In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
(Matthew 3:1-2, ESV)
To many of us I think the word “repent” conjures up visions of angry Baptists picketing funerals or rock concerts, or maybe of old-school preachers raining down fire and brimstone every Sunday morning to people who are supposedly already in a right relationship with God. (No, I don’t really understand why that’s a thing. But I digress.)
The reality is very different. John the Baptist’s heraldry — his announcement that the king had arrived and his kingdom had come — is the polar opposite of angry judgment. It’s light breaking out over a dark horizon, announcing that the day has come. It’s hope.
Whenever there’s a sudden change of kingship in the world — not the kind that comes because an old king dies and his heir takes the throne, but the kind that comes from a radical revolution or a coup or a conquering of one nation by another, all of which is the kind that Jesus’s coming was — it’s very good news for some people and very bad news for others.
Good news for those who supported and allied with the new king.
Bad news for those who opposed him.
That’s why John’s call to repentance has such an urgent, warning tone to it: A new king is here. The old one has been ousted. If you’re on the wrong side, you’re in trouble.
But that’s where it gets beautiful. Because he didn’t come crying “Flee!” He didn’t come crying, “Never dare show your face here again.”
He came crying “Repent.”
The word means turn.
Turn around. Go the other way. Change your mind.
In this case, it means the new king wants peace. He wants reconciliation. He wants YOU.
Far more than he wants to judge you, he wants to bring you into his kingdom as a friend.
And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:9-10, ESV)
“Repent” is the sound of Love calling out to the broken and huddled in shadows, lonely for home and fearful of ever facing the Father again, “Come home, it’s okay, we can be whole again.”
Repent means there is hope when we thought all hope was lost.
Repent means the new regime is good and gracious toward you, and you’re invited into the new power, the new wealth, the new freedom, the new day.
Repent is a second chance. It is the sweet sound of chains falling away.
There are no limits. The call went out to sinners and saints, seekers and hypocrites, Romans and Jews, prostitutes and Pharisees and disciples.
The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It’s here. It’s as close as your fingertips. The king has come. The takeover has happened.
Do it today.
If you are walking away from God, turn around.
If you are caught in sin, call out for freedom.
If you are stuck in bitterness and darkness and selfishness and pride, change.
That’s what “repent” means.
In my own life, I have experienced the beauty of repentance when, at various points, God has course-corrected my heart or actions. He rebukes, and there’s always a little sting in it, but with his rebuke comes the incredible freedom of clarity and the power to take a different path.
Let me say that again:
Repentance is the power to take a different path.
Isn’t that, more than anything, what we need?
Lost and lonely, beaten and broken, estranged and at enmity, dehumanized, deformed, defiled. Going the wrong way and feeling powerless to stop ourselves. We can change. We can walk a different road. We can go home.
Back in Matthew 1:21, an angel told Joseph to name Mary’s son Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.”
Repent. For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.