Repent! Jesus is Coming!

Posted on October 15, 2016


If you drive through Cottondale, as I do on occasional trips to Birmingham, there is a guy standing by the side of the road with his sign, “Repent!” And I think it adds, “Jesus is Coming,” or “The End is Near” or something along those lines.

I guess the range of reactions is from “that nut case is still out there,” to “good for him, the world needs to know,” and everything in between.

He is, I have to tell you, a fixture in American history.

His ancestry goes back deep into the eighteenth century when this country was still a colony of England. A part of me and part of you is in that sign he waves angrily or happily in the faces of passing drivers.

I am stepping out here into “no man’s land,” a term from the killing fields of trench warfare of World War I. Few survived fighting in ‘no man’s land,’ either killed, wounded or scarred for life from the place.

Writing about religion in America may not be as deadly as climbing out of the trenches and heading into no man’s land, but what you have to say will offend someone, or the many, who don’t think the same way.

The modern face of Christianity is an immensely diverse collection of religious views and practices, united only by Scripture and Jesus Christ. And people will argue heatedly even about those two unifying ingredients.

We tend to think of ourselves pretty much at the center of the universe, and, in a way of course, we are. We are alive and everyone before us is gone, and those before us are unborn and in the future.

But we are tied to the past, personally by our memories, and collectively as a people by the history of those who came before us.

While some people “live” in the past—past glories, past triumphs, past defeats, past tragedies—and some in the future—wait until [and you can fill in the blank]—most of us live in the present, and so are lifted up and borne along by the events of today, not yesterday, or tomorrow.

It can be a fun and instructive exercise to take anything we do today, and look back, and see how we did the same things a hundred, two hundred, or two thousand years ago.

There exist a few glitches. Our little game doesn’t work across the board.

We can’t look back to 1800, for example, and see how they played baseball then. Baseball wasn’t invented. So, what we did we do in our leisure time? It turns out there wasn’t of a lot of leisure time for most folks. They worked, not played.

People traveled from London to New York back then, but a long—sometimes deadly–voyage on a ratty sailing ship for weeks was pretty different from an eight-hour zip across the Atlantic in a jet.

Let’s narrow our focus a bit to Christianity, remembering our friend with his sign in Cottondale.

Christians for over 2000 years have always felt a need to reform and renew the church and its people. That’s what the guy is doing with his sign.

Christian pastors and priests have never been content with the state of the peoples’ souls, from when the Apostle Paul preached and wrote in the first century A.D. to today. It is the nature of the animal.

You are either moving forward or standing still, and Christianity wants you to be always changing for the better, unless of course it is to stand still and listen to the still, small voice of God. But he will probably be telling you to read the guy’s sign in Cottondale and act on it.

The German Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, set off a firestorm of protest and reform in 1519 when he claimed the Church—the Roman Catholic Church—was mired in materialism and governed in the main by wrong doctrines and teachings. The result was the Protestant Reformation and the establishment of the majority of churches you worship in today. It set Christendom aflame. And Christians set each other aflame—literally—in a paroxysm of deadly doctrinal disputes.

When colonial Americans got too comfortable in their ways in the eighteenth century, one would almost say smug, the fire of reform rose in the land to restore Christians to their ancient faith. It was called the First Great Awakening and the Cottondale prophet by the highway is one of that Awakening’s descendants.

Published as “Repent! Jesus is Coming!” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Sept.5, 2016