“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at Hand!”
I’m sure you’ve seen that on a church sign somewhere. Perhaps someone has yelled it at you while you walked through a crowded area. It’s a favorite line of street preachers and doomsday sign holders. It’s a line that comes from the Gospels. Both John the Baptist and Jesus use it at the beginning of their ministry.
The way most people use it, it’s kind of a threat.
Repent. Stop being evil. Or when the Kingdom of Heaven gets here, you’re gonna be in so much trouble.
But I don’t think that John and Jesus meant it that way.
The way we usually talk about repentance, it means “Stop doing bad things.” And while I think that true repentance will probably include some of that, that’s not a complete picture of what repentance looks like.
Rather, repentance is a change in our motivation. It’s the acknowledgment that the person I am and the forces and desires that control me are no longer the captain of the ship. Instead, my motivations, desires, and goals shift to align with something else.
Christians, in particular, repent from who they used to be and take on the mindset of Jesus. They adopt the Kingdom of God as the source of their actions, behavior, and personality, rather than their own desires.
So when Jesus (and John the Baptist) say in their ministry, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!” They’re not saying, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” They’re saying, “There is a new way of living your life – the Kingdom way. The Kingdom of God has drawn close, so you should align yourself with it.”
Repentance is rooted much deeper than simple behavior modification. Repentance is an abandonment of who we are in favor of who God is.
And the season of Lent is designed to help us make that shift.
In this season, we acknowledge the ways that our lifestyle has not always matched up with the Kingdom of God. We admit that some of our motivations have been selfish and that our allegiances have been with the principalities and powers of this world, rather than to the Kingdom of God.
While we participate in the Lenten fast, we actively deny ourselves some thing (or things) that we want in order to devote ourselves to the Kingdom of God. And for most of us, the things we give up for Lent aren’t sinful things. I’ve given up sodas in the past. I don’t think sodas are sinful. But I gave them up in an effort to deny myself in a small way, and instead find fulfillment in God and God’s Kingdom.
Because, again, repentance isn’t just about surrendering the bad stuff. It’s about replacing everything about who we are with everything about who God is. And Lent is a way to jump-start that process.
But of course, if all we’re doing is giving something up, we’re not necessarily repenting. Repentance is just as much about adding something as it is taking something away. We can remove all the bad and sinful habits in our lives and still not be aligned with the Kingdom of Heaven.
So while it’s good for us to practice denying our own desires, it’s better to practice replacing our desires with the desires of the Kingdom. Instead of just giving up something we like over Lent, we should also seek to add a habit or desire of the Kingdom.
After all, part of Jesus’ call to discipleship is denying ourselves, but the very next part is taking up our cross. Repentance isn’t repentance unless we die with Jesus on the cross. True repentance is dying with Christ and letting Christ be resurrected in us.
Of course, for many of us who are Christians, we’ve already made a declaration of faith. Lent is not so much the beginning of a journey as it is the continuation of a journey we started a long time ago. Repentance is not so much an event as it is a way of life. We have to make regular conscious decisions to act for the Kingdom rather than for ourselves. Just because I was Kingdom-minded yesterday doesn’t mean I have to be Kingdom-minded today.
So during Lent, we actively practice repentance. During this time, the whole Church devotes herself to developing disciplines of Kingdom-living that will give us the strength to choose to die to ourselves and live into the Kingdom the rest of the year.
When the Season of Lent calls us to repentance, it isn’t a threat. It’s encouragement. The Kingdom of God is at hand! Easter is coming soon! We have a resurrection to celebrate! But the resurrection actively undermines the Kingdom of Me and replaces it with the Kingdom of God. Easter is a celebration that we are not us anymore, but Christ who lives in us. But if Christ is going to live in us, we have to make room for him by replacing our desires with the desires of the Kingdom.
So which areas of your life belong to you, and which areas belong to Christ? Which areas could benefit from the extra focus on repentance that Lent can bring? By surrendering ourselves in repentance, we can truly rejoice at the Kingdom of God which has drawn near.