A Repentant Turn to Love

Growing up in Pensacola, FL, I quickly learned the importance of rolling up my window at intersections.

You may be wondering why, and the answer is pretty simple. 

Pensacola, is right in the middle of the Bible Belt …and it is home to a number of bible colleges and churches where people are required, either to graduation from their bible college, or to join their church as a member, they're required to go out into the baking Florida sun, often times with the rest of their family and kids in tow, and preach to oncoming traffic at the cities busiest intersections. 

Very well dressed men and women stand shouting out sermons for hours on end to people who really aren’t listening. They tote bibles, and paint big signs with scripture painted on it, and despite their greatest efforts to get the attention of the people of Pensacola …just about every passing by would rather be listening to the music or news on their radio than have their lives interrupted by people yelling at them. 

I’m sure you can imagine some of the words their shouts contained… And this is why we rolled up our windows, after the 20th time of hearing people yell “Repent and believe!” while staring you down and pointing aggressively at their open bible. You get tired of hearing this message, you begin to tune in out 

You hear them yell “your way of life is one of doom, you are living in sin and there is only one answer repent and believe the Good news” and you wonder, what sort of “Good news” would cause someone to speak at people with this much anger and condemnation.

So I joined the rest of the population of Pensacola. I began to drown it out, I rolled up my windows and ignored them almost entirely, thinking “Who are these crazy people who think they can insert themselves into our day to day lives? They don’t know me, they don’t know what my life looks like… who are they to think they can tell me the way God wants me to live? They aren’t even worth the acknowledging."

When I read our gospel message today, this story of Jesus walking into Galillee and saying:

“Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Turn from your old ways, repent of the world, and trust this good news!”

I hear echoes of the words street preachers would shout out in Pensacola.  But more importantly, when I read this scripture I can’t help but wonder how the street preachers and Jesus could have the same message of repentance, spoken with almost exactly the same words but receive such drastically different results.

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Why is it that when Jesus calls out to the people of Galilee, when Jesus tells them to turn, to repent and change their lives and hearts their gut reaction is not to roll up their windows, but to respond by dropping their nets and immediately leave behind their lives in order to follow?

In Jesus’ time, Prophets and Preachers were a dime a dozen, it was probably a weekly occurrence to have someone roll into town carrying a message that urged everyone to repent and follow them.

Maybe you hear Jesus say the word repent and like me you automatically start to close yourself off to what he’s saying as if “repent” was the key word to cause you to lock up because what you are about to hear is some hate filled speech. Maybe you have become so used to hearing all sorts of condemnation from people, that you hear the Jesus use the word “repent” and it forces you to question whatever words would follow, even if spoken by Jesus, the Son of God.

So, if this is the case for us, why didn’t Jesus’ message just fade into the background all those years ago? Why didn’t the people of Galilee do the same thing when Jesus came to town and started speaking words of repentance? What was that spark in Jesus’ word “repent” that instead of shutting people down actually had the opposite effect and drew people in… provoking them to actually change their lives?

From what I know of Jesus in scripture, my guess is what differentiated him from other preachers of his time, and from the prophets on the curbs of my hometown was that his message of repentance was spoken entirely with love. 

Christ was the embodiment of God. He exudes the entering in of God’s kingdom… with every interaction. Every word he spoke oozed with god’s great love, and mercy and grace. 

What could be more irresistible? How could you be confronted with that amount of love, shown that amount of love towards your and your community and choose not to change your life and follow?

Ephesians does a great job describing not only God and Christ, but also what it is that is so unique about Christ to cause people to change their lives, It says:

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!

You are saved by God’s grace because of faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

…So when Jesus invites people to repent and change their lives, He’s not chastising the people for who they are, He’s not making assumptions about the ways they’ve sinned, or the choices they’ve made, or the ways they’ve lived there lives. But he is inviting them into a new way of living. He is reminding them that God’s love, and grace have already arrived, and he’s inviting them into a way of life that helps them see it more often.

God’s kingdom is drawing near, Jesus is aware of it, He sees signs of God’s love breaking in and sees how exciting it is. He sees that God’s kingdom doesn’t mean condemnation of the world but renewal of it, and he sees nothing but Good news for the world in what God is accomplishing.

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And I imagine this is the core of the difference between Jesus and the other street preachers. Jesus sees God’s love breaking in all around him. In the most hopelessly distraught people Jesus sees God’s love surrounding them. In the most broken down situations, Jesus sees God’s grace already present. 

And there is something about the tone of someone who loves people that much, who sees God’s kingdom everywhere, who can look at someone they disagree with or even despise and even love them so much that they see them as God’s beloved child… There is something about the tone of a person like that, that makes you want to follow, that makes you want change your life in a similar way… That makes you want to start seeing God’s kingdom all around you.

I recently heard a story that took place acouple of hours from here, in a neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The story is about an artist …and about her front porch

But more specifically it is about how she helped her neighborhood speak love in a difficult situation. But rather than put my words to it, I’ll let her tell her story…

21 shots fired down the road. Two young people dead. And yet somehow, in the midst of their grief and pain, instead of trying to provoke change with anger or outrage, this community was able to sow love.

The artist, Vanessa German, later said this about it.

I began distributing those signs around the neighborhood to friends and community members who, like me, saw this as an opportunity to say ‘STOP!’, not with judgment, but with love.

Since my first batch of 200, I’ve made 800 more. People flock to these signs, they place them all around Homewood and beyond as a way to come together as a community, as citizens in a global hood to respond with ‘Love.’
— Vanessa German (http://lovefrontporch.com)

 

This is a repentant moment for this community. Following the love-sparked inspiration of an artist, They decided to turn together. 

They decided in the midst of an anxious, scary, and grievous situation to start seeing God’s love everywhere… even in the people who run in gangs, even in the people who carry guns.

I’m not sure what sort of result this yard sign campaign yielded. I don’t know if the gun violence decreased, I don’t know if the message even got to the gangs. But I do know there is something irresistible about the love that this community showed. And I do know at the very least, their message of love has echoed at the very least into our church.

I am not sure where you are this Lent. Maybe you find yourself struggling to see God’s love. Maybe you’ve tried to follow but have fallen short. Maybe you have been so distracted by work, or family, or other good things that you have overlooked God’s love breaking in. 

However you are, I know that the lenten season every year is an opportunity where the inspired artist on the front porch of our lives invites us… with a face full of love… to repent, to turn, to change our lives and follow…

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However you choose to say it, what I think it actually means is that this season Christ invites us to start recognizing that God’s irresistible love is already present in our lives and waiting to be found. 

When we begin to understand the love God showed the world through the faith of Jesus Christ our whole world changes.

We start to look at the world through God’s eyes rather than through our own, and see that EVERYTHING has value, because God loves it, because Christ died for it. 

Everything in our world God loves beyond our ability to love.

I believe we are all here because we have seen echoes of this love that comes from God in our own lives. 

And we are all here because it has already started to change us. 

Let that change take hold.

Let your life be repentant, let God’s love take hold until the only thing you see around you, in every person’s face, in every story and encounter, are mark’s of God’s kingdom of love breaking in.

amen.