Joel 2:12-14a & Mark 1:14-15
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 1, 2017 – Ash Wednesday
Christians tend to talk about believing more than repenting. Yet, Jesus emphasized them equally.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, the first word Jesus spoke in His public ministry was a word about repentance, when he said in 4:17, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And, according to Luke’s Gospel, the next to last word He spoke in His public ministry was also a word about repentance, when he said in 24:47, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed…to all nations.” Jesus saw repentance as just as essential as faith in receiving God’s grace.
In truth, repenting and believing are two sides of the same coin. I cannot turn my life over to God without turning away from the sin which separates me from God, and I cannot turn away from the sin which separates me from God without turning my life over to God. For I need God to enable me to do what I never could apart from Him.
Thus, it makes no sense to ask whether faith or repentance takes precedence. For the two co-exist, or neither one authentically exists. They have to be practiced together, or each amounts to nothing.
Because, thanks to its involving components that are humbling, we resist repenting more than believing, the spiritually wise from the very beginning set aside special periods for practice in repentance. As things evolved, there developed a forty-day period of the church year for focusing on repentance called Lent – forty days as an imitation of Jesus’ forty-days of struggle against temptation in the wilderness, and as an approximate tithe of a year’s time akin to the monetary tithe. Lent fit perfectly right before Easter, because the celebration of the greatest event in history deserves the greatest preparation of the soul.
So, Lent, which starts now on Ash Wednesday, gives us a chance to develop our capacity for repentance. We’d do well then to get clear as to what repenting involves.
To repent literally means to turn around. In other words, to repent is to reorient mind and heart toward God, to re-center thoughts, affections and intentions upon God. Typically, doing this requires three steps: 1) self-reflection, 2) remorse and 3) a return to God as Lord.
The first step is to take a good look at myself, examining myself with respect to the choices I am making and the direction I am taking. What have I come to be and what am I on the way to becoming? What values and convictions do my actions promote? What am I creating of the life that has been given me? Am I wasting it or making something eternally positive and beautiful of it?
If I’m honest in answering such questions, I’ll end up admitting some things I detest admitting, things that induce feelings of shame, guilt and regret.
This leads to the second step in repentance: remorse or contrition. Such feelings are painful, but beneficial. For just as a joy can give wings to my soul, such pain can apply spurs to my soul and get me moving in a better direction. Deploring the opportunities I missed to do good or feeling sick over the hurt I caused is a holy suffering that drives me to repudiate my running under my own power and to run to God for grace and mercy.
Contrition humbles me enough to see myself as God sees me, with unconditional love, but with a fervent discontent with the status quo of my character and conduct. God may love me just as I am, but God also loves me too much to leave me that way – and I should follow God’s example: loving myself just as I am, but also loving myself too much to want to be left that way. If done without self-loathing, it is right to hate my unrighteousness and to hunger for righteousness. If done without pounding on myself or trying to pay for what Christ has already paid for, it is right to spurn my sin and to spur my pursuit of holiness.
So self-reflection and remorse lead to the third step in repentance: a return to God and a life of obedience. Turning away from how I’ve gone astray turns me back to the Lord, renews our friendship, and refocuses my life around its true center. Repentance gets my head screwed on straight and gets my heart aligned right to receive the grace to make good on my forgiveness and to walk in closer accord with the Lord.
In the last analysis, repentance is not my achieving anything on my own but my giving up on self-reliance and giving myself over to relying on the grace of the Almighty. It’s just working out, in improved conduct and character, what God has already worked into me, all by Himself.
That is the work of a lifetime, but it’s not so much the work of willing myself into becoming a better person as the work of willing myself into becoming all His, all the time.
Let us this Lent practice repentance. For in repentance we are turned around, but it is not we who turn ourselves around. It is God who turns us around. All we contribute is turning ourselves over to God – in the faith that whose we are determines who we become. Let us pray.