They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Last Wednesday, people around the world marked their foreheads with ash as a sign of their humanity and mortality. We find this symbolism and practice throughout the Bible. When Abraham petitioned God, he said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). When the people of Nineveh heeded Jonah’s warning, the king “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” This is the posture of repentance.
In the book of 2 Chronicles, God instructs Solomon in a prayer of repentance “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (7:14).
When God’s people went astray, there was often a corporate aspect to their repentance. They would fast and mourn and pray together for God to heal and bless their nation. That kind of repentance is appropriate when we find ourselves feeling the consequences of cultural or national sin. For instance, I am both troubled and tempted by the rampant materialism and objectification in our country. I am a participant, but it is much bigger than any one person. We need to repent corporately for these kinds of things.
As necessary as corporate repentance was and is, it can become more about ritual than relationship. The prophets spoke out against this kind of empty worship. The prophet Joel warned Israel to “rend your heart, not your garments” (Joel 2:13). One commentator summarizes the point like this: “What was needed was not ritual alone, but the active involvement of the individual in making a radical change within the heart and in seeking a new direction for one’s life. What was demanded was a turning from sin and at the same time a turning to God. For the prophets, such a turning or conversion was not just simply a change within a person; it was openly manifested in justice, kindness, and humility.”
The term used extensively by the Prophets (shubh) means “to turn” or “return,” so the idea of returning from exile is in view. John the Baptist was cut from the same fabric as the prophets. He called his own generation to make a radical turn in the direction of their lives by pointing them to the soon-coming Messiah. Life as usual is crooked. Right side up is upside down. Make room for the straight path of Jesus.
Here is the beginning of repentance: in humility we must turn to God. This is simple, but essential. God is the Creator of heaven and earth, the primary mover, the ultimate point of reference, and our highest good—King of kings and Lord of lords. Because the world and everything in it belongs to God, any form of repentance must be addressed to him.
That seems obvious, but it is possible to believe in God and functionally exclude him from our lives, to act as if we are ultimate. How often do we consider our circumstances and think, “What do I need right now? How do I feel about this? What do I like or not like about this?” We even enter into prayer and worship with these kinds of self-focused questions. In these moments, though we believe in God, we are not functionally aware of his presence with us and his providence in our circumstances. If we were, we might say, “Father, you know what we need;” “How do you feel about this?” “Teach us your will, that we may know what is ‘good and pleasing and perfect’” (Romans 12:3). Notice two key differences: the questions are directed toward God, not self, and are concerned for “us” and not just “me.”
So the first step in repentance is to address God. Acknowledge his sovereign control over all things, recognize his presence in our circumstances, and invite him into the stuff of our lives. Questions about what we think and feel and need are not bad questions, but they are secondary matters. Our primary focus is on God, his kingdom, and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). Above all else, repentance is an address to God in which we plead for his mercy and rest in Christ. In Christ, our ashes are turned to beauty, for he has clothed us with the garments of salvation and covered us with the robes of righteousness (Isaiah 63).
What areas of your life seem apart from God’s control? Where is it difficult to feel God’s presence in your circumstances?
Is there any area of your life in which you are resistant to God’s control? Confess this in prayer to him.
God of love, as in Jesus Christ you gave yourself to us, so may we give ourselves to you, living according to your holy will. Keep our feet firmly in the way where Christ leads us; make our mouths speak the truth that Christ teaches us; fill our bodies with the life that is Christ within us. In his holy name we pray. Amen.