Is 55: 1-9, 1 Cor 10:1-13, Luke 13: 1-9
A Sermon Preached by the Rector Rev Chris Williams on 10 March 2019
These are challenging readings. I considered choosing different ones, but decided to keep these. I won’t be addressing all the challenges these passages present. But I would like us to look a little at repentance.
Repentance is one of those words which are synonymous with Lent. At the Ash Wednesday service I said the following: “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word”.
Lent begins with a reading of Psalm 51 – the famous prayer of repentance from King David after sleeping with another man’s wife and then having the husband killed! His response, when he was challenged by the prophet Nathan is very powerful and one which I have spent some time with these last couple of weeks.
But repentance is not a word everyone likes and I’ve been reflecting on why.
I think there is the idea that the word and the ideas behind it are there to make us feel bad. You can come to church on a sunny day feeling great about yourself and life and then you come to the confession where, regardless of what you have or haven’t done, you declare that you have sinned ‘in thought and word and deed’. But if you are a regular in this service, spare a though for those who listen to the BCP confessions which we use up to three times a week in this church. We say the words: ‘have mercy upon us, miserable offenders’ and the Ash Wed Collect which we should say throughout Lent, says we come to God ‘…worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness’ . Come to church and feel bad about yourself!
There is also an implied threat about what might happen if we do not repent. The passage we just read is one of the causes of this view: Pilate’s soldiers had come into the temple and murdered some northern Jews, whose blood became mingled with their sacrifices. Jesus then says “unless you repent you will all perish as they did!” Jesus then refers to 18 people who were killed when a tower fell on them and again says “unless you repent you will all perish as they did!” Bishop Tom Wright says the idea that this is talking about perishing in hell after death is clearly wrong. Up to this point and, indeed right up to his crucifixion, Jesus makes it clear that those who refuse his challenge to change direction and abandon the crazy nationalistic rebellion against Rome will suffer the consequences. Jesus is saying that if the people continue to refuse God’s kingdom-call to repent, to turn from their existing agendas, then those who escape the sword will find the very walls collapsing upon them as the enemy closes in.
Tom Wright, says it is clear from text that Luke was in no doubt that when Jerusalem fell in AD70, and these things did, indeed, occur, it was a direct result of refusing to follow the way of peace which Jesus had urged throughout his ministry. One thing that is very clear is that there are consequences to our actions – both as individuals and as a nation.
Another reason I think repentance has such a bad press, and it’s tied up with the last point, is that it’s one of the first things some Christians want to do when talking to others about their faith: tell them they are sinners – tell them how bad they are and that if they don’t repent, they will go to hell! A quick Google search will show so-called Christians carrying placards saying things such as ‘Repent. Turn to Jesus or burn! How to win friends and influence people! We may not see many of those outside Tesco in Liss but these views and actions are out there and I’m sure have obscured the love of God from many people.
Another reason we may struggle with repentance is because it IS so serious. Self-examination and repentance are not easy. It can be tough to look honestly at your actions and motives and lifestyle knowing that if you do, you might have to make some changes.
Repentance should be an action we take very seriously. It’s mentioned over 100 times in the Bible and was also a word on the lips of Jesus. It is nothing less than a summons to a complete and unconditional surrender to God. The word means ‘a change of mind and heart’ We often say it’s ‘turning around’ – a change of direction. It’s not an end in itself but an act that takes us from one place to the next. If you are walking in a certain direction and you realise you are going in the wrong direction, you stop, turn around and walk the other way. In Christian terms it’s about turning away from sin and turning towards Christ. In fact we use those words when placing the sign of the cross on people’s foreheads on Ash Wednesday. But on our journey to being with Jesus, becoming like Jesus and doing what Jesus did, we may deviate from those goals (in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness through our own deliberate fault) and we repent again – we turn around and walk in the right direction with the lifestyle and actions that accompany that decision.
It may include sorrow and regret, but repentance is more than that. Sorrow, guilt, regret, shame, is never an end in itself, but always, always a process to move us into God’s grace and love. If you know any person, any church any group that seeks to keep you in a state of guilt, then run a mile. St Paul says (2 Cor 7): Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, Repentance is nothing less than a doorway to all the blessings of God.
Again and again in the Bible, when repentance is mentioned it is always a means to an end, and many passages tell us what that end is: the kingdom of heaven, rejoicing, refreshing, life, mercy, joy, forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and knowledge of the truth. What’s not to like? Yes, the process of repentance may be accompanied by ‘a contrite and broken spirit’ as Psalm 51 says, but repentance that keeps you in a place of brokenness is not godly repentance, because repentance is simply a doorway through which we walk.
David, in Psalm 51 which I mentioned earlier, can not be accused of minimising his sin, but he also moves beyond the relative passivity of emotion into action and into the blessings God has for him – which is always the direction of travel that repentance takes us. He talks about having joy restored, being obedient again to God, telling others about God, singing praise to God, having a loyal spirit and being full of the Holy Spirit.
You see repentance takes sin seriously – and so should we. If our sin was somehow a factor in the death of the Son of God, then I suggest we should take it deadly seriously. When some people try to minimise the reality of sin or (what I have called ‘The human desire to screw things up’), I wonder if they live in the same world I live in – and certainly they haven’t looked into my heart – maybe they haven’t looked into theirs. It’s not to make us feel bad, but to acknowledge those things, however big or small that stop us becoming fully who we were created to be – to stop us being like Jesus, to deal with it and move on – into the light.
So, can we see the benefits of repentance as an act that moves us from one place to another? From a bad place to a better place. Now ‘bad’ may refer to sleeping with another man’s wife and having the husband killed, or may refer to the jealousy you harbour in your heart. Simply anything that stops the good: being with Jesus, becoming like Jesus and doing what Jesus did. It’s that simple – and that hard!
I ended my talk a couple of weeks ago by saying the following: Why not make a decision to spend quality time with God every day between now and Easter? Time spent in self-examination, repentance, prayer and Bible reading.
This requires an act of the will. Too often we wait until we are in such a state before we come to a place of self-examination and repentance which is an unhealthy way to live our Christian life and we may have to face the consequences of our inaction.
In a previous church where I worked, a man came in to see me and the vicar one day. He was an international business man and was a very proud person, but he came in crying and desperate. The vicar named the problem – a problem that had never been named publicly before. He said ‘you are an alcoholic and you need to stop drinking’. Well, the man stopped drinking! He acknowledged the problem and changed his actions in keeping with that acknowledgment. That is repentance. I visited him most days for two weeks while he went through a very tough time, but soon his family was transformed, and his children had their dad back again. Sadly, just over a year later, he started drinking again and was dead within a year. But there would have been a point in that man’s life, years earlier, when he realised he was having just one drink too many and could have sought help – could have repented and 20 years of misery and an early death could have been avoided.
OK, that’s a dramatic way of making the point, but the fact is, all sin tarnishes, diminishes and destroys and we should seek to address it before it gets out of hand.
But if we are spending quality time with Jesus, preferably every day, then self-examination and repentance should simply be part of who we are and what we do: constantly open to those things that hinder our relationship with others, our relationship with this planet and our relationship with God, confessing it to ourselves and God – and move on with actions that demonstrate that repentance. Let’s thank God that he has made provision for the times we screw up – in small ways and big and that sin needn’t have the last word but we can be brought into the light and life and love that repentance brings.