Our family used to go to the beach a lot. We used to spend time on the old rickety wooden piers, that seemed to tell stories of those who have walked before. It was beautiful scenery, birds flying through the air like dancers on a stage. One of my favorite things about being on the pier was begging my dad for a few quarters to put in the silver viewfinder that awaited for my arrival. It was like a poor man’s Disneyland. I stepped up and slowly peered through the two eye-holes and the world was that much bigger and that much smaller all at the same time. It was like looking at the world for the first time again and again.
Jesus is our viewfinder. Even before this Rabbi stepped on to the scene, his family was paving the way for his arrival. His cousin John was by this famous river talking to anyone who wanted to hear about this new guy who was going to usher in this other kind of Kingdom. Different to the ones’ they were used to. He would use words that they would have known to get them ready for this incoming ‘Savior’. John, in the deepest and loudest voice he could muster would shout: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!”
Powerful stuff. Repent. Kingdom. God. All of these in the same sentence? No one heard of such a thing. It would be like us trying to sit around the dinner table and have a conversation about politics, religion and family issues all in one go. It was unheard of.
Before we go further, let’s unpack what all these things mean. Metanoia is the word for repent. It has nothing to do with sin. When the word is properly placed in its context, it literally means “Think beyond what you know” or maybe even “reform your mind.” Somewhere along the way it was adopted by those who wanted it to mean something else other than what was intended. In fact, if you search the scriptures there is not one verse that places repent and sin next to each other.
The closest verse we come to is Acts 2:38 which says “Peter answered them, ‘All of you must turn to God and change the way you think and act, and each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will receive the Holy Spirit as a gift”. Peter is saying that they have to become less ignorant and more aware. It’s even more than that. He’s saying “You have to be more open to the possibility that you may not be living the best life that was meant for you and that you might want to rethink your direction”.
Then he goes on further to couple baptism with the forgiveness of sins. In first century Palestine, much like today, we use baptism as a symbol or metaphor to signify our “dying of the old man” as I have heard so many times before. Peter is doing that with his words here. He is using baptism as metaphor and isn’t creating a theology whereby you can only be forgiven when you get dunked. That would be exclusivist and against the very heart of Jesus’ message. When Jesus and John both use the word near in reference to the Kingdom of God, its the same word we use for “inside”. The Kingdom of God is within. It is near. It is around. It is among us.
Maybe the invitation of Jesus to repent isn’t solely about what we have done wrong, but it is a challenge to continually be in the practice of remolding, revisiting, deconstructing and remolding our paradigms. Maybe what we should be repenting of is how we have treated one another or truth or the many other things Christ lists’ in his talks. Maybe we should repent for having a hand in the death of those we have tried to “save”.
When Jesus invites Nicodemus to be born again, it isn’t a doctrine of salvation He is talking about it here. It is an invitation for Nic to lose it all, to give it up, to let go of everything he has known and become like a child again. This is what it means to repent.