Friday, January 20, 2017
Adventures in Repenting (Matthew 4:12-23)
These words of Jesus come at the end of a very long introduction to Jesus and his identity as the Son of God and Messiah. Up until this passage, Matthew’s gospel has been largely about “setting the stage”: a lengthy genealogy with all those names from the Bible, meant to show Jesus as the culmination of God’s long involvement and investment in human history, as told by Israel. (Really, that list is one of those passages we all hope isn’t scheduled the Sunday when you have to read scripture. As we used to say back home when lists of tongue-twisting names came up in the readings, we would say, “And there were people”.)
After the “begats and begots”, then it seems a bit like Christmas, telling the story of magi wandering over the territory and Herod conniving to assuage his insecurities about competition, if it weren’t for that dreamer named Joseph who navigated the difficult social and political challenges of a miraculously pregnant virgin wife in a stone-throwing society and a royal court not beneath slaughtering innocents to protect the king’s petty fears.
Then it’s the pyrotechnics of baptism, as John the Baptist chastens the masses with his call to conversion and then gets a shock when it’s time to baptize Jesus. It’s not just every day when the heavens open, a dove comes down and James Earl Jones does the voice over. Toss in forty days and forty nights of testing and temptation out in the desert (dude with pitchfork included), you’d think the prelude is most of the story, yet the gospel is just getting underway.
Jesus steps to the center of the stage and in one short sentence, summarizes what has come before and what is just about to unfold. The agenda and the tone for the gospel are set in these ten words, inviting those who listen to consider a new way of looking at the world and themselves. These ten words constitute a challenge to those ‘kingdoms’ of the earth that their power and interests are not the timetable that Jesus and his followers will be living out their lives. It’s the beginning of a story that continues to this day, the story of Jesus and those who would follow him.
Despite what you might think, the first word, repent, is all about a journey getting underway. When I hear the word, I usually think of how the word is used among those who I would call the “evangelically strident”, Christians who use the word with a bit of edge in their voice. When living in Kansas City, I would see them occasionally at a prominent traffic stop, walking up and down the street with microphone cords trailing back to small amplifiers. The word “repent” was oft-used in the 30 seconds one might spend waiting for the light to change, and your lane of traffic just starting to get underway. Such fervor really did not make much of an impression on most people waiting in traffic. They sat there, trapped by the red light, trying not to make eye contact with the street preachers, perhaps cranking up their car stereo to drown out the preaching.
The word “repent” gets a bad rap, thanks to the sometimes artless ways the word is communicated. Shorn of interpretative baggage usually framed by images of “sorrow and remorse”, the New Testament word “repent” by itself is quite a powerful word, as the word Jesus uses in the gospels (Gk metanoia) means “to change the direction of one’s life” (“Matthew”, New Interpreter’s Bible). Such a concept asks much of the believer, yet such a concept can be that lifeline we have been looking for, a word that gets in edgewise of the “stuck” feelings we have about our lives, or when we dare to engage possibilities previously unexplored in our lives. To repent is less the image of the penitent coming forward at a revival’s altar call. To repent in the metanoia sense means that you’ve decided to go a different path with your life. Repenting means you ain’t going back to the way things used to be, and you couldn’t be more satisfied with this new direction.
Could we think of “repenting” as the best thing that ever happened to you? I recall a guest preacher at our seminary chapel. As he spoke of repentance as “change”, he would talk about things that kept us down and then through a positive change in one’s life, how one could feel renewed or unburdened when making good choices about how one lives life. He flourished it with a little leap in the pulpit, left to right, speaking of ways one lived before and then after repentance took place. Making that leap, that change is indeed an occasion for feeling like life has stopped getting too heavy for its own good. In joy, we can change our attitudes and habits, our sense of feeling stuck or unmoored. Repentance is the beginning of an adventure you would not have found yourself on otherwise. To repent is literally a transformative act
For the Christian believer, to repent means turning one’s life to the way of Jesus. Rather than wearing oneself down running the well-trodden path of the rat race, the Christian seeks to trace her way through the contours and questions of the gospel. Reading one’s way through Matthew’s gospel, you encounter a variety of people who decided to follow Jesus rather than stay in the midst of what they knew, even those things in life they were most comfortable doing. Matthew gives up tax collecting, a life of easy money by extortion and graft, taking up the way of Jesus, who said “you should love your neighbor as yourself” and that the poor are the most blessed in God’s eyes. (Don’t we all wish the IRS repented in such a manner?) Peter’s headstrong attitude is given a test when he realizes he cannot walk on water.
Repentance stretches a person, as you continue down a path that you could not have previously imagined. To choose repentance, the decision to reshape one’s life, is necessary if one is to choose Jesus. Over the next few Sundays, we’ll hear the Sermon on the Mount as our reading from the gospel. As we shall see, teachings that seem “simple” will ask very hard questions of persons as they live in the tension of the world’s ways and the ways of Jesus.
This mindset is needed if you are to live in the kingdom of Heaven. To live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven is to live in tension with the kingdoms of the world, especially those to whom you would otherwise claim close allegiance. Matthew’s gospel warns a follower of Jesus about maintaining a too-familiar relationship with the kingdoms of Herod and Rome.
This kingdom of heaven shall be a different sort of reign, where local demagogues (i.e. Herod who just hauled John the Baptist off to certain misery and death) and even the ones ruling from Rome are going to be declared second fiddle to this movement called “the kingdom of Heaven”. Jesus selecting fishermen as some of his first followers demonstrates the “otherness” of the Kingdom of Heaven raising up those that the Empire and Herod’s court exploited and disregarded.
In turn, those following Jesus’ way are called to be just like him, living out his teachings and calling others to do likewise. The disciple will be not only evangelizing the good news, the disciple will be the example for why Jesus’ teachings matter. In other words, a repenting and faithfully following Christian has many difficult choices to make about how to live faithfully in the world.
Ethicist Stanley Hauerwas suggests that we have a choice: are we admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus? Admirers might like Jesus from afar, yet followers are the ones who take up the Cross and follow the way of Jesus. To illustrate, Hauerwas recounts a story from Clarence Jordan, a Baptist who worked for desegregation in 1950s era Georgia.
Jordan led a group of people committed to racial integration, living as an intentional community in Americus, Georgia. When his religious community experienced some legal problems, Jordan approached his brother who was a lawyer. Jordan’s brother refused as it might harm his law practice and his political aspirations. In their argument over the matter, Clarence pointed out that the two of them joined the Baptist church on the same Sunday when they were boys. Clarence wondered if his brother had missed something along the way about Jesus being his Lord and Savior. Jordan wanted his brother to answer this question: Do you just admire Jesus or do you follow Jesus? (Cf. Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 57).
A man walks down the shoreline and summons fishermen to follow him. They leave their lives behind and follow. Were these fishermen in their right minds? What sort of religion asks for such commitment without it veering off from “faith” to some type of fundamentalism or cult-like behavior?
How do ordinary folks like you and me claim to follow rather than admire Jesus? The gospel narrative offers puzzling questions and leaves unsettling questions within us. Is it bravery or bravado that one makes when choosing to follow Christ?
How does one repent and live to tell about it?