The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 22, 2023 – Ash Wednesday
To start His ministry, Jesus proclaimed two truths and two calls to action. The two truths were: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near”; and the two calls: to “repent, and believe in the good news.”
To say that “the time is fulfilled” is to say that everything is lined up for God to do something extraordinary. To say that “the kingdom of God has come near” is to say that wonderful, new possibilities are now at hand.
To say that we must “repent and believe in the good news” is to specify what’s needed from our side to make the most of these possibilities from God’s side.
To “repent” is to change our mindset and thereby to realign our trajectory in life. It is to turn our focus off of ourselves and on to God. To repent is only secondarily to reform our conduct and character. It is primarily to relocate our ultimate dependence and thus our ultimate source of hope for reformation.
To “believe in the good news” is to trust that relying on God’s action does us more good than relying on our own. It is to look first and foremost to God’s kindness rather than to our capabilities for self-improvement.
It turns out that repenting and believing are not separate activities, but part and parcel of the same reorientation in our approach to life. It is to hope to gain love, wholeness and power, not as a human achievement of hard work, but as a divine gift of grace.
We pursue and perfect our repenting and believing together in an ongoing, life-long process. We emphasize repenting and believing in Lent so as to instill those activities in us year-round. Thus, Martin Luther said, “The whole life of believers should be repentance.”
Elizabeth Sherrill saw this in a sentence from a book about – of all things! – preventing osteoporosis. It said: “Like all living tissue, bone is constantly being broken down and reformed.” It occurred to her that the living tissue of her soul is like the living tissue of her bone, and that her soul also grows strong by being broken down and reformed in an ongoing process.
It also occurred to Sherrill that she engages in that process as she takes up her cross, denies herself and follows Jesus – confronting her sinfulness, making confession and amends, and seeking the elevation of what she does and who she is. As she practices the essentials of discipleship, her soul is empowered and she becomes a better version of herself.
Repenting and believing are the means by which we become more and more Christ’s and thereby over time more and more like Christ. It is how we stay close to Him and let our life of discipleship break us down to build us back up again. It is how we answer Jesus’ beckoning call to better ourselves.
The Lenten season reminds us to give attention and intention to the practice of spiritual disciplines such as daily prayer and meditation, weekly worship with the family of God, and regular service in compassion and justice. These activities don’t make us better on their own so much as they make us open and receptive to the gracious action of a God who only needs us to give Him a chance to work the wonders of His love in us. Repenting and believing put our soul in a state wherein He can get through to us and give us a new heart.
I’ll bet just about all of us are familiar with the movie, The Wizard of Oz. The movie is based on a Frank Baum book which underlines themes the movie does not.
From the book we learn that the Tin Man had once been a real man who loved a woman and dreamed of marrying her. The witch so hated his love for the woman that she cast a spell on him that caused his limbs of flesh to turn into limbs of tin. The tin limbs, however, gave him the ability to work like a machine; and undaunted, with arms that never tired and a heart full of love for his beloved, he worked hard to build his future wife and him a better future together. He seemed destined to thwart the witch’s evil designs until the day she magically made his axe slip so that he accidentally cut himself in half.
A tinsmith later fastened him back together, but in the process his heart went missing. Without a heart, the Tin Man lost his love for the woman and ceased to care about their having a future together as husband and wife.
One day he was caught in a long, violent rainstorm that rusted him in place until Dorothy freed him from his immobility. He then joined her in her journey to Oz. As they walk together, he tells her that during his months of his immobility he had time to realize that the greatest loss he’d ever known was the loss of his heart. He says, “While I was in love, I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart.” He then adds that that’s why he must go see if Oz can give him one.
John Eldredge notes how we who once were real and full of love can get hit so hard by life’s cruel blows that we lose our heart, and our humanity gets reduced to just efficiency in work. We then become mere machines, hallow human beings who go through the motions of life – busy, productive, efficient and even religious – but who, without heart, lose all meaning and satisfaction.
To turn to Jesus and to trust in what He says is to give Him opportunity to do for us what neither Oz nor any human being can. Jesus will give us a new heart and make us strong in loving, hoping and living.
May we let Him do what He aches to, as we persist in our repenting and believing in the good news!