Have you ever seen a sign like this?
I’ve seen them in big cities, usually near downtown or outside of big sporting events. In our remote area they’re not as common, but recently we had a guy holding a sign like this outside our WalMart. He held his sign high and it was impossible not to read his quick, clear message: REPENT, THE END IS NEAR!
Sitting in the car line, held captive by the red light, I confess that I had a less than positive reaction to this man and his sign. I was relieved when the light turned green and we didn’t have to be confronted by it anymore.
Do you know what I mean?
As someone who works weekly to communicate the gospel, I can’t help but wonder if these signs “work.” Does anyone read them and want to learn more? Does anyone ever walk up to talk to the sign-holder and say, “Ooh, would you please talk to me about how I need to repent, and how the world is going to end?” Isn’t it only off-putting to those who the sign-holder is trying to reach?
Which makes me wonder about John the Baptist.
John the Baptist acted in a way that ought to put him in the “crazy sign-holder” category. He lived out in the wilderness. He wore weird clothes: camel’s hair and a leather girdle. He ate weird things: locusts and honey. He didn’t have a sign, I’m sure, but if he did here’s the message that would have been on it: “REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND” (Matt 3:2). If I saw this dude standing at a WalMart intersection, I’d be hoping the light would change to green real quick.
So here’s the thing: people weren’t repelled by John the Baptist. They were actually drawn to him. And not just the fringes of religion – the establishment leadership (Pharisees and Sadducees) came to him, too.
For starters, notice a small but important difference between the Baptist’s message and the sign on the street:
“REPENT, FOR THE END IS NEAR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND.”
This isn’t doomsday talk about the end of the world; this is new-beginning talk about the arrival of God’s presence.
Even with that, though, we’ve still got to get past that first word: “REPENT.” Who wants to repent? Who hears that and says, “Ooh, pick me!” Most of us want to slink off quietly at the mention of repenting, hoping we can get away without being noticed.
But that’s mainly because of our understanding of the word “repent.”
For many folks, the definition of “repent” is something along the lines of “to feel really, really, really bad about something.” The original meaning, however, was more like “to TURN,” as in, “to turn away from something bad.” This is exactly what John the Baptist is asking the people to do: “TURN AWAY FROM YOUR BAD BEHAVIOR BECAUSE THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NEAR.”
That message is a bit more positive, but not quite positive enough. Remember, the Baptist was drawing crowds of people way out into the desolate brown wasteland that is the Judean wilderness. Why would people come out for this message like it’s Coachella or something?
I’ll tell you why: Because turning away from our sins is linked to forgiveness.
If you’ve ever been to church before – even just once or twice – there’s a decent chance that you heard the message that Jesus Christ died for your sins. And there’s an equally decent chance that you’ve been told that Jesus’ sacrificial death covered the debt for any sin, so that whatever wrong you’ve done is forgiven. You ask God for forgiveness, and bang, you’ve got it.
If you’re a human being there’s also a decent chance that you’ve asked for God’s forgiveness for some big mistake before… and it’s been hard to receive. The guilt follows you around. It comes in hard late at night while you’re trying to sleep, or early in the morning when you first wake up. (Guilt works best when you’re alone and tired.) Maybe you’ve asked yourself: “If God forgives me, why can’t I accept God’s forgiveness?”
I’ve been there. A lot of us have. Sometimes the problem is that we simply cannot believe that God forgives us for all our sins – even this one. But sometimes the guilt is the Holy Spirit following us around, tapping us on the shoulder, trying to get our attention… because we have not yet turned away from this sin.
This is obvious in repeating actions. If an alcoholic is going to drink every night, then he hasn’t turned away from that sin. If a gossip is calling her girlfriends to get the dirt every day, then she hasn’t turned away from that sin. God forgives him and God forgives her, but God also wants them to quit that bad behavior.
This is less obvious – but equally true – in isolated incidents of sin. In the spur of the moment we told a lie, or flirted with someone we shouldn’t have, or fudged the books, or turned our back on someone in need. We ask God to forgive us. We recognize that this behavior was bad. And yet… it keeps following us around, an unwanted houseguest who won’t leave and is ruining everything.
Sometimes, that lingering feeling is the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, we’ve missed the step of “turning away.” We can trick ourselves in this regard because few of us would say we intend to repeat our mistakes. But many of us might still be facing straight toward that bad behavior in our minds. We nurture the inward thoughts of dishonesty, or lust, or greed, or selfishness that caused the outward behavior. This is like turning away from the symptom but not the root cause of the disease… unless we turn away from the inward root cause, eventually the symptom will pop up again.
And that guilt we can’t shake – maybe it’s not because we can’t accept God’s forgiveness. Maybe God has forgiven us, but the Holy Spirit is trying to tell us:
“TURN AWAY FROM YOUR BAD BEHAVIOR BECAUSE THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS NEAR.”
As we prepare our hearts to receive Christ, this TURNING is an important step in the process. John the Baptist is calling to us across the centuries. If we hear his message right it’s not repelling; it draws us to him like those original crowds in Judea. We are drawn because our souls are tired of this sin. We are drawn because once we truly turn away, God’s forgiveness is so easy to feel.
If you are drawn to this wild, weird man, don’t resist. Give in.
TURN, and receive God’s great forgiveness.
Sources: The Pulpit Fiction Podcast. Thanks for the inspiration.