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Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
This morning I’d like to talk about repentance. First of all, it’s Lent, and liturgically speaking Lent’s a “season of repentance.” But more than that, in today’s reading from Mark, we have Jesus’ first public words. “Repent,” he said, “the Kingdom of God has come near.” Repent! This is the word Jesus wanted to frame his entire ministry, which means we won’t understand what it means to grow in Christ unless we get repentance.
But what exactly is it? I’ll never forget watching a movie called The Mission in a 9th grade religion class. And in this one scene, Robert De Niro’s character, who’s lived a pretty evil life, decides to change his ways. And so the priest gives him a penance, which is to drag this bundle of stones up and down a mountain. Now, this bundle is unbearably heavy. In fact, it nearly crushes him. And I’ll never forget when my teacher paused that movie as De Niro was about to die trying to atone for his sins and saying, “Look! Now that is repentance.” But was she right? Is repentance what we do to atone for our sins? Should repentance make us feel guilty and unworthy? Because – in today’s Gospel Jesus did not say, “repent, and feel terrible!” He said, “Repent and believe the good news.”
Henry Nouwen once said that repentance is about “reclaiming our true identity.” Again, it’s reclaiming our true identity. And using this reading from Mark as our template, I want to define repentance as a continual process that involves three things: (1) a trip to the wilderness, (2) confirmation of an identity and (3) wholeheartedly embracing the good news. Again, repentance is about a trip to the wilderness, it’s about our identity, and it’s about embracing the good news.
And so first, repentance starts with a trip to the wilderness. Now notice, I said a trip; not our trip. Because in the Bible – whenever we go into the wilderness things always go badly. The people of Israel spent forty years there and if you want an accurate view of human nature just read about their experience. The Israelites were not faithful to God in the wilderness, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. You see, there’s something inside our hearts that inhibits us from being faithful, and that inhibitor we call sin. And if we think our willpower’s what going to help us overcome our sin, we’ll find ourselves frustrated, time and time again, and our growth will level out. And so we rush off into the wilderness alone and just “try harder” to be better Christians.
Now, today you’re kicking off Monvee, a tool designed to help us grow spiritually by opening our eyes to what it is that gets in our way. I’ve done Monvee. I’m a Joseph. My primary inhibitor is anger. And I won’t lie. When I read that I got really ticked off. But here’s what’s fascinating. It’s actually Monvee’s nine inhibitors – anger, self-centeredness, dishonesty, envy, pride of knowledge, anxiety, greed, misplaced desires, and inaction – these are what kept Israel from being faithful in the wilderness. And they keep us from being faithful as well.
And so repentance is not about trying harder to be like Jesus. Because – you and I don’t need a model, or the perfect example to teach us how to live. What we need is a Representative. We need someone to do something for us that we cannot do for ourselves. And that’s why today’s Gospel isn’t about us going into the wilderness. It’s about Jesus going into the wilderness for us. Because – you can tell me to try harder to dunk a basketball on a ten foot goal, but I’ve an inhibitor – it’s called being five foot six. And trying harder’s not going to work. The same is true when it comes to our spiritual growth. And so repentance doesn’t begin when we go into the wilderness. It begins with our Lord Jesus Christ going there on our behalf.
But second, Jesus goes there for a purpose – and that’s to secure for us a new identity. You see there’s just something we’re all desperate for – and that’s a need to know we have worth. Our problems in life don’t come from not having faith; they come from putting our faith in the wrong things. We think a relationship will give us worth – but we break up, or the spark dies, and we’re back to feeling worthless. We think power will give us worth, so we climb the ladder and make it to the top, but then we’re empty because nothing’s there.
We are driven by our need for worth, and that drive is so strong we’ll put our faith in whatever we think will give it to us – success, money, approval, our kids, our job, or the great danger, our ability to keep all the religious rules. I mean, that’s what made the Pharisees feel “worthy,” and Jesus’ harshest criticism was reserved for them. But we’re all chasing something because we think that – whatever that is – will make us special, important, a somebody – because we think it’ll give us worth.
I would like to read you a quote, which comes from a leading thinker in today’s world.
I have an iron will, and all of my will has always been to conquer some horrible feeling of inadequacy. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being, and then I get to another stage and think I'm mediocre and uninteresting, again and again. My drive in life is from this horrible fear of being mediocre. And that's always pushing me. Because even though I've become somebody, I still have to prove I'm somebody. My struggle has never ended and it probably never will.
Anyone know who said that? It’s Madonna. You guys really need to read more Vogue magazine.
Or do you remember what Rocky said when he was trying to convince Adrienne that he needed to fight Apollo Creed? “I’m a nobody. I really don’t care if this guy splits open my head because all I want to do is go the distance. If I can go that distance, I’ll know for the first time in my life I’m not just another bum.”
It’s a question we’re all concerned with, and it’s a question the Gospel’s concerned with, how do we know that we’re not just another bum? Who or what gives us an identity? How do we know we have worth?
Well, when Jesus Christ was baptized he heard a voice. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Here’s my question. Have you heard God say that to you? Are you in the habit of hearing God say that to you? And if our gut reaction is “I’m not good enough,” we don’t yet get the Gospel. Because repentance is not about something we do, but about something our Lord has done for us – and that’s give us His very own identity, His status as a beloved, righteous, accepted, perfect child of God.
Perhaps the best definition of sin I’ve ever heard comes from Tim Keller, who says “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship with God.” And that’s why repentance isn’t about trying harder. It’s about reclaiming our true identity; because the good news of the Christian Gospel is that when we put our faith in Christ God says to us the exact same thing God said to Jesus. “You are my Son, my daughter, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And so what this means is that we are not our reputation. We are not what we feel. We are not our achievements. We are not our mistakes. We are not our portfolio. We are not our IQ. Our name, our worth, has nothing to do with that; because in Christ, God gives His name, his worth, his righteousness to us freely as a gift.
And that’s why repentance is about embracing the good news. You know that’s what the word Gospel means, right? It doesn’t mean good advice, the word Gospel means good news. And the good news that Jesus Christ when into the wilderness for us. He lived the life we should have lived, and he died the death we should have died; because the cross, that was the ultimate wilderness. I want you to think back to Robert De Niro, whose penance was to carry that bundle of stones up and down the mountain. Those stones are a metaphor for our sin. And the weight of those stones is unbearably heavy. I mean, it nearly killed him. Let us not think repentance is about shouldering that burden ourselves. It’s about turning to the One who shouldered that burden for us a name, a worth and an identity that we’ll never find anywhere else.
Monvee growth challenge
Now what does this have to do with Monvee? Well, spiritual growth isn’t the byproduct of something we do, but the fruit of rooting ourselves deeper in something that’s been done for us – and more specifically I’m thinking of Jesus’ atoning death on a cross.
For example, think of garden. If we frantically try digging up a newly planted seed to check its progress, it won’t grow. But it’s when we till the soil, and add some water and light and above all else pull the weeds, that’s when a plant will grow – from what I’ve heard. We need to know the weeds that threaten to choke our spiritual life. Mine’s anger. Maybe yours is anxiety, or pride, or if haven’t yet taken the assessment, it’s probably inaction. But behind each and every one of these things always is a refusal to find our deepest identity in God. For Madonna it’s “proving she’s a somebody,” for Rocky it was “going the distance.” How do you know that you’re not a bum? What are you chasing?
Because, the good news of the Christian Gospel is that God is chasing us, and that through faith God has planted us in His Son Jesus, who went into the wilderness for us and resisted Satan where we always give in; and he did that, not as a model, but to represent us before His Father, to give us his identity as a beloved Son of God; not because we’re lovely, but to make us lovely; not because we’re good, but because he is; not because of anything we do, but because of what He did, in his life and on the cross, on our behalf.
“The Kingdom of God has come near; repent, believe, and grow – grow in the good news.”