December 4, 2016
Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What is repentance?
That question would get a wide variety of answers. I would also maintain that most of us have suppressed that word in our vocabulary.
But we can’t just ignore it.
The great theologian Paul Tillich said years ago, that the great words of the Christian tradition cannot be replaced. And when we try to talk around them, we find our language diminished.
I know I am not breaking any new ground here, but the Greek word used in the Bible is metanoia. In classical Greek, it meant changing one’s mind about someone or something.
Every Second Sunday of Advent, we are reintroduced to the odd character of John the Baptist. Our Gospel reading for this Second Sunday of Advent tells us that he appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
Back in John the Baptist’s day, “the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan.” [verse 5] I would imagine that their main inspiration was the hope of something better, more than just being spared from the “unquenchable fire,” but being gathered into the granary. [verse 12.]
Today, however, in most church contexts, people stay away in droves. What’s the difference?
It may be because repentance is associated with guilt. It brings up images of facing an angry parent, or a disappointed teacher.
Many of those who do attend church regularly, hear the word “repentance” and think of a formula, a religious routine. We stand, we tell God we’re sorry for what we’ve done, the Pastor proclaims God’s forgiveness and then we resume our lives as before, with no appreciable transformation.
To quote the blessed Martin Luther, such repentance is, “worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.”*
Repentance is not moaning and groaning or feeling sorry for yourself, it is letting God’s Spirit wipe away our sinfulness, thus giving us insight into the limitlessness of God’s love!
Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation, has a chapter on “Recovering Repentance.
In that chapter, she proposes a new kind of church; one that will genuinely support transformation, where members are expected and supported to be about the business of new life – a life filled with meaning and purpose.
In my feeble attempt to do that, I can’t recall where I got the idea; but when I was in the parish, one Sunday during Lent we gave each member in attendance a little card which said:
I repent of all my sins, known and unknown. I am truly sorry, and I pray for forgiveness. I firmly intend to amend my life, and to seek help in mending what is broken. I ask for strength to turn from sin and to serve you in newness of life.
We then collected those cards and burned them in the Easter Vigil fire as a visible show of God’s forgiveness. Of course, many of those who wrote on those cards weren’t at the Vigil to see this act of grace. So, I’m not sure how much of an impact the experiment had on them. I simply had to trust that they took some measure of comfort.
To quote Taylor again: “God’s grace is not simply the infinite supply of divine forgiveness upon which hopeless sinners depend. Grace is also the mysterious strength God lends human beings who commit themselves to the work of transformation. To repent is both to act from that grace and to ask for more of it, in order to follow Christ into the starting freedom of new life.”
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Amen
* Thesis number three of the 95 Theses