January 22, 2017 – The 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
© 2017 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
What does repentance look like? Maybe it’s because I’ve seen Rob Bell’s Nooma video “Bullhorn” several times, but, when I picture repentance, it looks like a middle-aged, well-dressed man with a large stack of flyers and a bullhorn, standing on a busy street corner, yelling at everyone who goes by that if they don’t repent they’ll go straight to hell. What about you? When you hear the word “repent” and you try to picture it, what image comes to your mind? Is it an angry, sweat-drenched preacher on public-access television? Maybe it’s a billboard on the side of the interstate with a message that’s designed to scare you into giving your life to Christ. Whatever it is that comes to your mind, the images of repentance that are most common in our culture are those desperate, emotional pleas that try to scare people into finding Jesus, and I don’t think they’re working.
Does anyone actually hear those attempts to scare the hell out of him and decide, “You know what: maybe I’ll give Jesus a chance?” Fear might get our attention, but fear on its own cannot lead to faith. There must be something more. If sweat-soaked preachers like me want to introduce people to Jesus, we need to give up on evangelical terrorism and look to the words of Jesus himself as an invitation to a hope worth believing in.
Today’s gospel lesson is all about repentance, but it’s not the sort of repentance we’re accustomed to. For starters, the call to repentance doesn’t come from the lips of an angry prophet but from Jesus himself: “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…[and] from that time [he] began to proclaim, ‘Repent for the kingdom has come near.’” Does that sound familiar? The words are the same ones that John the Baptist used in his preaching, but, when John said them, he also called the religious people of his day a “brood of vipers!” John always had that edge to him, but I don’t usually think of Jesus in that way. In fact, I don’t think of Jesus as proclaiming that message of repentance at all. Instead, he’s usually the one eating with tax collectors and sinners—not telling them they need to repent. Jesus is the gentle one, the understanding one, the compassionate one—not the one who shakes a finger of judgement in their face. Why is Jesus picking up John’s message and telling the people that they need to repent? Because repentance is good news.
“The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Jesus’ ministry was defined by brining light and hope to dark places, and that is the real message of repentance. The word in the New Testament that is translated for us as “repentance” is a word that literally means “turn your mind around.” In the context of religion, it means turning around from a life that has been spent running away from God and embracing the life that God is giving you. As Jesus understood it, it meant turning away from a path that leads to darkness and hopelessness and death and turning toward the light and hope and eternal life that God wills for all of God’s children to have.
That means that repentance isn’t just a rejection of the former things; it’s also an invitation to new possibilities. And I think that the preachers who talk about repentance more than anything else often forget that turning around involves two directions—where you’re coming from and where you’re going now. The good news of repentance is a message of new possibility for your life. That message has been hijacked by those whose religion is built upon fear, and I think that it’s time for us to take it back. I live in a world that is desperate to know that things don’t always have to be this way. I meet people who want things to get better—people who don’t need to be reminded that the path we’re on is fraught with challenge and division and who want to believe that there is real hope out there for them. That hope isn’t coming from false prophets who peddle fear and fear alone—those who scare us but don’t have any real hope to offer. It comes from Jesus, who invites us into a life filled with light and hope and promise.
What does repentance look like when it comes from the mouth of Jesus?
As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
That is a story of repentance. It’s a story of Jesus coming alongside some people and inviting them into a new life of possibility and hope. Within this moment of turning around, there is a clear component of leaving the old life behind. Simon and Andrew must leave their nets and give up their life of fishing for fish in order to follow Jesus and fish for people. Likewise, we read that James and John leave their father and their boat in order to go with Jesus. But the hope that stands before them is what propels them out of their boats and into new life. Jesus doesn’t give them a diatribe about how their lives are stuck in a dead-end job and how they’ll wake up one day and realize that they’ve wasted their whole lives doing meaningless work. He simply says, “Follow me.” Behind those words was a promise of new life, and that invitation was all that they needed.
Jesus is calling God’s people to follow him out of fear and darkness and into new light and new possibility. Jesus is inviting us to be a part of God’s plan to bring God’s kingdom fully here on earth. And we know what that kingdom looks like. It means hope to those who sit in darkness. It means life to those who dwell in the shadow of death. To follow Jesus means to repent—to leave behind a way of living that says that things will always be this way, that fear will always win. And it means embracing our part in bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and breaking the yoke of oppression. It means saying to the world that the kingdom of God has come near, and that God’s kingdom brings healing to all people.
Will we say yes to Jesus? Will we say yes to the good news of repentance? Will we show the world that things don’t have to be this way any longer—that it’s time for things to change? Will we leave fear behind and embrace the hope that only God can give us—a hope that God has given us in Jesus Christ?