Many 21st century people believe the Bible is filled with silly and outmoded beliefs. They often mockingly describe God as the great punisher in the sky, striking us down for our evil deeds. He jealously guards his vengeance, too. “Vengeance is mine” is how Moses quotes God in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:35) and Paul repeats it for the Romans (Romans 12:19).
Yet that vengeful God whom those unbelievers mock is the one many of them choose to imitate slavishly—not the one who several times in scripture is also described as repentant. Repent means to rethink, and the vengeful God described in Sunday’s first reading (Jon 3:1-5, 10) is also shown as a God of mercy and repentance—for rethinking the punishment he told Jonah was intended for Nineveh:
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way, he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them; he did not carry it out.
Forgiveness aside, for many of us modern sophisticates, the Bible reads like it’s written to children, promising there’ll be no gifts from Santa Claus unless they behave. Yet Sophisticates with power imitate that Old Testament God’s vengeance all the time. One special education expert with more than 27 years of experience was forced to resign because those in power above her at her school district didn’t like the sentiment she posted on her private Facebook page. On it she included critical comments about how certain civil rights groups tend to overlook the civil rights of the unborn. Those in power didn’t even give her the courtesy of asking for her repentance. Her overlords proved that Old-testament-style revenge is the Godly trait most favored by the ungodly.
But the New Testament introduced a new model of Godly power: Repentance laced with fearlessness. It was preached by John the Baptist and personified by Jesus. As Sunday’s gospel reading indicates (Mk 1:14-20), the earthbound powers of John’s time cancelled John for preaching the heavenly power of freedom from their laws, but they couldn’t cancel the network of the repentant Jesus established. It survives to this day:
After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Jesus also told us that Kingdom was within our grasp, not out of our reach. That means it’s AMONG us, as long as love is among us. That love remains out of reach to those who put the attainment of earth-sourced power first. In Sunday’s second reading (1 Cor 7:29-31), Paul tells us that’s a waste of our precious limited time. That time is running out, he says, so we should live accordingly. Act as those buying but not owning; those using the world but not using it fully. “For the world in its present form is passing away.”
We worship a God who is found through repentance. As we get older, we get wiser by rethinking our priorities. Let’s pray we use our remaining time thinking wisely about our future form.