What kind of a kingdom begins with Lent? Well, a good and godly one. In fact, the gospel story begins with Jesus announcing the presence of God’s kingdom, and then proposing our proper response in “Lenten terms.”
“The time promised by God has come at last!” he announced. “The kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News “(Mark 1:15, NLT).
At least at the beginning, all who enter or participate in the kingdom Jesus announces will do so in Lenten terms.
Most of my church friends will agree that this makes sense. All have sinned … . So, yes, repent of your sins if you want anything to do with the kingdom of the God who is holy. I do not disagree with this, although I will observe that this way of speaking is hard to find in the story.
What I mean is the announcement of Jesus appears to be public and directed to any who might be there to hear it. Jesus doesn’t assume that some people might be disinterested in the kingdom of God, and therefore not affected by his announcement. Rather, Jesus says, the government of God has been formed and has taken effect. Therefore, “repent and confidently trust this good news,” (a more literal and perhaps more helpful translation). The presence of God’s government calls for “repentance,” or “turning” from your way (whatever that may be) to Another’s way, to God’s way, which Jesus then began to reveal.
But the revelation only helps those who turn. The revelation affects everyone. It impacts us all. But only those who “turn,” who “repent,” will benefit. So, bring on Lent, as a season of turning in the light of kingdom-revelation Jesus has brought us.
I quoted Mark 1:15 in the New Living Translation above, because I like the NLT. It reads, “repent of your sins,” though “of your sins” is not in the text. The NLT adds it to express the idea. Again, I do not disagree that we need to repent of our sins, but I do insist that we must be careful to understand “of your sins” in ways fully informed by the ongoing story of Jesus.
The tendency we all have is to plug and play our most informed understanding of what the sins are, especially “my” or “your” sins. Then, we do our best to turn from them. Once again, I’m not disagreeing with that. By all means, if it’s sin then the right thing is to repent. But here’s the question: are these the sins Jesus had and has in mind when he calls for repentance?
In Mark’s gospel, the next paragraphs give us a picture of what Jesus had in mind, at least initially. He encounters some people who are fishing, two sets of brothers, and he tells them to follow him and they do. literally, they turned from what they were doing at the time, and those with whom they were doing it, and whatever else their occupation at that moment demanded of them. They turned from all of that toward Jesus and then went with him. Now, there is no mention of sins in this story, which is one reason it might be better not to add those words to explain what Jesus meant by “repent.” Jesus does not cite any sins in his call, nor does the writer note any in describing the brothers’ response. There is just the call to turn and to follow. Most fundamentally, then, we turn toward Jesus from where we are and from what we are doing, with all these entail, to face Jesus with the intent to follow. That is where the Lenten turning begins to lead us to kingdom welcome.
If you are looking for more specific sins, however, it’s not hard to name some of them that the first followers and we might turn from in order to walk with Jesus. Here is what occurs to me in that regard, as we consider Lenten responses.
We do not know if “it was a good time” for Jesus to walk by these brothers and call them to follow. Time was not in their control. In particular, when they had to turn toward Jesus and follow came when it did, whatever else they might have planned to do. I don’t know about you, but I like to organize my own time, schedule things according to a plan, and then work it. I prefer not to be interrupted, not to be caught off-guard, not to discover double-bookings, or to run out of time for lack of planning or any other reason. Clearly, however, never mind what I prefer, Jesus came when the “time was right” and called. I need to repent of the insistence on saying “when” for myself.
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t say “where.” He said follow and they followed. But the initial followers had no idea where. All they knew was “with whom.” They were to follow Jesus first with each other, and later still others. They didn’t know where and had no say in the company they would keep, other than Jesus. If I will not go until I know where and if I am picky about who else is on the journey—I will need to repent.
The matter of companionship has special force, I think. Jesus called them to be with him, clearly, but in time there would be others. And the call to be with some was also a call not to be with others, at least not the way they had been with them before the call. The call to turn cuts both ways, compelling them to join with and separate from. Following to some extent required leaving relationally as well as geographically. And, if we jump ahead a bit, we see how this works outs somewhat disturbingly. Because some of the people we join are the people we’d as soon keep at a distance; and some of the people we leave are the kind we most love. It can feel sacred or a matter of fate to be with some and not with others. But the call of Jesus leads us to a turn from such “sacred” or “fated” urgencies. I am understanding, I think, that following Jesus requires me to repent of my preferences for folks like me and turn toward others not like me but dear to Jesus.
Finally, Jesus didn’t specify any particular purpose or reason or pace in their following. In Mark’s story, Jesus told them they would fish for people, but once the intrigue wore off they had to follow to find out what on earth that was about. We now know considerably more about the goals and purposes, but we shouldn’t let that dull the fact that central to whatever may be accomplished is being, sharing, participating and interacting with Jesus and with one another in the company of Jesus. As the story continues, we find out there was plenty to do but often this is background to a foreground filled with personal interaction between Jesus and his followers, between followers with each other, and between followers and those yet to follow. Clearly, the following made possible by the turning, by repenting, was relationally deep and wide. This means I must repent of my obsessive need to be busy, to be doing something, and make space for whatever happens when Jesus is at the center of the gatherings I am in, which is basically all of them.
Lent and the Kingdom. Jesus brings it—the kingdom, and calls us to turn:
- Toward the voice and face of Jesus, expecting and willing to follow
- Away from trying to determine matters of timing
- Away from a spirit and practiced habit of discriminating in the company I keep
- Against the grain of natural sin-defiled preferences for some and not others, and
- Away from busyness that distracts and blinds me to the alluring, enlivening and transforming presence of Jesus.