February 21, 2016, Repentance, part 1: What if There Were No Grace? – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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On Ash Wednesday, just a week and a half ago, I read you the invitation, from the Book of Common Prayer, to the observance of a Holy Lent. It begins like this:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy
Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set
forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
When Lent rolls around each year we are reminded once again that repentance needs to be part of our daily life as Christians. – that repentance is not something we keep on our mantelpiece like a trophy, just dusting it off and polishing it from time to time. An Evangelical Christian might say, “I repented of my old life of sin twenty-five years ago. I asked Jesus to come into my heart and I stood up in church and made a public profession of faith and got baptized. So I’m saved.” An Episcopalian or Roman Catholic might say, “I was baptized into the faith when I was nine days old. I grew up in the church, and I grew into a full mature faith and made my confession and was confirmed by the Bishop. So I’m saved.” And they’re both right – as Christians, we have been adopted as children of God; our sins are forgiven by the grace of God through the saving work of Jesus Christ. But what does it mean, then, for us, who belong to the kingdom of God now – what does it mean for us to need to continually renew our repentance?
For the next few weeks, as we continue to set ourselves to observe a Holy Lent, I want to take a close look at just exactly what repentance is, and what it means for us to renew it, to work on it daily – particularly in the context of Lent, but also in our regular Christian life. The dictionary says that repentance is just one of a bunch of words – along with penitence, contrition, compunction and remorse, repentance means to regret our sin or wrongdoing, basically to feel sorry for what we have done. But it says that repentance means more than that; because repentance also implies a resolve to change.
And that means that our Lenten task of renewing our repentance doesn’t just mean we are supposed to spend a lot of time feeling bad about ourselves. For most of us, I don’t think that regret and guilt and shame are things we need to cultivate – although we all have times when we need to take a hard look at our attitudes and our actions and be horrified by them. God graciously opens our eyes at the right time to our meanness or our selfishness or our blindness. He reveals that we have a tendency to racism or greed or bending the truth. And it is our proper response, when his Spirit makes our brokenness known to us, to feel sorrow or even sometimes to feel real horror at the depth of our sin.
my iniquities have gone over my head;
like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate;
all the day I go about mourning.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
I think we’ve all been struck by that kind of regret, when are just sick and tired of being this stupid, selfish, mean-spirited person who keeps giving in to the same old temptations or making the same bad choices time and time again. As sinful people we cause real harm; we hurt ourselves, and we hurt others, when we make the choices we make to say or do or think those things we know are hateful to God, and even to ourselves, if we are honest.
BUT repentance isn’t a matter of trying to feel really bad about ourselves. Lent isn’t meant to be 40 days of self-loathing. That isn’t something a God who loves us would ever want us to do. When God calls us to repentance he is calling us into hope, not despair – because repentance only begins with our sorrow. Repentance calls us out of despair and into a new course; into a fresh start. True repentance is a transfiguration of our minds and hearts and lives.
It is something like navigating by the stars, like sailors did in the days before ships had all kinds of navigational instruments. They could orient themselves using the stars as a guide. If there was a storm or high winds or days of thick clouds the ship might be driven off course. But as soon as the sky was clear they could turn out of the wrong course and get back on their true course. Repentance is turning out of our wrong course and getting back on track, turning our eyes on Jesus, who is our true Pole Star.
But here’s the first and most important thing we need to know about repentance; this is the takeaway. Repentance is available to us – repentance is ONLY available to us – because our God is a God of mercy. Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son, who went off like a fool and had to come crawling home in disgrace? How would it have been if he had realized his foolishness and made the long journey home, ready to confess his sins, only to have the father slam the door in his face? What if there were no mercy? That would be a very different story.
But our God calls himself by the name of mercy – “The Lord, the Lord, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” – that is how he revealed himself to Moses on the mountain; time and again the Scriptures use those very words to describe our God. It is because our God is merciful that the call to repentance is one of hope and joy for us. We prayed at the beginning of the service today, “ O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son…” It is God’s glory always to have mercy! That means we can always turn to him without fear, we can always make our repentance, confident in his mercy and grace.
In the reading from Luke today, Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem and the cross. He knew what lay ahead of him. This passage is one of the clearest in all the gospels to show that Jesus knew what he was doing, that he made the conscious choice to go to Jerusalem and to give himself up to all those things we remember each Friday as we read the Stations of the Cross – to be stripped and beaten, to fall under the weight of the cross, to be mocked and reviled, to be pierced by thorns and nails and sword. He clearly knew what he was heading for when he told the Pharisees, “…today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
But, knowing the pain and rejection and cruelty that lay ahead of him; knowing what the people of Jerusalem were about to do to him, hear the words of our Lord as he stood looking upon the city where he would die, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Faced with hatred, Jesus knew only love. Faced with rejection and betrayal, he offered mercy and grace. And from the cross he prayed, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And that God of love and mercy is the God we turn to in our repentance. Repentance is coming back home when we have gone off on our own, knowing that the door is wide open for our return. Repentance is confessing our sin and shame, knowing that it has all been forgiven. Repentance is drawing near to Jesus who is already longing to draw us near to him, just like a mother bird gathers her chicks under her wings.
The prophet Joel declared,
“,,,even now,” declares the Lord,
“return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”
Let us continue in these 40 days of Lent, in 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. And above all, let us repent and return to our God without shame or fear or hesitation. As the writer to the Hebrews invites us, Let us with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, knowing that we will receive mercy and find grace to help in our every time of need.