February 28, 2016, Repentance part 2: Out of the Miry Clay – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Today is the third Sunday in Lent, and because it’s Lent, we are spending some time talking about repentance. We talk about repentance a lot during Lent; it pops up a lot in our prayers and in our readings all over the place; but just because we talk about something doesn’t always mean we have a really good understanding of what it is. So I want to spend some quality time looking at what repentance is, because it’s important, and because it is something really good.
Last week, we started with the foundation for all repentance, and that is this – that we are called to repent by a God whose heart rejoices when we come home to him. If it were not true that God is “faithful and righteous to forgive all our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” as John wrote; if our God were not a God of mercy and love, then repentance would not only be scary and unpleasant – it would be futile. Because what is the point of coming home to a Father that slams the door in our faces in his judgment of us?
And the other point from last week is that repentance is not about making ourselves feel guilty or ashamed or unworthy. Of course we are unworthy to be loved by God with all our flaws and faults – everybody is unworthy of God’s love and mercy. But repentance isn’t about how we feel; it’s certainly not about hating ourselves. It’s about getting ourselves turned in the right direction, away from those things that separate us from God, those things that hurt us and hurt the people around us, and getting back onto the road that leads home, to the Father. We repent, we turn back to God, first and foremost because we know that he is on the front porch with arms outstretched, waiting eagerly for us.
But that brings us to this week, because this turning back, away from our lusts and addictions and meannesses, and back to God, that is not such an easy thing to do. Repentance is hard work; and in fact, it is a task beyond our poor wimpy human strength. We just prayed this morning in the Collect, “Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” The word on the street is that we are supposed to have iron wills that can choose to say no to our sinful desires and inclinations if only we really want to. But the truth is that we get stuck. The truth is that not only do we need help repenting; sometimes we need help getting to the point where we even want to repent. We get stuck; we need help.
When we had a farm, our gardens and orchard were on the higher ground where things drained out nicely, and then the land sloped down a little hill (good for sledding in the winter) to the pasture where the cows and horses and sheep hung out. And in the springtime, when the rain and melting snow drained out of the vegetable garden, there was a spot, right at the pasture gate, where the big old hooves of the cows and horses and the little hooves of the sheep, churned all that water and dirt into a goopy mess. So there were a few times, when we or the kids went out in their big rubber chore boots with hay for the critters, that when they – or we – went through the gate we sank in that muck nearly to the tops of our boots and got hopelessly stuck. There were two options at that point: to pull your feet out of your boots and step barefoot into a foot and a half of cold gooey mud (and probably get stuck all over again), or to stand there and scream bloody murder until somebody came and pulled you out. Mostly we chose the latter.
Sin – those desires and habits and addictions inside us that drag us down and separate us from the love of God – sin is like that deep muck. We need someone stronger than we are to pull us out if we are to get ourselves back on track. Repentance isn’t something we just decide to do coolly and rationally. We need help to repent. So the first step in repentance is to yell for help, “that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul” like we prayed this morning in the Collect. Those aren’t just pious words; they are our desperate cry for help when we are stuck. David knew all about being stuck in sin – in Psalm 40 he wrote:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
When we are hopelessly stuck and cry out for help, the Holy Spirit is as near to us as our own hearts, and he is always there to get our feet back on solid ground. Without the Holy Spirit we are like the unfruitful tree in the parable we read this morning. Jesus was calling the crowds to repentance, and he told a story about a fig tree planted in a vineyard that wasn’t producing any figs. The man who owned the vineyard got fed up with the tree because it was just a waste of space, and he told the gardener to chop it down and get rid of it. But the gardener said, “Wait! Don’t give up on it yet. Let me feed this little tree and dig around its roots. Give it one more year. If it still doesn’t bear fruit, then we’ll see about cutting it down.”
When you feel like your life is a hopeless mess; when it seems to you that you are just a waste of dirt like the little fig tree in the story; know this: there is a gardener who isn’t ready to give up on you yet. God knows that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. But the one who calls us to repentance is also the one who gives us the power to repent. He strengthens us and guides us. He sets our feet back on solid ground and makes our steps secure. Because only then will we be able to turn our way back towards God – only then can we repent.
But if we read the parable of the unfruitful fig tree carefully, there is at least one more thing we might notice – and that is, that Jesus seems to put an expiration date on repentance. The gardener says, “Give me a year; I’ll do everything I can to make it fruitful. But if it’s still not fruitful, well, we’ll go ahead and cut it down.” It’s important to know how to understand that. Does Jesus mean that he’ll give us a certain amount of time and no more and if we don’t shape up and repent by the deadline he’ll give up on us? We can say with confidence that that is NOT what Jesus meant. When we’re not sure what one Scripture says we test it with other Scriptures, because God doesn’t contradict himself. And there are so many Scriptures that assure us that God doesn’t give up on us.
One of the most encouraging is what Paul wrote to the Philippians. “I am sure of this,” he told them, “that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” God chose you; God is doing a good work in you; there is no way ever that he will get discouraged or bored or too busy or disgusted with you no matter how many times he has to pull you out of the mud or prune you or dig up around your roots to help you grow. Humans give up on things and people both. I have a whole trunk full of partly-finished quilts and rag dolls and table runners and mittens at my house. I give up all the time. But God – never.
The prophet Isaiah spent 50 years or more calling the people of God to repent. And this is what God spoke through him, ““Can you imagine a woman forgetting the child at her breast; can you even imagine a mother who has no compassion on the son or daughter she carried in her own body? But even if that were possible, yet I will never forget you.” God is with us for the long haul. He’s not checking his watch and tapping his foot, ready to cross us off his list if we take too long to turn our lives around.
So what does Jesus mean for us to hear in the parable of the fig tree? Not that we ever need to fear that God will give up on us. But this – that repentance is an urgent thing. The time for us to turn away from sin and back to the Father is now. Today. Today, the writer to the Hebrews wrote, today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts.” Not because God is checking his watch or keeping score, but because sin is bad for us. And even more important, because being with God is good for us, is life for us. The passage in Hebrews goes on: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
My son Nicholas had total kidney failure when he was 17 years old. But it didn’t happen all at once. The problem with his kidneys was a defect that was there when he was born. Little by little, his kidneys were being damaged, and because they weren’t working like they should, poison was building up in his system. Very gradually, and over a long time, his body accustomed itself to levels of toxins that would have killed him if it had happened all at once. And I think that is such a good picture of how sin works in our lives. We let small things creep in, a little gossip here, a little resentment and bitterness there. Nothing really big. No murder. No adultery. No false gods on the mantelpiece. Not at first. Sin is such an individual thing that I couldn’t even say what might be poison for you, or you for me. But day by day if we turn away from God, it becomes harder and harder to notice the poison of the world working its way through our system. For Nicholas, there came a time suddenly when the poisons were too much and his whole system began to shut down. And then we saw what was happening, and the doctors were able to save him and he got well. For us, the time to repent, the time to turn back to God, the time to cry out for help and get out of the muck – that is today.
The call to repentance isn’t a threat looming over us – get your act together now or else. It’s an offer of love in our greatest need and weakness. The call to repent is a call to something utterly good. It’s not good like you-have-to-make-yourself-eat-that-barley-casserole-even-though-it-tastes-disgusting-because-it-will-give-you=strong-bones – kind of good. Repentance is good like coming home at the end of a long, disastrous day where you have made all the wrong choices and done all the wrong things and hung out with all the wrong people – coming home and being met at the door by the people that love you best with hugs and kisses and maybe fresh cookies just out of the oven. Repentance is returning to our first love. Why would we delay?