The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Bernier: “Repent for the Kingdom is at Hand” (Ash Wednesday)
From the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Bernier of Providence REC in Texas, here is an excellent Ash Wednesday sermon that speaks the truth about the subject of repentance:
Repent for the Kingdom is at Hand
Ash Wednesday, February 10, 2016For 400 hundred years the prophetic voice was not heard in Israel, until there appeared the voice of one preaching in the wilderness of Judea: saying, Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand.It was the voice of John the Baptist calling people to repentance. Calling people to have a change of heart towards sin, to renounce their evil ways and amend their lives, in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, who was at the door. This inward change of attitude, mindset and amendment of life, was to be publicly demonstrated by coming out of Jerusalem to receive the witness of John and being baptized by him in the Jordan River.This purification ritual evoked various key moments in the history of redemption and the ritual prescribed in the Law of Moses. The Jordan River was crossed by the people of Israel after wandering for forty years in the dessert in order to enter the promise land following the lead of Joshua. They crossed the river through dry land, just as forty years prior their fathers had crossed the Red Sea following Moses through the waters into a new life of freedom from the bondage of Egypt, on the other side.To understand the meaning of these crossings of water without harm, following God’s appointed Messengers one must remember that they themselves are reminiscent of another crossing of water which occurred at the beginning of time.Scripture reveals that after the fall, evil and violence increased over the whole human race to such an extent that God decided to judge the world destroying every living creature with the waters of the flood. He gave an advanced warning of this through the witness of the last faithful family remaining upon the earth, that of Noah and his family.Noah was “a preacher of righteousness” to his generation and for 120 years patiently built the ark and gathered all the necessary supplies, while all the rest of the families of the earth ignored his warning of impending judgment and call to repentance.And notice that the judgment of the old world could have been averted if Noah’s generation had paid heed to his witness of impending judgment and repented from their evil ways.We know this, because of the example of a later occasion when God announced impending judgment upon the great City of Niniveh, a symbol of the unbelieving earth, through the preaching of Jonah, an unwilling preacher of righteousness, who after fleeing in the opposite direction, in the end finally went through the city preaching for forty days the impending judgment and destruction of the city.But, in this one occasion the city received the call to repentance and from the king down, a general fast was called and everyone repented from their evil ways and at the end of the period of forty days, God did not destroy the city, having compassion upon that big city and all its inhabitants including the animals. This clearly shows that it is not the will of God to destroy sinners, but that they would repent and live. It is only when sinners persist in ignoring the word of God, to practice with eagerness their evil ways without repentance, that they bring upon themselves the wrath of God; but if they listen to God’s word and repent of their evil ways, then judgment is averted as it happened with the city of Niniveh.But, it was not so in the days of Noah. In his days the majority of people ignored the call to repentance and evil increased to fill the earth. Not even the rest of Noah’s living relatives, his uncles, aunts and cousins, not even one of his many brothers and sisters born to Lamech, his father (Gen. 5:30) paid heed to the words of Noah to repent of their evil ways and flee to the Ark believing the truth of impending judgment announced by the word of God through his faithful prophet.When the time came, only the animals which God had chosen to preserve the seed of life upon the earth obeyed the call to come into the ark for safety following Noah; and of the human race only Noah, his wife and his three sons with their wives entered the ark. The rest of humanity perished on the waters of the flood.This is why baptism requires water, and bears not only a sign of purification by washing but also involves a sign of judgment upon the sin of our old corrupt nature through death, and that is why baptism is associated with the cross.For forty days and forty nights it rained upon the earth until the highest mountains were covered by water, and the unrepentant wicked generation perished on the flood while they who trusted in God’s word and obeyed his commandment to repent were preserved, riding the waters of judgment upon the safety of the ark.After the flood, God gave humanity a promise that he would not destroy the earth with water ever again and put the rainbow as a sign, while he took measures to restrain the potential wickedness of men, giving universal laws and shortening their life span.The reality of Noah’s flood and the judgment and salvation through water is the pattern underlying the symbolism of baptism and the preaching of righteousness calling to repentance and preparation for forty days. Notice that this pattern was repeated in Moses, crossing the Red Sea and then receiving the tablets of the law for forty days (twice) in the mountain, and Joshua crossing the Jordan after forty years in the dessert.So, when a new preacher of righteousness appeared in Israel calling people to Jordan for purification through water baptism, the symbolism was clear. Again there was an announcement of impending judgment upon all who would not listen to the message of the coming Messiah, that promised new law giver who, like Moses, would establish a New Covenant, by which he would save God’s people, while everyone who does not believe in him would be removed from his kingdom.It is worth noting how before the Lord began to preach, like Moses, right after his baptism the Lord went out into the dessert and there fasted for forty days and forty nights, where he was tempted and triumphed over Satan.After that, he began to announce: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This was the same message which John had preached at the beginning of his ministry. The kingdom of heaven is the sphere where the will of God is fully embraced and performed, and therefore it is a sphere where sin, the devil, the flesh and the world, must be renounced.In order to see and enter the kingdom of God, the Lord said to Nicodemus one must be born again of water and of the Spirit. One must be baptized in water and believe in Christ. The old nature must die, we must repent, we must change our wicked ways and turn to God for forgiveness and amendment of life trusting and obeying Christ alone for our salvation.The Lord began his public ministry preaching the same message of John, the same message of the prophets, the same message of Noah : Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at Hand. The time of judgment is drawing near and now is our only chance for preparation.God’s prophets, Baptism, water, the wilderness, forty days, fast, call to repentance,… The overlap of these figures with Old Testament revelation is not a coincidence. The record of salvation history with this pattern of revelation of God’s word through the appointment of God chosen prophets announcing judgment and salvation through repentance and faith is not a coincidence.It is the message of the season of Lent with its forty days of fast. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, is a summary of the same teaching and warning which was given to the ancient world and has been recorded in Scripture as a warning to the present world concerning God’s final judgment and the coming of Christ kingdom.Humanity ignores God’s word with its patient call to repentance at its own peril.The Christian Church is called every year to remember this call to repentance and amendment of life in preparation for the coming of Christ’s kingdom through a season of fasting in preparation for the celebration of the Lord’s death and resurrection during Holy Week; being reminded of the truth of our corruption: “remember thou are dust and to dust thou shall return”; and our duty to listen to the words of the prophets and obey God’s commandment, repenting from our sin, in order to cross through the waters of judgment and enter into the joys of the new creation of the promised land through faith in Christ our only Savior and Lord.On the Cross, he took the judgment of death upon himself that in him we could receive the gift of new life conquering evil, sin and death.The Lord foretold that in the last days before his coming, it would be like the days of Noah.(Luke 17:26-30) People will go around doing what they want, immersed in the business, cares and pleasures of this world while ignoring God’s purpose for creation. He also said that it would be like in the days of Lot. What these days have in common? People ignored the word of God. The idolatry of this world prevailed upon the heart and minds of the majority of people against the word of God.In the same way, the Lord foretold, that in the last days before his coming, wickedness will abound upon the earth to the point that the love of many will grow cold.Scripture also foretells that mockers would deride the testimony of Scriptures making fun of the hope of our Lord’s return and considering the story of Noah as nothing more than a children story or a fable. Many will reject faith in Christ, baptism, its meaning and its call to repentance, faith and discipleship as the only way to prepare for impending and final judgment.We are seeing multiple instances of how these prophecies are been fulfilled in our generation throughout the whole world. We see formerly Christian nations, abandoning the fear of the Lord and ignoring his commandments. We see Christian churches and denominations compromising the truth of Scripture in order to embrace the spirit of the age.It is not easy, to be called to be as the voice of one crying in the wilderness calling people to repentance while the multitude mocks and runs in the opposite direction. But the faithful church in every generation has this same duty. And who knows, like Jonah, we may be surprised to see the triumph of God’s mercy in our context, anyway, be it that people listen or not, it is our duty to give witness to our generation as Noah, and Jonah, and John the Baptist did to theirs, and as the Lord has done to all. We must preach, believe and obey the gospel of repentance, knowing that the kingdom of heaven is really at hand, and that there is only one way to enter it.We must preach, believe and obey the message which Lent is designed to proclaim, that unless we embrace the word of God and take upon ourselves our duty to repent and amend our lives, denying ourselves to follow the Messiah into safety, crossing through the waters of baptism while there is still chance, before the door of the ark is closed, there will be no more opportunity for repentance.No one knows the time when the door of salvation finally will be shut, but we know that it will not be opened for ever, both for humanity as a whole and for each one of us individually, the opportunity to obey the call to repentance will not last forever. How we respond to the word of God with its call to repentance, faith and obedience to Christ now, will determine the eternal destiny of each and every one of us. We ignore the word of God at our own peril.Lent is an opportunity now, to pay heed to this message and prepare for the Lord’s coming in judgment while the door of salvation is still open. May this season of Lent be for us a time to embrace and proclaim the message of salvation for ourselves and to our generation, through repentance and faith in Christ, that we may be ready for the time of his coming and may enjoy all the blessings of life God has promised to those who turn to him and trust in the truth of his word, for the honor and glory of our only Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.Let us Pray
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin E. Bernier
May we indeed take advantage of the opportunity that is Lent now, both for ourselves in our sanctification and for others in our witness.