Monday, December 5, 2011

The Bad Rap on Repentance

I would start with this text:

Mark 1: 1-15
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord,make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 
6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 
7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 
8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 
10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 
11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 
13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The first few verses of this was the assigned gospel text for the second Sunday in Advent. It's as close as the Gospel of Mark gets to a Christmas story---which is to say the Gospel of Mark doesn't have a Christmas story. But it does have this great opening: The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 It also has a call to repentance in this text. This is often heard---and preached---as a pretty harsh call to consider your sins, to work up some tears and wailing, and be a better person.

Sometimes that is appropriate. Some of us might do well with more examination of our sins, to the point of wailing. Some of us might do well to try to be a better person. (That's the first person use of "some of us," by the way.)

But I don't think that's what's in this text, or at the very least, it's not all that's in this text.

The last line gives us some clue, even if it has "repent" in it. The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news."

Jesus seems to think what he's up to is good news. That we have turned good news into a message of wailing and regret seems rather disappointing, to say the least.

The Greek word for "repent" (and I've known this so long, I want to assume it's common knowledge, but I suspect it's not) is metanoia. Meta=Change (think metamorphosis, the changing or transformation of a physical form). Noia=mind (think paranoid, beside or outside the mind). Metanoia, transformation of the mind. Beyond the literal pieces of the root words, there are also cultural connotations of "changing your heart" or, furthest from the root words, "turn around."

And so I think repentance gets a bad rap. People don't want to be reminded to repent because they hear angry preachers yelling "Sinnaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahs repeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeent!" Even at my lowest, even when I know I've screwed up badly and done a lot of harm, I don't find this to be a helpful shout.

Also the coming of the Reign of God has, thanks to the violence-fueled fantasies of Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye, is often heard as a scary, even bloody coming.

And yet, I believe Jesus when he tells us to "believe the good news." "You're a miserable sinner and God is coming with a kingdom full of power to get you and make you pay" does not strike me as good news.

What is the Reign of God? Is it where sinners meet God and get their just rewards? Or is it where the poor are heirs of God, where the mourning are comforted, where mercy is met with mercy and not derision and violence?

There are, no doubt, those who would argue with me, but I'm betting everything on the latter.

So, here at the end of advent (which at one time was a season of penitence, much like lent, but in my Lutheran tradition has seen the emphasis turn toward a season of hope), I offer this re-imagining of repentance:

Look! The time is now!God is right here at hand and it's a beautiful thing! If you're hungry, come and eat. If you're hurting, come and get healing. If you're mourning, come and get comforted---and if you're none of these things, come and be part of the Reign of God and feed, heal, and comfort! Change your heart, change your mind, change your ways, and believe that you can be a part of this better way! This is good news! The old ways aren't working, and change is possible. Here it again: You can be a part of a better way! Believe it!

Turn with wonder! Turn with awe! Yes, yes, there is fear and trembling at all the ways you think you may not fit into this vision, there are all kinds of ways that it can and will go wrong, but the hope of the whole world depends on this good news that Jesus went about preaching. The Reign of God is right here! Stopping waiting for it! Change your heart and mind and ways---Believe this Good News.

This is the beginning . . .