Running as repentance.
There is a marathon coming to Fort Wayne. On October 1, there will be an opportunity to run for 26 miles and 385 yards. There will be medals, there will be celebration, there will be a finish line.
I’m planning to run it. And you can run that marathon with me. (Or you can sponsor me. I just made that up. I have no idea what sponsorship would mean. But if you do, let me know.)
But if you and I want to survive a marathon without needing medical attention, we need to change our minds about how we are living.
We need to stop eating junk because we can run better if we weigh less. We need to stop staying up all night because resting well helps us train well and run well. We need to start eating better food in better ways. We need to start moving in scheduled ways that build toward completing the distance.
We need to repent.
It’s a funny word to use about marathon training. And yet it’s exactly the right word. Because it captures the sense of identifying a place you want to be (finish line) and then changing attitude and behavior to conform with the values of that place.
I know. You may not be interested in marathons. But you are interested in something. In your heart, somewhere, there is a something that you are looking for. There is something that you would be willing to change your life, change your thoughts, change your direction for.
When John started talking to people in the preaching part of his work, he offered that the something was the Kingdom of heaven. And, he said, that the best way to respond to the Kingdom being close was to repent.
He didn’t suggest that repenting is the goal. The training itself isn’t a goal, it’s a preparation. But because of the desire for the goal, you do the repenting.
Off the couch
John told people that the kingdom of heaven was near. He told them that repenting was the appropriate response.
And he said that they couldn’t use their genealogical connection to Abraham as a reason to not worry about repenting.
John’s argument was that repentance doesn’t result from your family tree, but it does result in fruit.
“So what do we do?” his listeners asked.
It’s the perfect question. Repentance is not simply about a changed mind. It’s about changes in attitude and behavior that show a changed mind.
Let’s go back to my marathon example. if you say, “I’ve changed my mind. I’m not a couch sitter anymore,” and you keep sitting on the couch, a reasonable person could say, “You are a couch sitter.”
But tonight, if you set the remote down and miss the episode of “Friends” and you walk around the block, you have started to show the fruit of repentance toward running a marathon.
And if you do that again tomorrow night, and the next, and then start to run, you are demonstrating that something changed. And you are reinforcing the change.
That’s exactly what John said about what to do: “If you have extra clothing and food, share with the people who don’t have any.” It’s a low bar. Anyone could do it. But if someone doesn’t share, John suggests, it’s hard to say there’s repentance.
The tax collectors were sketchy. The soldiers were distrusted. Everyone knew that they needed to repent. And they asked John what repentance would lead to. John explained that tax collectors should be honest, collecting only what was required. Soldiers should be content with their pay, not taking advantage of power to extort money. Or more.
So repenting in light of the kingdom means adopting values in doing our work that reflect God’s kingdom’s values.
It’s interesting that John didn’t tell them to repent of being tax collectors and soldiers. He didn’t call them to be pastors and missionaries. He didn’t tell them to go to synagogue or study the scriptures either. For these people wanting to follow God, the application is to stay in their professions and in their professions, follow God.
The sign isn’t the place it points to.
Of course, when John had these amazing teachings which called people to repentance, people started to speculate about him. They asked whether he was the messiah. Because they had been looking for a messiah.
The people John spoke to, the Jewish people, had been living under Roman rule for generations. They had been looking for a leader who would bring them to freedom. The way Moses had brought them from Egypt. The way Isaiah had promised. The way the Maccabees had for awhile.
And John demonstrated the kind of courage a messiah might have. He called the religious leaders “a brood of vipers.” He accused Herod of adulterous machinations. He came out of the wilderness, lived on the edge, gave no concern for what anyone thought. And had great advice about how to live.
Today, we would look at John as a messiah, of sorts. Many would subscribe to his blog, believing that his formula of good behavior had merit. Many would go through his baptism, viewing it, perhaps, the same way people go through cleanses this time of year, or join gyms, or subscribe to teaching video series or back particular presidential candidates.
Nothing against any of those. I’m simply pointing out that John acquired a compelling and controversial reputation for speaking out against the status quo, offering hope to underdogs, and finding opposition irrelevant.
John’s calling, however, wasn’t to acquire a reputation. It was to proclaim a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
John’s run at celebrity was cut short when Herod arrested him. But that was of no concern to John. Because he meant what he said. His job wasn’t to be the messiah, it was to point toward the messiah. When the kingdom and the king proved to be truly at hand, when John saw and talked to and baptized Jesus, John’s work was done.
Home may not be where you came from –
Jesus picked up where John left off. Proclaiming the kingdom.
I mean Jesus picked up with exactly the same message John had proclaimed. When Matthew tells the story, he says that John said, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And then, after John is arrested, Jesus starts preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
It’s an interesting parallel. It affirms to the reader that John’s message was from God. When the one greater than John arrives, he speaks the same message.
The message of Jesus is a messiah and kingdom kind of message.
But I’m intrigued at what Jesus does around the time of speaking this message.
Jesus was baptized by John somewhere along the Jordan River, which runs 156 miles from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea. After his baptism, Jesus went into the wilderness, fasted for 40 days, and went through a period of temptation. He heard that John was arrested. He headed north. Back to Galilee, back to the town where he grew up.
But he wasn’t going home. He was wrapping up loose ends and getting ready to start his work. He picks up whatever he had to move from Nazareth and went to Capernaum. It was a regional center, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee. There was a Roman garrison. There was a synagogue. There was a thriving fishing trade.
It was a city at the edges of Jewish culture, at the edges of the occupying army. It was at the edge of the galaxy, it was the edge of the wild west.
It was where Peter, Andrew, James, and John were working.
Jesus picked that place to start preaching. With a simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Training for the kingdom
Jesus started at Capernaum, but he kept going. He spent three years traveling up and down through the parts of Israel. And he often told stories about the kingdom of heaven. He told them with great confidence. The stories explain kingdom values and direction. They seem to say, “Here’s what it would look like to live in the Kingdom of God, under the direction of the King.”
The kingdom was important to him. And he wanted it to be important to his followers as well. One time, when he gave them a simple prayer, he included a line about the kingdom: “Thy kingdom come.” And the next sentence expands on what that means: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So what does that mean?
That’s a great question. And that is why the word KINGDOM is one of my three words this year. What does it mean to ask for it? What would it mean to find it?
Last year, I taught a course in Spiritual Formation. In one of our books, Dallas Willard writes, “The disciplines for the spiritual life are available, concrete activities designed to render bodily beings such as we are ever more sensitive and receptive to the Kingdom of Heaven, brought to us by Christ, even while living in a world set against God.” (252)
Willard had already described these activities, practices like solitude and service, confession and celebration, study and worship and fasting. Some he calls disciplines of abstinence. Some are disciplines of engagement. Each trains our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls.
But after chapters of explaining, Willard comes down a challenge to implementation:
“It is time to take what you have learned and make your own specific plan for your life with them. This will come down to what you do on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. More important, it will come down to what you do not do, to how you will manage to step out of the everlasting busyness that carries our lives. Didn’t God give you quite enough time to do what he expects you to do?” (252)
I know what to do to prepare for a marathon. I know the training runs, the nutrition plans. I know the stretching that will prevent injury, the clothing that will let me run best. I am putting together the counsel that will help me, the attitudes that will encourage me.
But do I know how to arrange the training practices of the spiritual life?
I know the pieces. I’ve studied them and taught them. But I think it’s time to pull together a clearer plan.
And maybe, to help you, too.