Return, not repent

I frequently drive by this train trestle on my way to centering prayer. I finally decided to take the time to stop and photograph it. This required that I drive past it and park at the entrance to a neighborhood and walk back.  There is no shoulder to the bridge I stood on so I had to be very mindful of traffic, and pray they would notice me.  I had not planned to do this so I wasn’t wearing bright clothing.  Army green is a neutral in my world.

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I admire the effort required to write this, and I love the colors and font. The word on it – repent – is problematic. The English word “Repent” has such weight. The original Hebrew word is “tshuvah”, which means “to return”. It isn’t about “paying for your sins” but turning away from them and walking towards life. Every moment of every day we have a choice – to choose life or choose death. And every time we make an unhealthy choice, we get the opportunity once again to turn around and get going in the right direction again. It isn’t about penance at all.

Consider when the Psalmist says in Psalm 103:12 –

“As far as the east is from the west / So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

– that the distance from east and west is simply a matter of direction, instead of distance.  If you are walking east, all you have to do to walk west is turn around.

God doesn’t care how far you are along the path of life – just as long as you are walking along it.  God cares which direction you are pointed.

When you notice that you’ve gotten turned around and are headed in the wrong direction (this is part of being human and happens to all of us) then all you have to do is turn back around towards Light and Life and the Lord.

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Parable of the lost coin

“What woman doesn’t light a lamp and thoroughly search the house from top to bottom if she loses a single silver coin out of the ten she has? She will call together her female friends and neighbors when she finds it, saying ‘Let’s celebrate, because I’ve found my lost coin!’ Truly, the angels before God are just as joyful when one sinner repents.”

LK 15:8-10

Repent or perish

Around this time some people told him that Pilate had killed some people from Galilee while they were offering their sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus responded to them by saying “Do you think that because of how they died they must be more sinful than other Galileans? They weren’t. But you’ll also perish if you don’t repent! Do you think that the 18 people who were killed when the tower in Siloam collapsed were more sinful than everyone else in Jerusalem? They weren’t. But you’ll perish too if you don’t repent!”

LK 13:1-5

Unconditional God

Jacob, not yet Israel, said to God in Genesis 28:20-21:

20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me.”

He’s just had his amazing dream in the desert, and set up a small rock as a reminder that this is where God spoke with him.

Note all the conditions he gives. If you do this, then I’ll do this. He’s making demands of God.

Moses said to the family of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:1-6:

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, 3 then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live.

This is the other way around. If you, as a people, do these things, then God will do these things for you.

In the first section, God has to do the work first. In the second, the people have to do the work.

It isn’t unconditional in these stories, but it is interesting to see that the focus has changed. Instead of us demanding more from God, they are demanding more from themselves. It is more mature, but it is still conditional. It is if-then. Not that God loves you anyway, but that love is dependent on another’s actions – even if that other is God.

What chutzpah to demand anything of God! And how sad to think that God won’t love you regardless.

But then Jesus says in Luke 15:11-2 (the story of the prodigal son)

11 He also said: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. 15 Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23 Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

The father had never given up on him. All he had to do was return, and the father ran to him. Note verse 20 – “…while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.”

This is how our Heavenly Father is. We have to return and all is forgiven.

Likewise, we are to forgive others in the same way. Peter asked Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22 – how often must we forgive someone? And Jesus said that as many times as they ask for forgiveness, you must forgive them.

God gives us unconditional love. We are to share this love with the world. In the same way that we are forgiven, we are to forgive.

This is Heaven on Earth.

(All Bible translations are HCSB)

Ministry in Galilee

After Jesus found out that John had been arrested, he returned to Galilee filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea in the area of Zebulon and Naphtali.

This fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah who said “Land of Zebulon and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! For everyone who lives in darkness has seen a great light, and for those who live in the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”

News about him spread through the entire area. He was teaching in the synagogues there and was praised by everyone. From that time on he began to preach the good news of God saying “The time is at hand and the kingdom of God has arrived! Repent and believe in the good news!”

MT 4:12-17, MK 1:14-15, LK 4:14-15

The beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist

God sent John to serve as a witness to testify about the light that is Christ, so that everyone could believe through that light. John himself was not the light, but he came to tell others about it. The true light, who gives enlightenment to everyone, was about to be revealed to the world. Christ was in the world and the world was created through Christ, yet the world did not recognize him. He came to those he was called to and yet they did not welcome him. But to those who did welcome him, he gave them the honor of being the children of God. Those who believed in Christ were born out of the will of God and not by way of genealogy or human desire.

The word of God that is Christ took on human form and lived among us. We saw his glory as the only begotten Son of the heavenly Father, and that glory was full of grace and truth.

John testified about him by telling people “This is the One I was talking about when I said ‘There is someone who is coming after me, who is greater than I am because he existed before me.’ Indeed we have all received blessing upon blessing from him, because even though the Law was given through Moses, Christ has brought us the grace of forgiveness. No one has ever seen God, but he has been revealed to us through his one and only Son, who is at the Father’s side.”

JN 1:6-18

God’s word came to John the son of Zechariah while he was in the wilderness. This was in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea. At the same time, Herod was the ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruled the region of Iturea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruled Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were high priests during this time as well.

John went out into the wilderness of Judea and everywhere around the Jordan, preaching about a baptism to forgive sins for those who are repentant. He was saying “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has arrived.” Everyone from the countryside of Judea and the city of Jerusalem came to him and he baptized them in the Jordan River while they confessed their sins.

He is the one the prophet Isaiah spoke about when he said –

“Look! I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare the way before you. He is a lone voice crying out into the wilderness, saying ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight!’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked path will straighten, the rough path will become smooth, and the entire world will see God’s salvation.”

MT 3:1-3, MK 1:1-5, LK 3:1-6

John’s clothing was made of camel hair and he wore a leather belt around his waist. He ate only locusts and wild honey.

MT 3:4, MK 1:6

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him, he said “You are a nest of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the wrath that is coming? You need to act in a way that proves you are repentant. Don’t think you can get away with saying ‘We have Abraham as our father’, because God can produce children for Abraham from the stones that are here! Even now the ax is poised to chop away at the root of the tree! Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”

MT 3:7-10, LK 3:7-9

The crowds asked John “What should we do?” He answered “Anyone who has two shirts should give one to the person who has nothing to wear, and if you have extra food you should give it to those who are hungry.” Tax collectors came to be baptized by him and they asked “What should we do?” He answered “Collect only what you are required to by law and nothing more.” Soldiers questioned him in the same manner and he replied “Don’t use force or false accusations to extort money from anyone – be satisfied with what you get paid.”

LK 3:10-14

All the people were debating amongst themselves if John was the Messiah or not. Priests and Levites were sent from Jerusalem to ask him “Who are you?” John said “I am not the Messiah.” Then they asked him “Are you Elijah?” John again said no. Then they asked him “Are you the Prophet?” John again answered “No.” “Then who are you?” they asked. “We have to give an answer to the people who sent us. What do you have to say about yourself?” John said “I am a lone person crying out in the wilderness – Make straight the path of the Lord – just like the prophet Isaiah said.”

LK 3:15, JN 1:19-23

Since they had been sent from the Pharisees they asked him “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet?”

John said “I baptize using water, but there is One coming after me who is more powerful than I am. I am not even worthy to take off his shoes. He will baptize you using the Holy Spirit and fire. He stands among you but you don’t recognize him. He is ready to separate the good from the bad, just like how a farmer gathers the good wheat into his barn but burns the chaff in an unending fire.”

He used many other similar warnings to announce the good news of the kingdom of heaven to everyone. All this happened across the Jordan in Bethany, where John was baptizing.

MT 3:11-12, MK 1:7-8, LK 3:16-18, JN 1:24-28

The parable of the two sons.

“What do you think about this story? There was once a man who had two sons. He asked the first one to work in the vineyard, and the son refused, yet later he changed his mind and went to work. When the man asked his second son to work in the vineyard, that son said he would but then he didn’t go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they replied.

“Mark my words, tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of Heaven before any of you! John the Baptist came to warn you about your evil ways and you didn’t repent and return to God. The tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even when you saw this happening for yourself, you refused to change your minds and believe John’s message.”

MT 21:28-32