If you take a close look at today’s gospel lesson Jesus’ first words are “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” These words sound like John’s words in the wilderness where he is proclaiming that the kingdom of God is near and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance seems to be the idea that links these two men together. However, if you look closely at the ministry of John the Baptist and the ministry of Jesus it becomes strikingly obvious that they had two completely different ideas in regards to repentance. We tend to think of repentance in the same way that John did to turn away from our sins and follow God and therefore our understanding of repentance is strongly tied to the concept of sin. Now, this is definitely one form of repentance, but the Old Testament another definition and that is to change one’s mind and to choose a different path. It means to let go of your understanding of others and to show compassion. Our Old Testament reading from Jonah is a perfect example of both forms of repentance.
We kind of jumped in late to the Jonah story today and cut out all the juicy bits like getting swallowed by a great big fish and rather we focused on the actions of the Ninevites and God’s response. As you know God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and tell them to repent of their sins or else God would destroy their city. In response to God’s command Jonah took off in the opposite direction and hopped a ship headed as far away from Nineveh as he could possibly get. Why? Because the last thing Jonah wants is for the Ninevites to repent. The people of Nineveh have invaded the northern kingdom to the point of ruin and Jonah wants them punished not forgiven. And quite frankly I get Jonah’s position Nineveh, of Assyria, has wreaked total and utter havoc on Israel and there just isn’t room in his heart for forgiveness.
Due to mitigating circumstances; such as being thrown overboard and being swallowed by a great fish, Jonah goes to Nineveh and tells the people to repent. However, Jonah only goes a day’s journey and doesn’t go the whole three days journey. I mean he’ll do it, but he isn’t going to try too hard. The people of Nineveh take to heart Jonah’s message and they repent of their sins. Now, this is the interesting part according to the RSV, King James Version, and the Hebrew Scripture it says that God saw how the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways and God repented. Hold on! God repented? How can God repent? Maybe the repentance that the Hebrew scripture is alluding to has nothing to do with sin, but in God changing God’s mind and taking a different path. When one looks at repentance as changing your focus and following a different course of action; then, we need to look at Jesus’ understanding of repentance in regards to his initial proclamation and in calling the disciples. Before we go there I want to point out that Jonah never repents of his initial desire to have Nineveh destroyed and the book ends with Jonah sulking because God is merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love even for Israel’s enemies.
So let us take a close look at Jesus, and what he means by “repent” especially in conjunction with the calling of the disciples. Jesus is the incarnation of the God who is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. When Jesus says the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near what Jesus is proclaiming is that God has turned in Jesus and through Jesus God will bring about God’s peace. This is radically different than what John was expecting, all of Israel were looking forward to, and what the disciples were anticipating. Israel was like Jonah and they wanted God’s kingdom to come so that the infidels that have possessed their great country for centuries will be utterly destroyed and the kingdom of Israel will be theirs again. John the Baptist believed that if everyone repented of their sins and turned to God the fulfillment of the kingdom of God would happen. The Pharisees and the religious leaders believed that if everyone would live by the law then the kingdom of God would happen. Jesus, on the other hand, knew that God had “repented” and turned to His Son to bring about the kingdom of God. From the get go these two opposing ideas were on a collision course that would eventually lead to the cross. Why? Because Jesus’ understanding of God’s actions through him was that the whole world would be saved. Israel just wouldn’t and couldn’t go there because in many ways they were still sitting under a bush angry with the way things were playing out.
When the disciples were called to follow Jesus they were called to follow his way of bringing about the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe they had a clue what they were in for when they left their boats and nets behind because they still carried their own baggage of expectations when they followed Jesus. The disciples still had all the expectations of a Messiah who would be like King David and throw out the Gentiles. I would even venture to say that the disciples didn’t dump those expectations until after the resurrection. It took three years of instruction, the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus for the disciples to grasp what God was doing in and through Jesus. It took them all that time to understand that God was leading them on a journey of repentance where they understood God’s will and plan that is the good news of Jesus. Furthermore, it took all that time for them to figure out that what God is achieving through Christ is for all people and not just Israel. It was a tough lesson that cost Jesus his life, but it gave the world salvation.
Sometimes I think the church has taken the place of Jonah and Israel. We have our minds so made up of exactly how God should work in the world and how the church should function that we have lost our way. We get wrapped up in what we want from the church that we forget our bigger purpose. There is a quote that I love that sums up the purpose of the church beautifully and it is “The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of those who are not its members.” You heard me right. We are not here for ourselves. Rather, we are here to bring the good news of Jesus to those who have not heard it yet. Just like the disciples had to leave their comfort zone of their village, family, careers, and also their understanding of God so do we. We have to look around us and ask ourselves how we can share the gospel in ways that reach those who have not heard it yet. What comfort zone is God telling me to step away from? What am I holding onto that is hindering the sharing of the gospel? How can we, like God, the disciples, Jesus, repent and see the world differently?
The Oregon Synod wants each congregation to ask itself two essential questions. First, what does God want for our congregation? Second, what does God want from our congregation? I think one answer to both of those questions is repentance. That is to repent of our sins and to turn towards Christ. My goodness if God is humble enough to repent don’t you think we can too?