Tag Archives: repentance

Introduction – with vigour

Who do you think you are?

It was a question John the Baptist would have used. ~ Luke tells us that “he proclaimed the good news to the people” (last verse of the reading Luke 3:7-18), but he certainly didn’t mince his words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John, in his uncompromising, vigorous style, was not out to make friends and influence people. This prophet, speaking for God, was direct.

His first function was to prepare the way by bringing people to repentance, reminding them of the holiness of God, and their compromised status. The process of baptism was an admission of the need to begin again with God, because of sin, failure. Preaching repentance remains an important, if undervalued, part of Christian ministry. Not for the outsider alone, but for all of us to realise that we are not ready for the coming of God, we need to repent, to root out the evil which so easily takes root in us, and to respond again to God’s goodness. John had some very practical advice about how that might work (verses 10-14).

John’s second function was to point to the Messiah. Verses 15-17 make clear that he is not the one, but is a forerunner to a greater figure yet to come. It’s not easy to point to someone else, but this was his role, and privilege. Like his morality, preaching the Messiah would have excited some, angered others. Messiahs came fairly often – in popular imagination – and dealing with them at that time was usually bloodthirsty. During John and Jesus childhood, the roads of Galilee had been lined with crucifixions after one such rebellion.

His third function (which we return to in January) was to start Jesus’ ministry by baptising him. In each case, John was taking risks, and dealing with dangerous topics – which is what they remain.

Morality, personal and business ethics, can be a sensitive issue. But as Christians we draw some very definite patterns from New Testament teaching. You are free – and your abuse of that freedom can lose you your status as a Christian. You are responsible, and the God who forgives failure still expects obedience.

Jesus as Messiah is also a sensitive issue. Can we not accept all religions, all leaders? No – we can respect them, but Christians follow Christ without compromise, even if that is politically incorrect, embarrassing, or commercially disadvantageous.

John the Baptist was a “blast from the past”, even in the first century; he remains someone who highlights critical issues for our faith and discipleship today. To be ready for the coming of Christ now, you must repent, respond to the Goodness of God in Christ, and follow the Messiah faithfully and without confusion.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Wealth

“What must I do to receive eternal life?” It’s not a common question – I can’t remember being asked it. But that’s odd, for there is much interest in the spiritual, even in God. Obviously Christians are not expected to know the answers! You might want to think about whether that is good or bad.

Jesus is asked the question. (Mark 10:17-31). He refers to the ten commandments. (Exodus 20:1-17 though remember this is the Old Covenant). Commandments can be a problem for many now, who don’t want to be told, but to discover, who don’t want discipline and a consistent life. It is easier to collect religious objects (in your own time) or investigate the oddities of human behaviour (without relationship or commitment) than to live by a Covenant. But this young man at least has some understanding; he has done this, and wants more. Is there an advanced course, a way of proving himself?

Jesus sees the problem, and offers a solution. Sell everything and become a disciple! – but it is too much, and for 2 reasons.

  • The young man is rich; he can’t imagine life without his wealth, and the security, the comfort, the status it offers. Apparently even eternal life is not worth all that.
  • There’s more to it. He wanted to prove himself worthy – and that is not possible. Eternal life or salvation is God’s gift, not an earned reward. His wealth was a barrier getting in the way of his relationships.

When the young man has gone, Jesus warns his disciples about riches. He doesn’t say Christians must be poor, but he says that no-one who relies on wealth can receive salvation. For some of today’s “spiritual” people, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. Wanting their own way, a “designer spirituality”, they will not “follow”.

For some in today’s Churches, that will be a barrier to following Jesus. They want respectability, an endorsement of their social place and status. They would be offended to be told that Christians are sinners who recognise their need for help, and are united in failure, repentance, and salvation – which is a gift that cannot be earned.

Christianity is not flattering. It is not all about what a wonderful and unusually gifted person you are. It is about a God, who is truly awesome, who made us good and gifted – and will get us out of the mess we have made for ourselves.

Christianity is demanding. You can treat it like a hobby, and play with it when you have time or are in the mood. But that won’t do you much good. Christian faith is relationship based. It is not measured by emotion, but by committed action. You love God? Don’t tell me how much; let everybody see how you allow nothing to get in the way of that.

Nothing.

At all.

A familiar story? (Kingdom 1c)

Zacchaeus may only appear as a story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10), but it is a familiar story to many – and perhaps familiarity does not help us see its value.  Jesus is going through town when he calls to a figure up a tree to come down and offer him a meal.  The crowd don’t like it – this is a Tax collector (collaborator with the Roman occupying power, cheat, outsider . .).

Apparently Jesus has seen more in this man.  Zacchaeus not only gets down and offers a meal, but he offers to make up to anyone he has cheated, and gives away half his money!  This is a real turn-around (repentance, in Christian language).  Jesus emphasises his ministry “to seek out and to save the lost”, something we may be glad of, but which the crowd are suspicious of.  The disciples (then and now) have to learn both what Jesus is doing, and who is part of this new “Kingdom” family.  Who is “safe”?

The picture we may miss is of the disciples, Jesus, with Zacchaeus and perhaps the blind beggar (healed on the way into town) eating with a group of doubtful characters, some of whom may be about to follow Zacchaeus into a new life.  Outside – by their own choice, but perhaps unaware how serious that choice is – are those who prefer to criticise and stick with “their own kind”.

Safety is – learning with the disciples.

Mothering Sunday – a Christian festival?

I have a mixed relationship with “Mothering Sunday”. Yes, celebrating mothering, or perhaps positive parenting and families, is good; the encouragement to affirm and say thank you is helpful. So what’s wrong? The danger of ignoring those for whom families have not worked, and indeed caused pain or damage: the broken and divided families, memories of control, abuse, violence, argument; those who longed to be parents, but could not, or whose experience of parenthood was hard.

So let’s have some reality. Yes, for most of us families have been good, not always giving us what we thought we wanted, but often providing what we needed. I think Jesus would recognise that. He had two good parents in Mary and Joseph, and we read (Mark 6:3) of four brothers and more than one sister. As the eldest (Mary’s “firstborn” Luke 2:7) we guess that he stayed at home long enough to leave Mary with his brothers running the business to support them all (Joseph does not appear again after the incidents of Luke 2:42-52 when Jesus was about 12). But during his ministry, Jesus breaks free from family control (Mark 3:32-34, as Lk 8:20ff and Mt 12:46ff) – and there are words which must have been hard for Mary! Later she is cared for at the cross (John 19:26-7), and becomes part of the early Christian community (Acts 1:14).
There is a choice of gospel readings today. We can take Jesus’ words from the cross, instructing John to care for Mary (John 19:26-7), or Simeon’s words to Mary and Joseph when they brought the baby Jesus to the Temple – words that amazed them, and left Mary with much to think about (Luke 2:33-35).

Perhaps my favourite, though, would be the parable of the Prodigal Son – or should we call it the Loving Father (Luke 15:11-32). It is a story in three acts. First the younger son takes his money (no doubt causing much pain) and goes. Not a great deal is made of his route to the decision to return – no doubt there are many factors – but he makes the decision and the journey we might call repentance.

The second act belongs to the Father. Love is on the lookout, and offers not only a warm welcome, but also a shield through the village from hostile comment and action. As a picture of a generous God, it can be a little difficult to hold in focus. (Can God really be like that? Even if Jesus says so?)

The third act is more familiar. The resentment and self-righteousness of the elder brother sounds familiar. He is ready to think the worst, and offers no forgiveness – a challenge, not only to the proud of Jesus’ day, but to all of us. If we have avoided scandalous wrongdoing, and offered a measure of service, isn’t there strong temptation to want to claim our reward, and to denounce the cheats who enjoy the Father’s love? The question we don’t want asked is, “Who is cheating the gospel?”

Suffering and Repentance (Lent 3c)

Is it reassuring or sad to know that Jesus was asked about disasters and human suffering? This week’s gospel (Luke 13:1-9, and for once I could not get to Bible Study and have to think for myself) begins with a denial that the people who suffer deserve it.

It is strange how often people having a bad time ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” – and Christians can answer “It may be nothing you have done, just the fact that we live in a damaged world”. And even for those who are responsible, there is hope in repentance.

Repentance is an often misunderstood “religious” word. It is not about producing a big enough feeling of sorrow or remorse. And it is certainly not about adding to our feelings of guilt. Isaiah 55 (the Old Testament reading) tells us of a generous God, who welcomes and provides for less-than-perfect people. We are invited to enjoy God’s goodness and love – and repentance is a response to that.

As we find out what God is like, and what it is like to be forgiven and sorted out, we “turn away from” what is evil – and the “turning away” is repentance. It is not just “attitude” or “opinion”, but behaviour, priorities and motivation.

In verse 5, Jesus is not threatening, but rather giving a warning of danger. (Those living in Jerusalem would suffer terribly in the siege and destruction of 70 AD – the Christians remembered Jesus words, and escaped in time). It still applies. Repentance is part of Christianity, both when we first come to faith, and as we go on learning more of God. Like fruit trees, Christians are expected to produce fruit, reflecting God’s generosity and care. If instead they live selfish and unproductive lives, we wonder if they have recognised the source of their life, the soil and water that make life possible. If not, the risks are great, and repentance more urgent.