Thursday, 15 January 2015

Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand

Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand. 

One of the perpetual pitfalls for the church in its preaching is the tendency to moralism. We love telling people to do this, to not do that, and to change. And we have so many biblical passages to clobber and coerce people with. One is the phrase here, as preached by John the Baptist and then by Jesus. 

The problem is that we tend to see the command to change, but divorce it from the "Kingdom of God is at hand." When we do that we flatten out the time dimension in the passage. God was doing something, or about to do something. The repentance was to be a reaction to what God was doing. The FACT of his work was to lead to the urgent COMMAND to change. Indicative driving imperative, if you like your grammar old fashioned! 

This is how true Christian proclamation is always to be, of course. Not moralism, but good news; God acts, and in the light of it, commands do come our way. Moral command without good news is not Christian preaching - as is communication of gospel facts with no imperative cutting edge, of course! 

"Repent" in John the Baptist's preaching is therefore not a command floating free of a context, a general urge to pull your socks up, turn over a new leaf and change. It is all about impending action and change that God is doing. 

What was God doing? Judging from the texts that the gospels quote as speaking about John the Baptist's preaching - Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40 - two great threads of hope were about to be fulfilled, and fulfilled together. God was about to step into history, with comfort and salvation on the one hand, and with judgement and wrath on the other. It was in the light of that just-around-the-corner action that John's hearers were putting their lives in order. They were baptised because, though they had longed for God's arrival in salvation, they realised they were unprepared for his judgement. After all, who can abide the day of his coming?? Submission to John's baptism was the recognition that you were under a terrible judgement which was about to fall, not a glorified New Year's resolution. 

This perspective really helps us with the oddity of Jesus' baptism by John. So long as we see John's baptism as part of a general repentance process for sinners, then we are flummoxed by Jesus' need of it. But his "fulfilling all righteousness", as he said to John, was not repentance. It was the recognition through baptism that God was about to act.  Judgement and salvation were arriving. The Kingdom of God was at hand! 

Of course, the Kingdom was arriving because the King had arrived. Jesus is the King of the Kingdom. People were preparing for his coming. The shock for John, and for us, is that instead of inspecting, commanding, judging and punishing, the King comes quietly, like a Lamb, and says, right from the start, "I'm under the soon-to-come judgement."

And that's how the salvation comes to the rest of us. 

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