[An excerpt from Zechariah’s Prophecy, directed to his son, John the Baptist, the forerunner of all truly Christian ministry, the one who led the people in a ministry of repentance]:
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall dawn upon us from on high and to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
I walked into my new office this morning and noticed one of the leftover books on the shelf called A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren. In the wake of McLaren’s growing popularity I familiarized myself with his “work” a few years ago and read this book, as well as A Generous Orthodoxy, and one other forgettable title which I have since forgotten. Let me summarize the major theme found in each of McLaren’s books in this way. The ‘new kind of Christianity’ he is talking about is built on a Gospel without repentance.
The good news of Jesus Christ comes as the free gift of grace, and that sounds exactly like this: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk. 1:15). We’re quite happy to talk about the swinging door of the Gospel, but how is it that we so often avoid mentioning the threshold of repentance?
Since grace is free, it is assumed, we mustn’t associate our faith with any costs, any requirements, anything on our end that might be expected of us and so nullify grace as grace. But the fact is: grace is free only because we cannot afford it. Its value is, in fact, infinite, because it is based on the immeasurable worth of Jesus Christ and him crucified. It’s true, God isn’t looking for us to give him any-thing. He’s looking for us to give ourselves.
Grace is spilt blood, not melted ice cream. We should acknowledge, therefore, that while there is nothing of worth we can offer in exchange for the grace of God it is only so because God is not looking for us to barter with him with little pieces of our lives and pocketbooks. That’s no different than the old bartering system of sacrifices and burnt offerings, the one Zechariah was employed by before the first Christmas. But the stakes were being raised from sacrificial lambs on the altar to the sacrificial Lamb on the cross. Herein lies the heart of the Gospel. The Gospel reveals that God doesn’t want our “goods and services”—as though God were in need of anything at all, as though everything weren’t already his (Ps. 24!). Rather, he wants all of us, and so he gives us all of himself.
God has removed the barter system altogether. He removed the distance that that economy creates. He wants us for us because he loves us—like a father but more than father—and only when we are awakened to that basic truth will we be bold enough to unfetter our desires to want him back. This is the desire of a sober heart, which prays along to the tune of A.W. Tozer’s prayer, when he said, “I want the whole presence of God Himself, or I don’t want anything at all to do with religion… I want all that God is or I don’t want anything at all.”
That’s just a soul daring to tell the truth. But when it comes to loving God, we are our own worst enemies, because we continue to try to barter with God. We do “this and that” for God hoping to appease him. We tithe little pieces of our lives as though God were in need of our support. And in so doing, we find ourselves constantly negotiating with our conscience over what is “enough” for God, being tossed about between our own unrighteousness and self-righteousness, wondering why we never feel wholly at peace with God, with one another, and with the mirror. The reason is simply this: nothing is enough.
But Christ is enough!
So what does this have to do with repentance? With Zechariah?
Repentance does not mean “do something differently,” or even the popular definition, “turn around.” It means, quite simply, “change your mind.” It means the world and the ways of God we have always imagined have been invaded by an entirely different world by way of God himself invading ours. Christmas, God with us, the Son of God become Son of Man, the final sacrifice, resurrection of the dead. Zechariah, and the rest of the world, was going to have to repent, because this way of seeing the world and the ways of God is entirely unnatural and unexpected. For Zechariah, the whole priestly bartering system was about to be rendered obsolete. Christ was giving us all of himself. All altars would be closed for business. This Lamb would need no assistance, nor assistants, at the altar of his sacrifice.
So think about what we’re doing when we cheapen the idea of repentance, minimizing the cost of discipleship, making it out as if people can nickel and dime their way to God because, well, grace is “free” so surely our response can be “cheap.” What we are doing is inviting people back into the barter system, putting again distance between them and God, and denying them the truly free grace of God, the only grace that brings true freedom: spilt blood, not melted ice cream. As Bonhoeffer, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Therein lies the fullness of life, indeed the fullness of God, true resurrection freedom.
But it’s not quite Christmas yet, so we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. For now, we need to think about changing our minds, repentance. How can the Church rediscover the language of repentance, calling people to “Repent, and believe the Gospel”? Because as long as the Gospel doesn’t require whole-life-repentance, as long as it is something we can fit into our budget, the good news just isn’t good enough. And in that case, we need to stop selling ourselves short, and selling others short, and reclaim the cost of discipleship: it will cost you not a penny less than the whole life of God. That is what God sent his Son to give us. So let’s respond by giving him nothing less than all of ourselves.
It’s the old kind of Christianity, which is built on the Good News of Jesus Christ, the only kind of news that remains new, because it’s the only kind that will never grow old.
One thought on “Advent Reflection 25: Repent”
I appreciate the basic elements of repentance reflected here. I see parallel ideas in the ‘put on’ and ‘put off’ language of Paul in Colossians 3. The effort to repent or put on seems to be the issue of the matter. What is behind the energy required to transform? It sure better be bigger than my own ability to fix myself. I know how that’s worked out. So I find myself landing in Hebrews and the Apostle and High Priest of my confession, His ‘better’ spilt blood, and His help and intercession. That “help!!” call is the hitching post where I find myself constantly fastened. Help my faith. Help me obey. Help me know the will of God in this crazy circumstance. Help me overcome this struggle with sin. Help my struggling kids. Yes, there is a throne of grace from which flows mercy and grace to help, and a work of God through Christ to bring many sons to glory. Because I’m sure not going to find my way there with my own nickels and dimes.