cheating/stealing. I need to turn around and return to the Lord.
To repent is to change your mind, or to turn around and go in a different direction. It may be a simple thing like choosing baked beans over spaghetti; it may be far more important, like caring for someone in need rather than rejecting them.
The Repentance of Maturity
Recently, our daughter Erin visited us with her partner Pablo and their daughter, our first grandchild. Emilia had her first birthday while they were with us for seven weeks. It was a very special time. What made it even more special for me was that I had never seen Emilia in the flesh until they visited. You see, they live halfway across the world in Chile. Karen and I have been over there to seen Erin and Pablo, but that was before Emilia was born. And Karen went again soon after Emilia’s birth, but I stayed home.
I mention Emilia because—of course!—she’s the cleverest and most beautiful granddaughter in the whole world. But also because of the many changes that were going on in her head while she was with us.
She learnt so much!
In the seven weeks that she was with us, Emilia clapped, crawled, high-fived, and walked all for the first time.
How did she do that?
Despite what I think, it’s not because she’s the most gifted baby on planet earth. Emilia is developing normally. It’s her time to do these things. She is also surrounded by a loving family. Surely, that’s the birthright of every child. She is applauded and cheered on every time she does something new.
In fact, I suppose she thinks she’s the centre of the world. And she’s quite right. She is the centre of our world.
But one day will come the time when Emilia must repent. I mean, it’s fine for a one year old to be the centre of the world. Her world is still very small. But when she’s twenty one, it would be grotesque for her to believe that she is at the centre of the world.
Much as I love my granddaughter, I will find it very difficult indeed if she doesn’t mature enough to realise that she is not in fact the centre of the world.
We have to do that too.
We are not the centre of the world; we’re not even the centre of the church. We are called to work with one another; we are called to use our gifts to build one another up rather than to find little places that we can exercise power from.
Of course, that requires growth in Christian maturity; and the Spirit of Jesus leads us into greater and deeper maturity if we are open to it.
It’s not wrong for a new Christian to feel their insights are the best thing since sliced bread; it’s not so good if someone who’s been on the journey for years hasn’t yet learnt some spiritual wisdom and humility.
Any Christian should be rethinking many little things in the course of maturing. That rethinking is repentance. A Christian has to turn around time and time again. That turning around—that returning—is repentance.
I think one thing that characterises Christian repentance is an openness to others because we have realised that we are not the centre of the church. In the reading from Romans that we didn’t hear today, Paul says in Roman 15.7,
Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
We need to be aware that there are others around us who are on this same journey of repentance.
They may see things differently. What are we to do as the Church of Jesus Christ? There is are real rise of polarised debate in the world at the moment. We see it in many places, particularly our politics and our attitudes to those who are different. What are we to do? ‘Welcome one another…just as Christ has welcomed you’—and God will be glorified. Live in peace together.
Remember what we sang as we lit the Advent candle?
Peace is a candle to show us a pathway…
Peace is one of the signs of repentance: that is because it is part of the fruit of the Spirit. That fruit is
love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control
That’s what a repentant heart looks like!
Repentance is a lifetime task for us. Just as Emilia needs to change and change again as she learns just how big the world is, so we have to change as we learn how big and deep and wide is the kingdom of God that has come in Jesus Christ. Growing into God requires us to repent, rethink, return.
Let us aim for these things to characterise our life as a congregation, and our own lives also.