From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” —Matthew 4:17
Many people like Jesus. They admire him from a distance. They’d even like to be closer to him. But they know by now they’re not good at it. They’ve never been able to keep it up. After much failure, many of us conclude that the saints and the mystics must have a knack for spirituality that ordinary people don’t have. Ordinary people know something’s missing from their lives, and they feel that Jesus could mean the world to them. But how do we lock onto him? Many of us don’t know how, we don’t want to be misled, we’re tired of failing, so, very quietly, deep inside, we give up. Maybe that’s you this morning.
If it is, you are the very one Jesus came for. The real Jesus is attracted to the weak and the guilty and the perplexed and the exhausted. The strong people, who can stand on their own, don’t need him. But he finds his best friends among the desperate. The real Jesus is not the private property of any elite. The real Jesus is the King of the broken. When we are broken, and honest with him about it and real with him – that’s when we find him to be real. When we walk in the light of honesty, we find him, because he’s there in that light, and nowhere else (1 John 1:7).
Today we start a new series called “Real Jesus.” Why? Because the real Jesus wants to be real to every one of us. We have many misconceptions holding us back. It’s not as though we’re working off a blank sheet of paper in our minds. By now there are misspellings and erasures and mistakes and scribbles all over. Wouldn’t it be exciting to start over? Wouldn’t it be exciting to get rid of the fallacies about Jesus that make him seem unreal? Let’s rethink everything, honestly and boldly. We have a reliable source here in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). It’s the greatest sermon by the greatest preacher of all time. We all sense it offers us a better future. But we’ll have to change. Everything we most desire is found where we least expect it.
So here’s what I’m asking for. Let’s go back and recapture the surprise that the real Jesus is. We don’t have to be smart. We do have to be open. When he finished preaching this sermon, the people were astonished (Matthew 7:28). Another translation says they were thunderstruck. One way to know we’re tracking with the real Jesus is this: Are we blown away? If I read the Sermon on the Mount and think, “Sure, that’s obvious. Everybody believes that,” then I am not listening. I’m still hearing him through the filters in my mind that have always blocked him out. Let’s not assume we understand Jesus. Let’s assume we don’t. The best way to get free of the past is to be surprised by a love so great even believers barely believe it.
All I want to do today is ask you to relocate with me in a place of total openness. And the most direct route toward this re-encounter with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is to start where he started – in chapter 4, verse 17:
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
That verse is the context for the Sermon on the Mount. Two questions. One, what did Jesus mean by “repent”? Two, what did he mean by “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
What did Jesus mean by “Repent”?
Already we sense we’re on unfamiliar ground. Are there any experts on repentance here today? Early in Christian history, even the way people talked about repentance went wrong. Jerome, the brilliant scholar, translated the Bible into Latin around 400 A.D. and his translation became the standard Bible in the Western world for over a thousand years. He translated this word “repent” as “Do penance.” That is, show how sorry you are. Which is a good thing to do. But we can be oh-so-sorry and weep buckets of tears, without an ounce of repentance. Doing penance is a momentary act. It doesn’t change us. It just makes us feel that now we’ve paid our dues and we’re off the hook so that we can get back to how we’ve always lived – until the next time we need to make a payment. “Do penance” imprisons people in pious shallowness that doesn’t help. In Jewish tradition too, repentance was reduced to acts of almsgiving and fasting and so forth. Jesus had something deeper in mind.
What did he mean by “repent”? Martin Luther summed it up in the first of his 95 Theses: “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying ‘Repent,’ intended that the whole life of believers should be repentance.” True repentance is not praying a prayer, to get fire insurance against hell. True repentance is bigger than a moment. True repentance is a new Godward tilt at the center of your being, because now you see how you have hated him, and yet he still loves you, and something deep inside you changes, and you want him now. True repentance is a new heart within that touches everything about us. Not a single one of us is consistent; but when we enter into repentance, we give Jesus free access to everything in our lives. We are open. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “Repent.”
The price we pay for repentance is to face who we really are. There is something about every one of us – there’s something about you you don’t want to face, something you’ve done, something you are, that you can’t bear to look at. It’s so shameful, so embarrassing, so frightening, so defeating, so paralyzing, you bury it, you ignore it. Nietzsche spoke for us all: “My memory says, I did this. My pride says, I can’t have done that. Eventually, my memory yields.” As long as you stay in denial and keep watching enough TV and doing other things to keep your mind occupied, Jesus will remain a nice theory, but not a power, not a reality. But when you get empty enough and exhausted enough that you bring your worst self to Jesus and pour out your story in his holy presence, that is when the real Jesus starts becoming real to you – because you’re finally real with him. Today could be your day of release. You get there through his word: “Repent.”
The Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1648 asked the question, What is repentance? The answer is this:
Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.
Three things stand out there. One, a sense of sin. If we want Jesus, we have to stop worshiping at the shrine of self-esteem. The prodigal son got it: “Father, I have sinned. I am no longer worthy” (Luke 15:21). The best way to deaden our souls is to think, “Father, I am worthy.”
Jesus Christ becoming real to us is not primarily an intellectual problem, though honest questions deserve an honest answer. But the biggest barrier is our lack of self-awareness. William Kilpatrick wrote this:
A colleague at Boston College… once asked members of his philosophy class to write an anonymous essay about a personal struggle over right and wrong, good and evil. Most of the students, however, were unable to complete the assignment. “Why?” he asked. “Well,” they said – and apparently this was said without irony – “we haven’t done anything wrong.”
But what if God thinks we’ve done a lot of wrong? What if he wants to talk to us about it, because he wants to help us? In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus is going to confront us with truths embarrassing enough to set us free.
A sense of sin is the Holy Spirit being kind to us by unkindly showing us the light we don’t want to see and the truth we’re afraid to admit and the guilt we’d rather ignore. It is the severe mercy of God overruling our best excuses. It is the peace of God declaring war on the false peace we settle for. When Jesus said, “Repent,” he was saying, “The time to start owning up is now.”
Two, apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ. A sense of sin only will never change us. It will drive us underground. We will hide in our hypocrisies. We will keep up a good front but always look for loopholes. But a sense of sin with the mercy of God in Christ will send us into warp-speed repentance. The Bible says, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). Here is what you must know. When you hate him and defy him and run from him and dishonor him and treat him like dirt, Jesus Christ on high is interceding for you, still loving you. Repentance is not primarily turning from sin. Primarily, repentance is turning back to God, because he is the only one who finally loves us. The prodigal son was the life of the party and everybody’s best friend, until the money ran out. But the Father was still there, waiting for him, longing for him. If you think that, after everything you’ve done, God must despise you, listen to the gospel again: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6).
Three, new obedience. Being accepted by God and loved and rejoiced over, after all we’ve done, changes us. The power of God’s love is a power for newness of life in practical ways, because a repentant heart longs for more of God. A repentant heart hungers for the Word of God, whether the message is comfort or rebuke. A repentant heart enjoys the people of God. A repentant hearts wants to spread the gospel to others. A repentant heart says, “I want to go further with God, and for God, than I’ve ever gone before, further than I’ve ever dreamed of going.” That’s what Jesus was talking about when he said, “Repent.”
What did he mean by “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
The entire Old Testament funnels down into these words, and the entire New Testament explodes out of those words. Obviously, there is a back story here. The kingdom of heaven, whatever it is – people were expecting it. Jesus is saying, “The moment has finally arrived. What you’ve been longing for is now beginning.”
This phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” appears over 30 times in Matthew’s gospel, and it nowhere appears in the Old Testament, but it sums up what the Old Testament is all about. For example,
The Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. —Psalm 95:3
The Lord will reign forever and ever. —Exodus 15:18
O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not God in heaven? You rule over the kingdoms of the nations. —2 Chronicles 20:6
The entire Old Testament is the story of the rule of God established at the creation, the rule of God opposed by our human pride, and the rule of God regained by the coming Messiah – creation, catastrophe, recovery. And the main thing I want you to know right now is that the renewed kingdom is more than religious. Jesus came to renew everything, the entire cosmos. The Old Testament foresaw it: “You shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Old Testament looked forward to that happy day when the lion will lie down with the lamb, a world with no pain or conflict or death, because the Messiah has come and died for our sins and has been raised to new life and has re-created everything for all who are loyal to him. That renovated world is the kingdom of heaven. And when his work is complete, you and I will look at each other and say, “We didn’t do this. Nothing good ever came from us. Jesus has taken all our failure and remade it all. There is something in the chemistry of his grace that can take anything, however shameful, and make it beautiful.” The Sermon on the Mount shows us his surprising strategies for taking us there.
So, obviously, “the kingdom of heaven” does not mean “God’s rule up in heaven.” It means “God’s heavenly rule coming down into this world.” It’s how the Lord taught us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is done in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The kingdom of heaven is this world that we like so much, this world that feels like home, but this world with nothing to fear ever again, nothing to make us sad ever again, nothing to degrade us ever again, a world where the Whitney Houstons don’t die at age 48 but sing on forever and they keep getting better, because the Messiah has come and died for their sins and been risen again and his life is pouring out of him onto all who are open.
What we’re learning, then, is that the kingdom of heaven is that golden day, that unsurpassable day, that day beyond which there is nothing greater, when we get our innocence back and God makes all the sad things come untrue forever. We could paraphrase Matthew 4:17 this way: “Take heart, open up, get ready to adjust, because the recovery is now beginning.” Jesus is saying, “I am the recovery. Follow me.”
The Sermon on the Mount leads us into the freshness only Jesus can give, right now before the eternal perfection arrives. As he speaks to us, our part is to receive him into those places in our lives where we are the most worn out and skeptical. At the very point where we have given up, Jesus can meet us afresh. Let’s go into repentance and re-learn life from the Sermon on the Mount. If we’ll do that together as a community, he will make us a prophetic presence in our world, to make the real Jesus more real to more people today.
Is this your day to enter the kingdom of heaven? If you will give Jesus your broken heart, he promises you a place close to him in a whole new world.