Print This Post

Sermon – March 7, 2010: Repent

 

Sermon for Sunday, March 7, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Repent

Isaiah 55: 1-9; 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13: 1; Luke 13: 1-9

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a city, but you know in cities you run into

unusual people. There are so many more people there that the percentage of the

population who are going to be kooks produces a few examples, and they are out on the

streets doing things like blowing a whistle and doing a little dance and offering gestures of

worship to skyscrapers, or accosting you with wacky political pamphlets, or stuff like that.

The most famous type of urban oddball is the religious nut. We know him from cartoons.

He’s got a bushy beard and long hair and is wearing something that looks like a nightshirt

and is carrying a sign with one big word on it. What’s the word? “Repent.”

See, that gives us an association with being told to repent which suggests that

repenting is the advice of someone who may not be quite right. Or, again, we associate

the call to repentance with fire-and-brimstone preachers, with a hortatory style which is

fervent and dramatic, and perhaps not too profound. Just as with the free-range would-be

prophet, there’s the suggestion that the person issuing the call to repent is angry or

impatient with us, with hardly any hint of human sympathy. I think we make up these

images of people telling us to repent to discredit the idea of repentance. We like to think

that the call to repentance comes from some margin of society, from some misanthrope

who doesn’t fit into the world the way it is, that urgent appeals to repent are the province of

people who find an odd role to play in public life, Johnny-One-Notes who don’t have any

answer for the ills of the world but to tell us that we have to change.

So we don’t change, and we have a a better conscience about not changing if we link

the call to change the direction of our life with aggressive and belligerent religious nuts who

don’t look like their presumed spiritual superiority is doing them much good. We don’t

change the way we’re going, we don’t change our priorities, we don’t change the things on

which we count for our peace of mind; we keep going in the same tracks we’ve been

traveling in all this time.

Sometimes we have another way of disarming repentance. We ignore that it means

turning around to embrace the God we’ve been ignoring, and we tell ourselves that

repentance is regret. We pretend that repenting has something to do with feeling bad

about the person we’ve been, or the choice we’ve made, or whatever it might be. We

reduce repentance to an emotion, instead of recognizing it as a decisive action. We think, if

we are moved by our bad conscience to confess, that we have repented. We are forgiven

at that point, as if that is all that matters, and we return to the path we’ve been on, the path

we’ve beaten of self-absorption, cautious self-reliance, and small hopes.

 

I don’t want to downplay seeking forgiveness or being forgiven. The promise of

 

 

 

Isaiah is that God will abundantly pardon. However, feeling sorry and sincerely saying

one’s sorry are not repentance. Repentance is going back to God, to live by God’s

guidance and in the comfort of God’s provision. The reason the question of forgiveness is

linked to the idea of repentance is the awful possibility that God won’t have you back, that

you’ve squandered God’s good will, that your chance to live with God is forfeit. No, no,

Isaiah tells you, and Jesus tells you, too. No; God wants you back, and God will cover

your sins with divine love, and put away the judgment and penalty that you deserve, and

forget the stains you bring to your return as a prodigal. It is the returning which is repentance,

it is the leaving behind not only one’s wrong deeds and shameful realities, but abandoning

the path away from God which one has traveled. It’s starting life on a new basis, a basis of

complete trust in God and an earnest effort to treat everyone else in the world the way God

says people should be treated. The huge thing about repentance is thinking a lot less

about ourselves, absorbed as we should be in God and in loving others, and thinking a lot

less about ourselves is the great obstacle.

We can’t help but think about ourselves a lot. At its most basic this is a survival

mechanism. We watch out for ourselves just like every other creature. That makes it

second nature for us to approach life thinking about risks and rewards: risks to us, and

rewards for us.

Too, when we are the children that Jesus insists everyone should be like in order to

enter the kingdom of God, we are always looking forward to being bigger and less

dependent on some big person to care for us. We want to spread our wings, we want to

be trusted to decide things for ourselves, we want to run our own life. Care involves

constraint and we grow impatient with limits, and we seek at least partially to end to our

reliance on someone bigger and older who loves us.

That’s second nature, too. In terms of the needs and appetites of our physical

selves we have a tendency to be self-seeking, and in terms of the needs and appetites of

our spirits we tend to be self-seeking. This doesn’t always counter the will of God for us,

but it is easy to see how near we always are to the condition of sin, which is the

circumstance of asserting our own will over that of our Maker.

Isaiah diagnoses this in a way we can understand. “Why do you spend your labor

for that which doesn’t satisfy?”, Isaiah asks. In a consumer-driven economy, in which we all

count on accumulating things we don’t need, we know the ennui and bad conscience of

having a lot of stuff. Not that we aren’t satisfied with some of it, some of the time, and not

that every possession is a bad thing–but if we look at the cupboards and closets and

shelves and think, “Is that what I’ve amounted to, a big public sale someday when I’m

gone?” then it doesn’t seem like much. Of course, we probably know better than to think of

ourselves as the sum of the stuff we’ve acquired.

What of achievements rather than acquisitions? What about status, place,

 

responsibility, respect? Again, there are lots of things people make of themselves which

 

 

 

are sound foundations for pride. It doesn’t make sense to think that God would want to

check all human ambitions, especially when so many people choose to do things which are

constructive. Not every attainment, however, is satisfying. We’re always a little

disappointed to read those interviews with celebrities in which they say “the awards, the

glamour–none of it means anything. All I want is to be with the people I love.” Easy for

them to say, we think. But we also realize that most of what the world tells us is that, if

wealth or fame or power won’t make us happy, nothing will. If the big shot in our field

confides in the press that he takes no great pleasure in being on top, everything we

sacrifice to follow his lead begins to seem a disheartening burden.

There’s an alternative. We are not obliged to go on living the way we usually do,

pursuing our narrow ends. We don’t have to set our heart on being lifted from low spirits by

the promise of that trip to which we’ve looked forward, or that new item we’ve wanted.

Things and time will fade, and on some level our ability to enjoy them will falter, but we’re

not condemned to that as the whole story of who we are. We are spiritual beings, with our

origin in heaven, and we are loved by God as God’s children. There is a wonderful life

available in the company of God, if only we could trust God enough to turn to God.

What’s the alternative? “The wages of sin is death” is the old line from the King

James Bible, and I think we always hear it as if it were grimly pronounced by one of those

religious nuts whose caricature we carry around to help us avoid unpleasant truths. But if we

think of sin as distance from God, and indifference to God, then what else is that going to get

a mortal but death? Death seems like it’s everyone’s payoff, anyway. Things which don’t

satisfy, which consume our strength and our effort, and then, when our strength and effort are

gone, death–that’s the Bible’s image of a world walking away from God.

That’s how Paul urges repentance in his letter. He uses the Israelites in the

wilderness, being led to the Promised Land by Moses, as an example for his new

Christians. Theirs was a story of having been delivered from slavery and into hope for a

new life in a new world, but they couldn’t hold onto hope and trust and they went wrong in

various ways and they ended up never getting to the Promised Land. They went wrong

instead of going right, and that was that. Paul uses them as an example of the dangers of

going away from God’s path, and it’s worth noticing that those dangers include people who

complain a lot along with the sexually immoral.

Jesus also takes the question of judgment befalling persons–the apparently wellknown

deaths in his day of demonstrators or insurrectionists, people who died in the

brewing conflict between unhappy Jews and their political masters–to make the point that

they weren’t any worse than anyone, no more deserving of death. All of you, Jesus tells

people, have to turn away from the ways of this world and toward God’s priorities if you

want to live. You don’t have to do something notorious to forfeit the abundant life God has

for you. You can just stay in the rut you are in, instead of turning your life around in the

direction of reliance on God, and service to God.

 

 

To read sermons from past years, hit the “View All” link beneath the “This Week’s Sermon”

button, and then hit the “Archives” link in the sentence at the top of the page presenting

recent sermons.