My scripture reading this morning brought me to this passage, from the Gospel of Luke:
"When John's messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings' courts. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” (When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.)" (Luke 7:24–30)
It's a familiar passage, of course, but this morning it was Luke's commentary that grabbed my attention. His declaration, that the Pharisees and lawyers - the religious elite - had "REJECTED the purpose of God for themselves" by virtue of their not having been baptized by John. This is a striking statement.
It caused me to wonder: What was it about the baptism of John that made it a prerequisite - for these people - for their reception and participation in the purposes of God for their lives and, furthermore, for their ability to receive Jesus, the one toward whom John's ministry would point? And then, the thought emerged: John's baptism was a baptism of repentance.
These religious folks, apparently, did not believe that it was necessary for them to repent.
When the entire countryside had emptied into the wilderness to be baptized by John, to ask the forgiveness of God and re-align themselves with His covenant purposes for them as a people, the Pharisees and lawyers assumed that this renewal movement simply did not apply to them. After all, THEY were the self-appointed guardians of ritual purity in their community. Sure, the riffraff around them naturally had plenty to repent of, and sins to be washed clean from (weren't they themselves always telling them so?), but the RIGHTEOUS had no need to participate in such public displays of penitence, did they?
Unaware in their blinding, religiously held self-righteousness, they rejected the very purposes of God for them. They assumed repentance was irrelevant for them, and they missed it. They missed HIM.
In this season of Lent, it is worth pausing, here. Because we live, today, in a culture that is desperately allergic to repentance. Shuttered up in self-reinforcing media "silos" designed to amplify the merits of our own opinions and thought-tribes while fostering (and monetizing) outrage at the "other", repentance seems outmoded. After all, what have WE to apologize for, when the "other side" seems so obviously, rabidly, wrong? When complex and long-standing evils get reduced to binary, partisan talking points; when we can't face our own sins and the limitations of our own perspectives for fear of losing ground in a political turf war; when the Church is subsumed by unreflective nationalism and driven by fear such that humble self-awareness, empathy and a tangible spirit of grace are lost to us, we can be sure that we, too, have missed it.
When we can't denounce white supremacy.
When we can't mourn with those who mourn.
When we can't take the side of the poor.
When we can't risk our own interests.
When we can't admit our mistakes.
When we can't face the human cost of our political convictions.
When we can't embrace the "other".
When every new tragedy or unveiled systemic evil becomes merely a talking point to be deflected, or leveraged, in our relentless pursuit of remaining unmoved and unchanged... We must repent. Or, we will quite likely find that we have rejected the very purposes of God for us. In truth, no people on the planet should be as well and regularly practiced in the art of repentance as the people of Jesus. Because, in Jesus, we know that we have nothing to fear in having our sins, flaws, and brokenness confessed and laid bare; we know that what we need is not more self-righteousness, but Christ-righteousness. We need forgiveness. We need grace. Knowing this we repent, even joyfully, because we believe and declare that grace is precisely what we have received, in the victory of Christ.
"Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14–15)
Those who believe the Gospel will be marked, not by the defensive, polarized, politicized intransigence so common in our day, but by repentance. May the Church of Jesus so demonstrate the Kingdom to which we belong, today.
*** We weep with the people of Christchurch, New Zealand, in the wake of this week's white-supremacist, deadly terrorist attack upon the Muslim community, there. We repent of any way in which our own national history or present political climate may have inspired, emboldened or be construed to sympathize with such an act. ***