Whenever I imagine an apt use for the phrase “think again,” I somehow keep going back to the time when our daughters were teenagers. In my mind, they would have just come up with a plan that 1) involved a trip to an exciting destination, often with some other girls; that 2) was very educational, don’t you know, Dad?; and that 3) involved the use of my car. Having been around the block a couple of times in similar situations with my father, I was always pretty sure that their plan also included, unmentioned, 4) a bunch of boys. It is to such plans that the phrase “think again” is appropriately delivered.
That, of course, is not the only sort of instance in which one might say “think again,” but it is rather exemplary. Any plan headed for trouble, any un-thought out plan, any plan that is short-sighted because of a nearby desire that sets aside long term health, can and should be met with the response, “think again.” It is one we can use with teenagers, or with respect to discussions of the plans of many politicians, or, for that matter, with respect to any sort of crazy plan that will undo us one way or another. Of course, there is something a little familiar in the phrase, and so, in certain circumstances, using it might seem rude or impertinent. But the alternative advice to “rethink” an idea is just another way of saying, “Think again, buddy.”
With this in mind, it is helpful to realize that to “think again,” or to re-think, is to say in English literally what the Greek biblical term that we translate as “repent” means. To repent is to change one’s mind; it is to rethink a position, it is to draw oneself up short and to think again. To tell somebody to repent is to tell him to “Think again, buddy.” To repent is to think again.
Now, this is also helpful to know when we consider, as we do this morning, that according to Matthew, and Mark, the first public words out Jesus’ mouth after his baptism, the moment when he became conscious of his mission, were nothing less than “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” When Jesus tells the crowds this, he is telling them to “think again, buddy.”
Why mention this at all? It is, in large part, because as we think about Jesus’ ministry and the kingdom that he announces, we in liberal Protestantism pretty much never think about Jesus making repentance a key to the kingdom. We prefer to concentrate on Jesus’ kind and generous demonstrations of the kingdom, hoping to follow them ourselves: the healing of the sick, the curing of the lame, the freeing of the prisoner and the forgiveness of the sinner. We prefer to leave insistent calls for repentance to the wild man, John the Baptist; we do so in good part, because we think that calls for repentance are the wild and unattractive side of religion. If not the original model, John at least fits the image of the guy standing on the corner with a placard, or just plain standing in your face, telling you that you need to repent. And, frankly, few of us think that needs apply to us. Besides, being told to repent in that tone is just plain annoying. But the fact of the matter is that Jesus, no less than John, makes repentance something that is vitally linked to the coming of the kingdom.
There is, I freely admit, one sense in which we might think that call to repentance is not something that applies to us. In this one sense, we would be right. If repentance, the turning from an immoral and overtly sinful life, is the first step in the life of faith, this is a call that has been heeded by all of us as far as I can tell. Of course, there are the usual issues with questionable finances, sexual behavior, and the finer points of truth-telling, but I am pretty sure that it would be wide of the mark to say that such a first step has not been taken by everybody here, even if there is backsliding. I am confident about saying “everybody.” It would be perverse to issue a call for repentance, if that meant asking one to gin up some secret sins just so that one could repent of them. So, repentance in that one sense might be for other people. Yet, still, the call to repentance in another sense belongs to everybody all the time, for all of us when confronted with the kingdom of God need to think again, and need to do a lot of rethinking of things.
Why? Why do Matthew and Mark make sure in their Gospels to start Jesus’ public ministry with these words? It is because when the kingdom is at hand and when it is the kingdom that is at stake, that thinking again is exactly what is demanded of us, every one of us. How so? Well, in the first place, it is because the kingdom of God, it is because the good that God would do for us, is so interruptive of the ways that we normally do things, even when we are by and large good people; it can be so radically different and, by its very nature, so transformative of who we are that most of our efforts to anticipate it tend to misfire. The kingdom, the good that God promises for human beings is not the natural conclusion to living a safe life, or a prudent and well-planned one. God’s good is not what we see clearly and what we confidently walk towards, with lots of signposts along the way. Rather, the kingdom is what grasps us and what can remake us – if only we are willing to let it. And, in this case, being willing to be remade is precisely a matter of rethinking things. For it is only by thinking again, by radically opening ourselves up to lives that Christ wants to live within us, that God can give us all the good that God wants to give us. Unless we can think again, we may well miss the surprise.
So, part of the need to think again, to repent, is because we don’t always get the kingdom very well, and we continually need to rethink it, in order to hear it, to see it at all. But there is even more to it than that; for we actively resist what we don’t see well. We particularly resist it whenever we think of our own interests, even our best ones, which we do see extremely well. Our plans may not be crazy, we may not be vicious sinners, but our life plans may well be – in fact, they usually are -- running in very different directions than God’s kingdom wants to run. In that way, we may well resist the kingdom and need to rethink ourselves. If you think about it for very long, you may well realize that, in fact, a lot of our life plans actually count on the kingdom not coming. After all, think of the economic and personal disruption, think of the disruption to one’s career and one’s loyalties that would take place if the sick were all healed, if prisoners were freed, if the spiritually blind were to see, if righteousness were to triumph, if the law of God were actually written in our hearts. A lot of us would be out of jobs. In the New Testament, when the Pharisees resisted what Jesus was saying, it may well have been the result of a certain clear-sightedness on their part. They knew the announcement of the kingdom of God meant a change, and they were not ready for it. They had no intention of rethinking things at all. That was their problem; their problem was not ethical, it was the way they thought, and the way they steadfastly refused to think. All sorts of bad life plans followed from that. It is in a similar respect, that we also need to rethink things, because even if we are nice people, we do too many times end up resisting the good that God would do us, sometimes in very nice ways. Thus, we, too, many times have some unhealthy life plans.
It is just those sorts of plans that need to be rethought, in order that we may welcome the kingdom. But there is even one more reason to think again, and that is because it is only in the very act of giving up our previous plans, our ways of working, that we make ourselves humble enough for the kingdom. For, as it turns out in Christianity, to repent, to think again, is not just to come up with a Plan B. It is to recognize that we need to think again and again, that we can’t come up with a plan ourselves, and that, therefore, we need to recognize that we need to be given a plan. That recognition is the sort of humility that lets God do us the good that God wants to do us, instead of advising him of how best to do his job. That is Paul’s point when he says that the word of the cross, the word of the weakness of the cross may appear foolishness to those who are set on their own way, but it is, in fact, the very power of God, the very thing that brings about the kingdom and the good that God would do us. We who in making plans think we are in charge, really need to be given what is good, and thus we need to think again about who is in charge.
Let me give an illustration of the importance of this sort of repentance, of this need to think again. It comes from an unusual source, namely a Japanese Buddhist philosopher by the name of Tanabe Hajime who wrote shortly after World War II. Tanabe describes his situation and his country’s situation at the end of the war. Japan was losing and was under direct attack as American bombers were doing a daily wasting of Japanese cities. The government refused to acknowledge openly the state of affairs, and thus to undertake necessary reforms. It also made it a matter of treason for anybody to offer criticism; the rightists and extreme nationalists were the only ones who got a hearing. What could the people do in such a situation? Where was their hope? Tanabe worried deeply about this question as a philosopher. What could he do, what could he write to help? Brave criticism wasn’t going to be much help. Doing nothing wasn’t either. He felt paralyzed. But in the midst of that anxiety, he says, he let go and surrendered himself to his own inability. This penitent confession, he called it, or metanoesis (the Greek word for “repentance”), or as we have been saying, thinking again, suddenly brought him to new insight. What was that insight? That he himself couldn’t do or say the right thing. The only thing to do was to resign himself silently to his weakness, and explore his own inner depths of inability.
As Tanabe makes clear, though, this resignation of himself to his weakness was not the sort of apathetic resignation that we all should fear. This sort of recognition of his own weakness, this thinking again about his own thinking, actually allowed another power outside himself to arise in him now that his ego no longer occupied the place where that Other power needed to be. It was, then, he said, that “This Other-power [brought] about a conversion in me that headed me in a new direction hitherto unknown to me.” As a result, he had a new way to talk that was not treasonous, that was not a matter of despair, but which taught others how to open themselves to something new and hopeful. In short, repentance, thinking again about things he thought he had been confident about before, brought about new insight, and brought about new life. New life here may be the insight that there is hope, and that our lives are not necessarily dependent on the government or our own inabilities. New life may be the recognition that the old problems and the old conflicts that had us tied us in knots were not as totalizing as they had seemed. There are other ways of living we hadn’t suspected. That is certainly something; it is actually a lot.
Now, this is a very Buddhist story. But Tanabe was fully aware of how close his Buddhism lay to Jesus’ calls for repentance. He thought he was saying something about death and resurrection that was very Christian, namely, that unless we are willing to die, unless we are willing to go the way of the weakness of the cross, we will not see the glories of the resurrection or of the kingdom. He actually described it in that Christian way. He was right to do so and we, too, should be aware of how well he described things that are the reality of our faith. For while repentance in the first instance is certainly a matter of turning from an overtly sinful and bad life, at its real depths, it is above all a matter of no longer trying to make our own plans and way in life. It is a matter of opening ourselves to the power of the Other that is above and beyond us, and that yet humbly dwells within us. Repenting, thinking again, is therefore a matter of no longer doing all the talking, doing all the planning, loudly and all the time, but a matter of listening to that other power, and being charged by it. It is a matter of simple humility. That is why repentance is so closely tied to the kingdom that Jesus announces, and that is why repentance and thinking again is so very necessary for all of us, all of the time. To be fit for the kingdom is not a matter of being good enough, and thus a matter of just straightening up your act; it is a matter of opening oneself to humbly receive the kingdom and let it live and dwell within us. But for that to happen, we have to rethink things. We have to let ourselves be rethought and remade. That remaking is precisely what the kingdom of God is all about.
Doing that is an everyday matter, not just a once in a lifetime deal for hardened sinners or alcoholics. This sort of daily repentance and rethinking is, in fact, at the heart of prayer and of reading the Scriptures. For if we enter into prayer, and read the Scriptures with a penitent attitude, with a willingness to think again, we may actually let that Other power speak to us. We may actually hear, because we have stopped making so much noise. And in hearing, we may be remade, and we will receive all the good gifts God means to give us, but most especially God himself.