Last week I left off talking about how repentance is making the pathway straight in your hearts. The message of John the Baptizer was a call to repent. “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near!” He cried out, and all the gospel writers identified him with the “voice crying in the wilderness” mentioned in Isaiah 40. This is the voice that announces the way out of exile. That the way out entailed the making a way in the dessert. Let me talk briefly about that in more detail. You see, in Isaiah, there is the promise of an end to exile, one that was eventually fulfilled in one sense through the person of Cyrus (or Darius) who allowed the people to return to their land. Yet, as I mentioned last week, the people still felt distant and isolated from God. Exile had ended, yet they still knew they were in a different sort of exile. With the arrival of the Romans there was again the feeling of geographic exile within the land (as Rome occupied and oppressed the people of Israel), and the other, deeper exile. Because of the physical presence of the Romans, the people were expecting a redeemer, as foretold in Isaiah 40, who would take them out of exile by removing the Romans. Yet Jesus is very clear that his “kingdom does not come from this world.” If it did, it would be marked by violence, not by what is described in Isaiah.
The great redeemer of Israel, the one who ends the exile of the people of Israel, is not someone who brings about sorrow, but joy. As described in Isaiah 61, the servant ends exile because he brings about the Year of Jubilee. Israel was supposed to celebrate a Sabbath year every seventh year. Then they would not work the land, but live off the abundance given the previous year. It was set aside to honor God, who owned the land, and show their reliance upon him, and to celebrate that covenant. After every seven Sabbath years would be the Year of Jubilee. This was an even bigger party, and bigger commitment and financial sacrifice, than the Sabbath year. Because of that, we have no indication that it was ever celebrated. Even more than that, we know that one reason for the exile, as given by God, was that they hadn’t even taken the Sabbath years off (Ezekiel 20-23 and Daniel 9).
So the exile ended, but there was not the feeling of the Year of Jubilee. Instead the Israelites went back slowly, and had to fight against competing groups for their land, they remained poor, and the temple hadn’t been completed. This didn’t feel like a Jubilee at all.
The Year of Jubilee was something else. All people “return to their own land”, all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, all bets are off. It’s a party, and was loud and you should be able to feel the presence of God as you look back on your life and see the ways in which he has taken care of you. Most people could only ever experience one year of Jubilee in their lifetime, that is if they had ever been celebrated, and so it was going to be a big party. The return from Babylon/Persia to Israel, though, felt like a whimper. Yes the people were excited, but why did they need to make pathways straight? This is the language of preparation for a King’s entry. But Darius/Cyrus never came to visit, and certainly didn’t lead the people back. What gives?
In Luke 4, one chapter after we meet John the Baptizer with his message of repentance, Jesus gives his first sermon. Now the Jewish sermon typically consisted of someone reading from the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible) and then giving his commentary on it. Jesus gets up, reads from Isaiah 61, then says, essentially, “here it is. I’m right here. I’m all the commentary you need on this passage.” Now yes, it doesn’t come across as arrogant, Jesus is much more eloquent than me, but his lack of in depth commentary, the fact that there are no grand intellectual insights, make his meaning clear.
Jesus is telling the people, “Look here at me. You’re exile is over. I’m the King coming to start the party. You can go home, really go home. Not to the geographic land, but to the land you were created to be in, to communion with God. You can have it right here, because I’m the king of this place, and I’m taking it back. This is your get out of jail free card. Come on home. Come with me, I’ll show you the way.”
And the people hate him for it.
They immediately become indignant, asking things like, “who does he think he is? He’s not a king, he’s just a carpenter’s son.” The problem is this: if Jesus is King, then I am not. For the people to experience the Jubilee they wanted, they needed to admit that they were not king. They needed to accept that they were not, nor could they be, the faithful servant of the LORD (Yahweh). They needed to admit they had and would continue to fail. And, quite simply, the people weren’t ready to do so.
As if to drive home the message that the kingdom, the land of promise, was not geographic but out of a relationship, Jesus brings up the widow of Zarephath, and the Syrian general Naaman, who entered into the “land” of God without being in the geographic land of Israel. Jesus is telling them that their map back home is completely messed up, it’s just something they’ve put together without knowing the area.
And the people want to kill him for it.
Jesus tells them he knows the way and he can lead them, and the people hate him. Then he pleads with them and tells them their maps are wrong, and they want to kill him. The people are unrepentant, and so Jesus leaves them. They did not prepare the way, because they thought their way was better.
So repentance is, at least in part, preparation.
It is preparation to admit that Jesus is King, and therefore I am not.
That this place I’m in is not home, but exile.
That he knows the way home, and I’m hopelessly lost.
Repentance is admitting my inadequacy and getting ready to follow.
What do you think? Do you have a hard time letting go of control? Of admitting you are wrong? Of not getting too comfortable here?