Compassionate Repentance (Sermon)

“Compassionate Repentance”

Isaiah 9:1-4 and Matthew 4:12-23

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Nonetheless, those who were in distress won’t be exhausted. At an earlier time, God cursed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but later he glorified the way of the sea, the far side of the Jordan, and the Galilee of the nations. 

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.
    On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned.
You have made the nation great;
    you have increased its joy.
They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest,
    as those who divide plunder rejoice.
As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them,
    the staff on their shoulders,
    and the rod of their oppressor. 
(Isaiah 9:1-4 – CEB)

12 Now when Jesus heard that John was arrested, he went to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and settled in Capernaum, which lies alongside the sea in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This fulfilled what Isaiah the prophet said:

15 Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
        alongside the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles,
16the people who lived in the dark have seen a great light,
        and a light has come upon those who lived in the region and in shadow of death. 

17 From that time Jesus began to announce, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”

18 As Jesus walked alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, because they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 20 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 21 Continuing on, he saw another set of brothers, James the son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with Zebedee their father repairing their nets. Jesus called them and22 immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

23 Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:12-23 — CEB)

         One reason I wear this robe is that science and math humbled me. Mercilessly. I do, however, remember one thing my high school physics teacher said. She said that there’s no such thing as cold, only a lack of heat.

Driven by physical interactions on a molecular level, heat moves toward places that lack warmth. And that motion from warm toward not-as-warm is constant.

         In a similar way, under the influence of gravity, a liquid of any kind always flows toward its lowest point—thus the saying that water always seeks its level.

         These things remind me of another adage: Nature abhors a vacuum.

         The reason that someone who prefers Scrabble over Sudoku is pondering such things from a pulpit is that today’s passage opens with the announcement of a vacuum and an immediate response to it.

John the Baptist has been arrested. His prophetic voice has been removed from the public square, so, the story of God’s presence and intention in the world encounters a kind of vacuum—a silence. When Jesus hears about John’s arrest, he springs into action. Like heat toward lack of heat, he radiates himself into the void for the sake of love, that is to say, for the sake of justice, compassion, dignity, and peace.

         In quoting Isaiah 9, Matthew suggests that Jesus’ arrival on the scene fills a vacuum in a manner that is completely natural and purposed. “The people who lived in the dark have seen a great light.” Like heat, light is always trying to seep into places of darkness.

And it makes sense. Jesus spends most of his time and energy seeking relationship with people who are out of relationship—lepers, disabled people, strangers, tax collectors, and all manner of people the gospels label as “sinners.”

Even those whom Jesus pulls in as disciples are prone to exclusion and violence. Remember, Judas Iscariot is a kind of right-wing extremist who betrays Jesus when it’s clear that he’s not going to muster an army and try to overthrow the Roman government. A few hours later, Peter tries to start that messianic war in the Garden of Gethsemane by attacking the high priest’s servant.

Jesus confounds so many people because, instead of avoiding the places where people wander in sin, illness, and hopelessness, he inhabits them. He brings healing, wholeness, and strength where it has been lacking. So, wherever peace is offered into unrest, wherever reconciliation is taken into brokenness, wherever joy spills into grief and despair—there God’s realm of grace is filling a vacuum.

Isn’t that Jesus’ point when he announces the coming of the “kingdom of God”? In the Christ, the fire of the Spirit is moving toward iced-over hearts. In him, living water is seeking its level among us. In Jesus, The Light of the World is shining into the darkness.

It seems to me that Matthew wants us to recognize all of this vacuum-filling grace in the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. And seems is the best we’ve got. Matthew doesn’t explain Simon, Andrew, James, and John dropping everything and following Jesus. We can only assume things like the pull of Jesus’ charisma, or maybe the young men’s boredom with the family business and their thirst for adventure. We can also imagine, but cannot know, that the fishermen had heard and been baptized by John. And if so, maybe John had created a vacuum in the fishermen, a vacuum in the form of a hunger for God’s radical grace.

Could that be it? Could preparation for receiving and sharing the Christ involve, as much as anything else, a gracious exposure of emptiness within us? Could it be that when we feel an acute, spiritual vacuum, we are being prepared to receive a deeper awareness of God’s presence and love?

Over the millennia, the church has dealt with that place of disorientation by focusing almost exclusively on individual sin. We’ve been taught that the emptiness we feel results from our being “bad.” And if we understand repentance as nothing more than naming and regretting all that bad stuff, then, when John the Baptist and Jesus urge us toward repentance, we’ll likely see ourselves as Jonathan Edwards described humankind: “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.”

But is shame, guilt, and fearful regret all there is to repentance?

Well, we all participate in unfaithfulness. And our unfaithfulness can do all sorts of damage to ourselves, to others, and to the planet. I also think that repentance involves more than just confession, more, even, than setting ourselves on paths of greater faithfulness. I think repentance involves taking a long and deeply compassionate look at ourselves. As we consider the things we do and don’t do that distance us from God, neighbor, and the earth, we begin to see within us places of spiritual receptivity that our unfaithfulness has clogged up.

Where we judge or persecute people different from us, we have congested that part of us through which we encounter the creative wholeness of God. And that’s scary because in it we recognize that God is bigger than our own nationality, race, or religious tradition.

Where we are susceptible to lust, we are avoiding a deep desire for intimacy with God. And that’s scary because in that place we realize that God already knows us through and through, warts and all.

Where we abide violence and crave domination, we have cluttered with weapons and greed that holy place where we depend on God alone. And that’s scary because in that place we have to learn to trust what we cannot see.

So yes, one way to understand the first disciples’ drop-everything willingness to follow Jesus is to imagine that they had heard and understood John the Baptist calling them to what I will call compassionate repentance.

Compassionate repentance is not about heaping guilt on ourselves or others. It’s not about appeasing an “angry God.” It’s about making room. It’s about clearing the dock so that we can continue becoming God-imaged, grace-driven human beings.

Compassionate repentance has the potential to prepare in us the way of the Lord because it’s about exposing in ourselves a built-in spiritual vacuum that God alone can fill. And God fills it with a holy call, and with holy belonging. And maybe that holiness is, as it seemed to be for Simon, Andrew, James, and John, something our hearts and minds embrace the moment it appears.

As a way of life, compassionate repentance prepares the way for holy warmth, living water, and guiding light by prompting us to ask ourselves, continually:

Does this new possibility deepen my awareness of love and my capacity to love?

Will this opportunity further the cause of justice on behalf of those suffering beneath prejudice, poverty, or grief?

Will it ask everything of me while also creating new space for the Beloved within me?

When we learn to ask questions like this, we are being prepared to respond to Christ’s presence, and to follow him.

And even now, in this moment, he is calling us.

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