The Kingdom of Heaven is Near

hqdefaultTo read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on Matthew 4:12-17

I always enjoy humorous emails and not too long ago I received one entitled, “The World According to Student Bloopers”. These were a short collection of bloopers from actual reports written by students. Among my favorites were the following:

“History called people Romans because they never remained in one place for very long.”

“The inhabitants of Egypt were called mummies. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cul- tivated by irritation. The Egyptians built the Pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube. The Pramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain.”

“One of the causes of the Revolutionary War was that the English put tacks (t-a-c-k-s) in their tea. Finally, the colonists won the Revolutionary War and no longer had to pay for taxis. ”

I think these bloopers illustrate how we can know a little about a subject matter, and still not know what we need to know about the subject. I believe that might be the case in the subject I want to explore this morning. This subject matter is on the concept that was introduced in our gospel lesson this morning, repent or repentance. Repent is certainly a word that appears often in the Bible. In Scripture we can see that the word repent is found in 39 different verses. The word repentance is found in 21 different verses. The word repents, (plural form) is found in 5 different verses. The word repented (past tense) is found in 9 different verses. Seventy-four different times in Scripture some variation of the word repent is shared. This is a subject that I’ve come to understand in new and different ways over the years.

One of my first recollections of the word repent in a theological sense came from a joke my great uncle, the late Rev. Herbert Weber, shared with my confirmation class when I was twelve years old. The joke was about a painter who was repainting the top of the church steeple and noticed that he was running low on paint. Seeing from high above the ladder the distance to the paint store from the church and the time of the day, the painter decided to thin the paint out with some paint thinner rather than come back the next day and finish the job properly. Suddenly as he finished this really poor job of painting the steeple, the clouds became dark and a flash of lighting struck the painter to the ground. Suddenly there was a voice from heaven that said, “Repaint and thin no more!”

This image was one I carried in my mind for a long time. I thought repentance had to do with being bad or wrong. I thought repent meant, to straighten up or pay the consequences from God! While in Seminary I was able to learn more about the word repent through the study of Greek. The Greek word for repent is metanoeo, which means, to reconsider, or to think differently. There’s another related word metanoia, which means to turn around, to face a new direction. As I have grown older, I realize that God doesn’t operate in the way of causing horrible things to happen to us if we don’t repent. I believe that if God believes things need to change in our lives, that God will show us a better way. I have come to believe that the word repent is actually one of the most positive, hopeful words in Scripture. There are several important ideas associated with repentance that are worth exploring this morning.

Repentance is for everyone. Some people think repentance applies only to those who need big changes in their lives. Certainly this is one way the word is used in the Bible. Sometimes in Scripture repent has described a complete about-face, a complete reversal of the way one’s life is going. Repent in our Scripture passage from Matthew this morning describes not only turning back to God but also marks the beginning of a new life. And that’s what I hear Jesus saying in these words. In thinking of this concept I recall reading a story about a small town in Labrador, Canada called Wabush. For quite some time this town was completely isolated. Years ago a road was cut through the wilderness to reach Wabush. Wabush had one road leading into it, and thus, only one road leading out. If someone would travel the unpaved road for six to eight hours to get into Wabush, there was only way they could leave by turning around.

In a similar way, each of us travels along a road that will lead us to sin at any given point in our lives. As in Wabush, there is only one way out and God built that road or path. In order to take that road, we first must turn around. This is the complete about face that the Bible calls repentance, and without it, there’s no way out of town. This is what repentance represents. Repentance provides us the chance to make a change, which brings us, closer to where we want to be, and where we need to go.

Repentance requires awareness. Our world has so many problems, so many situations that need to be addressed. There are many important issues of which we may not even be aware. Sometimes our lives can be similar. There can be lots of problems, lots of things going wrong, but a person may not even be aware of them. Support groups for alcoholics and other recovery groups know how powerful this unawareness can be. Often this unawareness is called denial. The facts are there, the problems are real, but the person chooses not to see them. Perhaps the person has a list of excuses for why things are going wrong in their lives. To begin that process of change there must be a period of self-awareness. This requires an honest evaluation of how things really are in our lives. If we want to give ourselves an examination of sorts as to what needs changing in our life, I believe in the power of pen and paper. Many people have found it helpful to keep a journal to record their thoughts and feelings. Whether it is journaling or perhaps composing a letter to God this process makes us choose words, and they are put before us in a way that helps us see what we need to address in our lives. People who are serious about growing spiritually will be happy to share their experience about writing and keeping journals. In Richard Bach’s bestseller Illusions, one of the characters quotes a Peanuts cartoon in which Snoopy says, “There is no problem so big that it cannot be run away from.” While this is true, it’s also true there no problems so big that it cannot be faced with God’s help.

Repentance requires confidence. When Jesus began preaching, he said we should repent because the kingdom of heaven or the “Kingdom of God” is near or at hand. One way to interpret this is that we should repent because God’s assistance and guidance is important in our lives. Another way to interpret is that we should repent because when we do we help make God’s kingdom more present among us. When we face a moment for repentance, it is an opportunity to listen to what God wants for our lives. Perhaps we have noticed when we are walking around that our head turn when we hear something drop, perhaps like loose change? Why? Our ears have become trained to notice something like loose change that falls. That’s the way our hearts should be in listening for God’s instruction. The one thing we can count upon is that if we are listening to God, if we hear God calling us we should trust that the journey we would embark upon will bring us fulfillment. Repentance sometimes means giving up our power and control, it means learning a new way of doing things, it means leaving something familiar behind, and it means moving into unfamiliar territory. There is a price to pay. But this cost will be worth any struggle in the long run. The reason that repentance will be worth the possible struggle brings us to our final point this morning.

Repentance is about responding. Perhaps we have had an opportunity to work with modeling clay. If not, then most of us have played with Play-Doh at some point in time in our lives. The same principle applies which is as long as we are working with either of those substances it stays soft, and pliable. However when we leave either clay or Play-Doh in a certain shape for a period of time and when we return to start working with them again, we will discover that it is less flexible. Everything begins to harden when it’s left in one shape for a time. Leave it in a given shape long enough, and everything becomes hard and brittle. It can’t be reshaped. If it’s going to be reshaped, it must be broken.

Remembering the words from the prophet Isaiah who wrote:

Yet you, LORD, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)

If we respond to God’s voice, and do what we sense God calling us to do, things in time become easier especially when we allow God to be the potter and allow God to mold and shape us. Yet for some, it’s been so long since we have responded, since we said yes with our mind, heart and actions that it’s almost like we are stuck. The chance to repent and to make our lives better with God’s help is when we sense God speaking to us more clearly.

Fortunately for us, we are in a wonderful gathering place to witness such a transformation here in the church. Paul David Tripp,  in his book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands: People in Need of Change Helping People in Need of Change writes:

The church is not a theological classroom. It is a conversion, confession, repentance,       reconciliation, forgiveness and sanctification center, where flawed people place their faith  in Christ, gather to know and love him  better, and learn to love others as he designed.”

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

January 22, 2017