When I hear the word, “Repent” I often think of images like the story of Jonah where Jonah goes into the city of Nineveh with the word of God and the news reaches the king and the whole city repents. According to the text, every person and every animal is dressed in sackcloth and fasts. And everyone cries out to God hoping to escape God’s punishment. In this case, repentance is being extremely sorry, honestly confronting past behavior and turning away from it.
We often confuse apology and repentance. An apology is often part of the act of repenting, because you acknowledge what you have done and the harm you have done. But this has long been a critique of Christians, we apologize for things but we rarely repent, which involves changing our ways. I apologize for the stuff I did last week knowing that I’m going to do much the same stuff this coming week. That is not repentance. That is apology.
It’s important to hear the difference as we encounter Jesus’ summary of the good news in our text today. These four phrases are the key for reading the gospel of Mark. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Everything else in the Gospel of Mark is the confirmation of that message. In this case, repentance is not so much about saying you are sorry, but is much more about change. And in Mark, it is not so much about changing your ways but changing the way you look at world. It is turning away from the shiny objects of this world and refocusing on the realm of God. It is changing how you understand the world works.
We are seeing some of this in the #MeToo movement, especially as we encounter some of the lame excuses that men give for treating women so reprehensibly. “It was a different time,” they will say. “When you’re famous you can do whatever you want,” they will say. “We had no idea that this was happening in our offices,” they will say. Our society is being called to repent, to see things in a new light. To see that this way of treating women or treating any person is broken and unacceptable, even though at one time it might have been considered normal.
We have gone through this kind of repentance before as we look at our history. We used to think that slavery was normal, part of divinely-ordained society, it’s there in the Bible. Now we look back at that time and wonder how anyone could think that. We used to think and are still struggling with racism as a normal way of looking at the world, that some races or nationalities are inherently better than others. I remember my children when they were younger being mystified by the stories and especially the images of segregation, things like drinking fountains and restroom posted by race. They couldn’t understand how anyone could think that way. There has been some measure of repentance.
Jesus also calls us to look at the world in a new way. This was an even more dramatic calling in 1st century Palestine, where, by most accounts, life was pretty difficult for the common Israelite. The Romans were there as an occupying force, levying high taxes on the people. The work simply to make a living was difficult. And you had religious officials who were proclaiming a path of righteousness that was also a lot of work and regulation, a path much easier to follow if you had the free time to observe, the resources to observe a pure Sabbath. And along comes Jesus with the message that says, in the midst of this situation, “The kingdom of God has come near.” Repent. Change the way you look at the world.
He says to people who have been taught that wealth is a divine blessing and poverty a divine curse, “God truly loves the poor.” This difficult life is not separate from the divine. Righteousness is not found is an expanding spiral of rules and regulations, but in simple love for God and one another. This world has been created in the love of God. This world is permeated with the love of God. This life is an extension of the love of God.
In the contemplative tradition, faith happens when we recognize that the love of God is a constant that sustains and supports us in all situations. When we get things right and when we get things wrong, the love of God continues. When life is great and life is hard, the love of God continues. When we are embraced by that constant love, we are free to love others. When we are connected to that infinite love we are free to share because we know that love will not run out or fail us.
And we need to regularly repent, change the way we look at things because the shiny objects of world distract us and turn us away from that love. There is a shiny object that jingles and says, “What you have and how you look is who you are.” There is a shiny object that jangles and says, “What other people think of you is who you are.” There is a shiny object that rattles and says, “Where you come from is who you are.” There is a shiny object that shakes and hums and says, “The good and the bad that you do is who you are.” We see and hear variations of those messages every day and they are tempting and distracting and often just serve to make us feel a little better than someone else.
Repent, says Jesus. The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be. The kingdom of God is near, among you. Repent and believe this good news. The love of God is how you were made and who you are and what you are meant to be.