For Epiphany, the season that just ended, I emphasized the first half of the verse, the part about what God does, the part about God’s kingdom coming to us in Jesus Christ. That is the good news that Christ proclaims, the good news that Christ makes real, the good news that we celebrate every week. That is the point of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means manifestation of God, the God who comes to us, the God who meets us where we are.
But today is the first Sunday of Lent. And for Lent we need to focus on the second half of the verse, on the part about what we do in response to Christ’s good news. The kingdom of God has come near, so, Christ says, we should repent.
The two clauses go together. The good news of God who comes to us in Jesus Christ comes first. As a result of that good news, as a result of our encounter with God in Jesus Christ, we come to a better understanding of who we are before God, and of how we fall short of who God calls us to be.
And so, because the kingdom has come near, we repent. We repent of whatever stands in the way of us living as God’s beloved children, created in God’s own image and likeness, redeemed by Jesus Christ, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
But true Christian repentance can be a little tricky.
It is possible to go too far with repentance, to get so wrapped up in our sinfulness, our shame, our sense of unworthiness, that we come to think of ourselves as unloved and unlovable.
That is most certainly not what Christ means when he calls us to repent. Christ comes bringing good news, the good news that God loves us so much that God gave his only begotten Son that we might have life. That is the theme for this week from our Lenten program on “Meeting Jesus in the Gospel of John.” Our prayer this week has been that God will help us to know, to really know, that we are deeply and unconditionally loved by God, now and always.
True repentance does not blind us to God’s enduring love for us. True repentance is our response to God’s love for us. True repentance comes from our desire to be more worthy of the God who loves us so deeply.
But if it is possible to go too far with repentance, it is equally possible neglect repentance altogether, to settle for being nice.
Each night, I take a few minutes to review my day and confess my sins. As I have acknowledged before, I normally can’t think of many sins. But that is just because I have accepted a disgracefully low standard for myself.
God calls us to greatness. God calls us to be saints. God calls us to perfect love. If I confessed every way in which I fail the obligation of perfect love, I would be confessing all night!
So, where do our low standards come from? Why do so many Christian people, like me!, settle for being nice when Jesus is quite clear that we are called to be better than that?
I once heard a speaker explain that most of us take our moral cues from the people around us. We all want to think of ourselves as good people, and what counts as good, or at least as OK, is what other people are doing.
That is all too true for me. So, for example, I think we should all obey the law. Except, of course, in the car. When I am driving, laws feel more like suggestions for me to take or leave as I see fit. I don’t like getting caught violating some traffic law, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I am perfectly comfortable ignoring speed limits because everybody ignores speed limits, which must mean that it is OK to ignore speed limits.
Now, we all probably should obey speed limits, but that is not my real concern. My real concern is the more general impact that our culture has on our values. My real concern is the way we come to assume that some things are OK without much reflection simply because they are common. My real concern is that we are too often typically American rather than faithfully Christian.
Jesus’ teachings can be pretty uncompromising. We know that, but we don’t always pay a lot of attention to it. If we did, we would have to think deeply about many of the fundamental institutions in our common life.
Jesus says to forgive our brothers and sisters not seven times, but seventy-seven times. What does that mean for our criminal justice system? Jesus says to turn the other cheek. What does that suggest about our muscular diplomacy? Jesus says to lend without expecting a return, much less interest. What does that suggest about our financial system? Jesus says that anger is like murder. What does that suggest about the tone of our politics? Jesus says that to look at another person with lust in our hearts is like committing adultery. What does that suggest about our advertising and our entertainment?
The point is simple. We come to take for granted things that Jesus himself explicitly condemns just because they are a normal part of American life.
Now, life is complicated. I am glad we have a justice system, and a military, and banks, and so on. I couldn’t live my life without them.
But as Christian people we need to take seriously the things that Jesus says. And we need to wrestle with those things that seem to conflict with what our culture takes to be normal.
That doesn’t mean we have to reject our cultural institutions. But it does mean we need to repent when we, individually and as a culture, fail to live like Jesus, as we do, as we always will, as every generation and every culture does. We need to repent because we are called to be better. We are called to be saints. We are called to perfect love.
Lent is the season above all others in which the Church invites us to serious self-examination and repentance. That is an invitation to go deeper, to examine not only our behavior but our values themselves. That is an invitation to do what we can to conform more closely to the life Christ calls us to lead.
But repentance must always be rooted in the good news of Jesus Christ. We can only go deep, we can only engage in the hard work of true repentance, when we do so in the knowledge that we are and always will be God’s beloved children. God’s love is the only thing that can give us the strength to repent as Christ calls us to do.
And so this Lent I encourage you to take seriously the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, and that Christ invites us to live as part of it. And I encourage you to do the work of self-examination and repentance that can help us live as God wants us to live, in God’s kingdom.
And I say that in the name of Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.