March 13, 2022, What If There Was No Mercy, Luke 13:31-35
On Ash Wednesday, just a week and a half ago, I read you the invitation to the observance of a Holy Lent, from the Book of Common Prayer. 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 “put in mind,” we are reminded, once again that repentance and forgiveness need to be part of our daily life as Christians. – that they aren’t 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 made a public profession of faith and got baptized. I’m saved.” An Episcopalian or Roman Catholic might say, “My parents brought me to be baptized 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. I’m saved.” And actually, they’re they’re both right – as Christians, we have been adopted as children of God; and our sins have been forgiven by the grace of God through the saving work of Jesus Christ. So what does it mean, then, for us, all of us who belong to the kingdom of God now – what does it mean when we say that we need to continually renew our repentance?
For the next few weeks, as we continue to work on observing 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 daily Christian life. The dictionary says that repentance – along with penitence, contrition, compunction and remorse – means to regret our sin or wrongdoing. Basically all those words mean feeling sorry for what we have done. But repentance also means more than just regretting or feeling sorry. To repent also means to change our direction, to turn away from whatever wrong way it is we are repenting of, and back into the right way.
And that means that our Lenten task of renewing our repentance doesn’t mean we are supposed to spend a lot of time trying to feeling bad about ourselves. Truthfully, for most of us, I don’t think that regret and guilt and shame are things we need to cultivate – those are burdens that most of us carry around with us every day. But we all have times when we need to take a hard look at our attitudes and our actions, and sometimes we need to be horrified by them. God graciously opens our eyes at the right time to our meanness or our selfishness or our blindness. He might reveal that you or I have been nurturing an attitude of racism or greed, or that we have fallen into a habit of bending the truth. And when God’s Spirit makes our brokenness known to us, it is entirely appropriate 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, who keeps making the same bad choices or cherishing the same bitter, uncharitable thoughts, time and time again. As sinful people we sometimes cause real harm; we hurt ourselves, and we hurt other people, 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 about feeling 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, and more than just a fresh start, because true repentance brings about a transformation 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 tell where they were, and what direction they were headed, by using the stars as a guide. If there was a storm with high winds and 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. Repentance calls us to re-focus our eyes on Jesus, who is our true Pole Star.
But here’s the most important thing to understand about repentance. Repentance is not first and foremost something that we do. Sailors could only navigate by the stars because they knew that the stars were always there, shining, faithfully following their proper courses. Repentance is available to us – repentance is ONLY available to us – because our God is always a God of mercy. You remember the story of the Prodigal Son, who went off like an arrogant fool and had to come crawling home in disgrace? How different would that story be if the Prodigal Son 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, or send him to live in the servants’ quarters? What if the son came home, but there was no mercy? That would be a different story entirely.
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. Those words belong to God; they’re almost like God’s tag line. It is because God is merciful that the call to repentance is a call 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…” 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 that we will find mercy and grace.
In the reading from Luke today, Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem and the cross. He knew exactly 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 was making a 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!”
Knowing the pain and cruelty and betrayal 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 loved. Faced with rejection and betrayal…Jesus offered mercy and grace. Even 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 our own way, 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 even closer to him, 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. But above all, let us repent and return to our God with no shame, with no fear, with no 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 us, in any and every time of need.
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