Maybe the folks in Nazareth expected him to do what everyone else did, be dunked in the river and then come home. But Jesus doesn’t do that – he drips out of the Jordan river and walks alone into the wilderness.
40 days go by before Jesus emerges.
He doesn’t take the road back to Nazareth. He doesn’t go back home to his family and friends; he doesn’t take up his tools, mend fences, fix walls, make yolks for cattle. He walks off in the opposite direction to Galilee.
Galilee, home of hardworking fishermen and their Herodian tax collectors…Galilee, where the hillsides hid Barabbas and those like him, aching to revolt against Rome…Galilee, where pious Jews rubbed shoulders with forbidden gentiles and dirt-poor day labourers worked the land kept by a wealthy Jerusalem elite.
Arriving in Galilee was a turning point for Jesus. For Matthew’s gospel it was a turning point for the world: Like the deepest darkness scatters under a full moon…like those on death row are shown out of prison…like the last place you expect God to show up is where he takes your hand. For Matthew when Jesus walks into Galilee an ancient promise is being kept.
What are the first words Jesus says? “Repent…for the kingdom of Heaven has come near.”
How near? So near it has a hand on your wound…
How near? So near it wants to come and eat at your table…
How near? So near it accepts and forgives you before you ever believed you could ask.
Repent…is the first word Jesus says. What does that wee word call to mind? Does it take you to Buchanan street where a soap box preacher harangues the passing shoppers to reconsider their destiny? Resting beside his portable amplifier is the placard in bold capitals: REPENT. Is that what the folks in Galilee heard that word say? A call to be sorry for their sins?
You might be surprised how someone in Galilee heard that word.
The historian Josephus belonged to a wealthy Jerusalem family. In 66 AD, he found himself down in Galilee, trying to talk some hot heads out of picking a fight with Rome. Do you know how he tried to convince them? He said: “Repent and believe…”
Sound familiar? Was he asking these rebels to feel sorry about something they’d done in the past?Was he asking them to do anything religious? No, he was asking them to change their mind and trust his judgement, turn away from war with Rome.
If we heard Jesus say Repent and believe in 1st century Palestine, we would understand he wasn’t asking us to feel bad about something or to do something religious. Repentance invited a change in direction –Don’t go that way but come this way with me instead. Repentance was a turning point.
Fishing wasn’t easy work but there was a thriving market for fish. After paying up to 40% of their catch for a tax permit, fishermen made enough to get by. Nets and fish and making a living, who mattered to you and who didn’t – the fishermen had all of that sorted out.
And then Jesus arrives at their work place, just as they are washing and stretching the nets, ready for a night shift. He says follow me…
Change your mind about what matters to you: drop your nets, beach your boat, leave behind what you’ve settled for and follow me. Jesus invites these fishermen to step into a different way of seeing God, themselves, and other people. If they go then what matters and who matters will all begin to change shape in the light of Jesus.
When Zebedee went home that night I wonder how he answered his wife when she asked after her sons: “Where are James and John?”
To fish for people…
Where do you fish for people?
And I imagine Zebedee doesn’t look up as he finds himself saying:
Where do you fish for People? In the deep waters of what your helpless by yourself to change; in the open waters where the poor, and the weak have been thrown overboard by the wealthy, religious and powerful.
when will they be back?
Zebedee doesn’t have an answer.
James and John, Peter and Andrew have repented: changed their mind; they trust Jesus at his word. Now among the poor and cast away, the hurting and lost, Jesus will make them fishers with nets of love. All they need bring is a willingness.
At the shore of Galilee we see a turning point as 4 men repent: not feeling sorry they were fishermen but going in the new direction Jesus is taking them.
She spoke of her day being incredibly long in the hospital. Being a drug user, the hours passed quickly but not in here. She said: “For 20 years I’ve been chasing something that doesn’t exist, to run away from who I am.” When I met her she had stopped running.
“I am tired of living this way – there is something deep within me that wants to change.”
She struggled with self-doubt, saw herself through the eyes of others and didn’t like what she saw there. But what I saw was an intelligent woman who had lived what I could barely imagine, who had the integrity of being honest with herself, and the courage to want to change.
She didn’t think it would be easy to see herself differently. But for the first time she could remember she wanted to change. Over the weeks waiting on a place at a rehab that would be vital step in changing she said: “I know it sounds cheesy but thinking through my journey everything feels like its being leading up to this moment.”
I didn’t think it was cheesy at all. I thought it was a hard-won wisdom on her part. She said she was now in a place where she could hear me say that and not feel embarrassed.
I was in the company of someone changing how they had lived, changing how the saw themselves, changing what they hoped for, changing how their past could be reclaimed differently.
I was in the presence of someone repenting, someone who’d reached a turning point. I have no doubt, Jesus would have said “Go in peace: daughter of the kingdom.” Was that not a holy place?
Whatever holiness meant to Jesus it couldn’t be separated from being made whole. For Jesus the only holiness that matters is a human life restored by the goodness and love of God. For Jesus holiness is being made whole.
Among the lost, the broken, the possessed, with the sick, the hurting, poor and rejected, comes Jesus:
with an acceptance
listening to the unheard…looking at the ignored…touching the untouchables…forgiving the fallen short. Whatever holiness is to Jesus it can’t be separated from being made whole.
In my experience being made whole is seldom an instant thing. Like the girl I met in hospital, The world has many ways, as does our heart, of keeping wholeness out of reach.
We can’t be made whole if we believe God is distant and just wants to punish us…we can’t be made whole if deep down we don’t believe we are lovable…we can’t be made whole if guilt and shame about our past are the loudest voices in the choir of our thoughts…we can’t be made whole if our ego wants to blame, judge, and always have its own way.
Wholeness needs more than a single act of repentance, more than a single turning point. Following Jesus will take us to many moments of change, many turning points throughout our lives. That’s what Peter found out after he dropped his net and left his boat.
There was a turning point when Jesus revealed the kind of messiah he will be was very different from the one Peter wanted him to be…a turning point when Jesus refuses not to wash Peter’s feet…a turning point when at an open fire Peter denies ever knowing Jesus to a Servant girl, then finds the love of God comes looking to restore him…a turning point when Peter can see the crucified Jesus is not abandoned by God but the cross is where all suffering finds in God an undefended solidarity…a turning point when Peter meets the risen Jesus and discovers death is no longer his keeper…a turning point on a rooftop in Antioch where God whispers to Peter: I have no favourites – The good news is for everyone.
Peters life had many turning points. From the moment he let go of his fishing nets until he stretched out his own arms to be crucified himself.
Are you at turning point? Is Jesus inviting you to know God differently?To know yourself differently, or those around you? Repentance is a recognition that there are always choices to be made, good things to let go of for better, old ways of being us that no longer fit with who God wants us to be.
Without such turning points there can be no new life, no being made whole, no entry into the kingdom…
Wherever we find ourselves and whatever needs the new direction of repentance in our lives, let it be with the arm of these words around us:
“To repent is not to look downward at my own shortcomings,
But upward at God’s love…
Not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness…
It is to see, not what I have failed to be,
but by the grace of Christ
who I can yet become.”Kallistos Ware
Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near…