Repentance: Thoughts for the First Sunday in Lent

The Gospel text for the First Sunday in Lent (Mark 1:9-15) doesn’t come from the Passion account of our Lord’s final week before the crucifixion. It comes from the beginning of his public ministry. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Many of us are accustomed to reading this text as saying that there is further good news, that the gospel is something other than what Jesus announced here–the kingdom of God has come near. As a result, we are prone to thinking that the we must supply the missing information, which we do by telling people to confess their sins and ask Jesus to forgive them so that when the kingdom does come, or rather that we go to the kingdom (somewhere) when we die, we will be part of the throng, among the citizens. Well, yes, and no to that idea.

As Scot McKnight has explained quite clearly in The King Jesus Gospel, we haven’t always distinguished between the good news itself–the kingdom of God is coming–and the means by which we enter that kingdom and the nature of our participation therein. The good news, the gospel, is that God’s reign is at hand. And because it is, the only response we can make is enter that reign by way of repentance. Literally, this means a change of mind. I’m reminded of the preaching of Paul on the day of Pentecost, culminating in the declaration that this Jesus whom they had crucified God had been raised and made both Lord and Christ. When the listeners were struck to the core by this fact, they wanted to know how to respond: repent and be baptized.

Just what is it about which we are to change our minds? Our sins? Yes, of course. But that relates to the saving work of Christ; it’s how we enter the gate to the kingdom. But what about the reign of Christ? To refer to Jesus as “Lord and Christ,” terms which relate the reign of Christ differently to Jews and Greeks, is to announce something larger than the forgiveness of individual sins. It says that he is now the king, fulfilling what Jesus had begun announcing in the beginning of his ministry. So what? Glad you asked.

To say that Jesus is Lord, or that Jesus reigns as king, or that he is above all rule, power, and authority is to call every other ruler, power, or authority to task. He relativizes each and every one of them. And sooner or later we come to recognize that we have offered submission to lesser lords, lesser powers. And we must repent. We must learn anew to live in the kingdom not of this world, even while it rages around us, threatening to undo us.

Who are these other lords, powers, rulers, and authorities? There are many possible answers. They include governments, to be sure; and many a believer has refused to bow to them when allegiance to the true Lord would be compromised thereby. More frequently, however, are we all tempted and occasionally held hostage by other powers, forgetting or not learning in the first place, that Christ is above them. Economics; politics; public opinion; fear; doubt; disease; hardship; pain; mourning; entertainment; leisure. All of these are very much a part of the world we live in, and all threaten at times to climb beyond their appointed boundaries and ultimately convince us to serve them, offering our best energies, gifts, and resources to their service.

Could it be that our giving of allegiance to these inadequate rulers is what leads us to commit the “personal” sins we usually think of with calls for repentance? Do we make our decisions in life in deference to them instead of to the kingdom of God?

That is the call for repentance on this First Sunday in Lent. I suspect it is one we must always be alert to hearing and heeding. But to declare “Jesus is Lord” is to continually keep all others in their place beneath him. The good news is that his kingdom has come near; his rule above all these can now be made real in our lives and in our world. It really is the good news, the gospel: God reigns over all.

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