What if you heard this and then what actually came onto the screen was Strictly Come Dancing. How would you feel? You might enjoy both – but what you were expecting was football. You’d been looking forward to it for some time. If you’re our vicar you’re probably wearing your Leicester City shirt…
At best, you’ll feel confused – at worst, deeply disappointed.
That’s how John was feeling – confused.
He’d been proclaiming the advent – the coming – of God’s Kingdom. He’d been proclaiming the coming of the Messiah – of God’s chosen one – who would set them free.
And of course he knew what that meant. Didn’t every good Jew know what that meant? It meant that the Romans would be thrown out, that the Jews would once again be in control of their own land – and even more than that, it meant that God’s rule would spread through the whole world. Everyone would see and acknowledge that their God is the one true God. Everyone would live by God’s laws – the 10 commandments along with all the other details of interpretation which had grown up around the original 10 basic principles for living God’s way.
And of course Jesus would know that.
So when John pointed to Jesus and encouraged his followers to follow Jesus instead, that’s what he was expecting Jesus to do.
And I daresay as Jesus’ cousin and as the one whose calling it was to prepare the people for the coming of the messiah by calling them to repentance, John also assumed that he would hold a position of prominence in the Kingdom.
Then it all went wrong.
John was arrested by Herod and was facing an extremely uncertain and probably short future.
He had a crisis of faith.
Have you ever had one of those? I suspect most if not all of us have, and it can be one of the scariest things.
It can feel as if the rug has been pulled out from under you.
All you once believed, built your life upon, seems to crumble.
All the old certainties are gone.
You’re not even sure, if you’re honest, that there is a God…
Such an experience can have one of three outcomes.
- The person becomes an atheist and puts the energy once put in observance of their faith into attacking the church and those who still believe.
- The person is so shaken that they bury all the doubts and questions very, very deep and instead put all of their energies into shoring up the outward observance of their faith. That’s what the Pharisees and Sadducees did. What became important was religious practice – observance of every tiny detail of the law, often at the expense of the deep needs of those around them. That kind of response can make us judgmental, excluding, critical, angry.
- The person allows the uncertainty to surface, allows the old images and ideas about God to crumble and finds that, once that’s happened, a new, deeper awareness begins to grow. They find that the reality is not what they were expecting.
So what had caused John’s crisis of faith?
John had called the people to repentance. The Greek word is Metanoia, which means to change your mind, to have a change of heart.
Over the years, too often the word repent has been used to mean feeling sorry, admitting our guilt. That’s likely to be how we feel when we realise we’ve got it wrong – but that’s not what God wants from us. What God wants, what God calls us to, is a change of mind, of heart, of attitude.
We make repentance about changing lifestyles and maybe sometimes that is what is called for.
But God is after more than that. Changing things in our lives can of course be a holy thing, but repentance isn’t just about cleaning up our act. Because what metanoia means is to snap out of it, to think new thoughts…
And that is the challenge of Jesus, first to John, then to those he lived amongst, and now to us.
Jesus challenged John to repent – to have a change of mind – by sending back a message saying “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” John needed to repent from – turn from – his sincere but wrong ideas about the nature of God’s Kingdom and to repent to – turn to – the truth about the nature of God’s kingdom.
His answer to John is to say “look at me. Look at how I live. Look at my priorities. Look at how I relate to others, how I deal with them. This is the true meaning of the Kingdom, and the kingdom is being built right here, right now.”
His challenge to us is the same.
Jesus calls us to repentance.
Not to be sorry, but to turn.
To turn towards God.
To be open to changing our minds, our ideas about God.
To be open to the possibility that maybe the kingdom isn’t after all how we thought it was.
So what is the nature of the kingdom as revealed in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus?
John thought – and all too often we think – that judgment comes first. The main emphasis in our thinking is on God judging us, telling us we’re doing it wrong, threatening eternal fire unless we clean up our act.
If that’s how we understand God, then we live in fear – and all too often we deal with that fear by projecting it onto others. We condemn, we criticise, we require obedience to rules and maintaining the status quo. “Live right (where “right” is too often defined as “in the socially acceptable way I learned as a child”) and you’ll be OK when you die”.
Jesus lived a life full of mercy and healing, not judgment.
This comes to culmination on the cross – he prays for those who have hammered in the nails “father, forgive them”.
We also finally truly understand this in his response to the repentant thief. The thief turned to Jesus, asked for mercy, and Jesus promised him immediate entry into paradise – heaven. Remember, this thief was hanging on a cross, suffering beyond our imagining – far too late to turn his life around and give up stealing. His repentance was to turn towards Jesus, to enter into relationship with Jesus.
Jesus calls us to do the same.
To repent – to turn towards him.
And first and foremost to see as we gaze into his eyes just how deeply he loves us.
To receive from him mercy for our sins.
To know that we are accepted, forgiven, called to service even before we have made ourselves perfect.
Because I don’t know about you, but I’ll never manage to make myself perfect.
The Gospel – the Good news – is that God doesn’t need us to make ourselves perfect.
So in our imperfection but secure beyond words in the love of Jesus towards us, then and only then we are able to become ourselves agents for the continuing spread of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, showing love, mercy, forgiveness and compassion to all without judgment.
Let’s end with a brief mediation. Close your eyes focus on God’s presence with us…
‘I love you’ says God
‘yeah… right…’ say I
‘I love you’ says God
‘you’re kidding…’ say I
‘I love you’ says God
‘you reckon?…’ say I
‘I love you’ says God
‘How much?’ say I
‘This much’ says God
As with arms open wide
He is lifted on high,
Sighs as I sigh,
Cries as I cry,
Dies as I die
And in the silence
‘I love you’
Says ‘See? It’s no lie’
As He calls me to