Thursday, December 4, 2014

Repent from Sin but to What?

Here’s what we will hear on Sunday:

  • “The beginning of the good news…”
  • “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way…”
  • “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…”
  • “He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming…”

I think that model is important: Good News à Messenger to Prepare à Proclamation of Repentance à One More Powerful is Coming.

These days, I think repentance gets a bad rap. We’ve spent the last fifty-five years developing a philosophy of I’m OK – You’re OK (thanks, Thomas Harris), and it seems uncouth for anyone to say, “You know what? You’re not OK. You need to fall down on your knees, repent, and beg for mercy.” Do you remember that scene near the beginning of The Blues Brothers when Cab Calloway says to John Belushi, “Jake, you get wise; you get to church!” Who gets to say that anymore?

Regardless of what contemporary society might prefer, the bedrock of the Christian faith is repentance. Repentance is where we begin. It’s the hinge upon which “conversion” happens (to use another unpopular word). Repentance is how the way is made straight. Repentance is the leveling of the mountains and the smoothing out of the rough places. Repentance is the highway by which God returns to his people, which is to say it is how God’s people rediscover God.

But what sort of messenger has those words today? What sort of prophet can proclaim a theology of repentance without getting doors slammed in his face or preaching to an empty church? Who wants to listen to someone talking about how bad we all are?

I think repentance has fallen out of vogue because most modern prophets have kept crying at people to forsake their sins without inviting them where to turn. As so many preachers have noted, “repentance” comes from the Greek word “metanoia,” which means a “changing of the mind” or loosely a “turning around of the heart.” Repentance isn’t just a letting go of the bad stuff. It’s a turning around to embrace the good stuff. And that’s what’s so great about this gospel passage. John isn’t just baptizing people because they’re wicked sinners. He’s preparing them for the coming of one more powerful than he. Repentance, in other words, is just one step along the journey.

“Repent!” the prophet cries. “But why?” the suspicious crowd responds. Exactly. But why? Why repent? As a colleague once said about a church conference, “They say it will change my life. Why would I want to do that? I like my life just the way it is.” Repentance is central, but we need to do a better job of articulating the life to which people are invited to turn.

Where I live, the Christians with the cultural microphone are the ones who make people feel bad about themselves and don’t seem interested in more than that. They’re the guys (and, yes, they are all guys) on the radio and television and elsewhere in our public view who talk about a gospel of getting your life in order so you won’t go to hell. But that isn’t gospel. It isn’t “good news.” No wonder when anyone else uses the word “repentance” everyone tunes out. If we want to invite people into transformation that begins with repentance, we must stop emphasizing that from which we are turning (hell) and start talking about that which we are embracing (abundant life).

Repent so that you can be embraced by one more powerful than any prophet who ever lived. Repent so that God can use you and your life as an unencumbered resource. Repent so that you can find the peace that is missing. Repent so that the path between you and God may be straight and smooth.

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