Monday, 9 December 2013

what is so scary about repentance?

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ … Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him”.
            If we were to declare that at St. Timothy’s we are going to preach on ‘repentance’ for the next 6 months I doubt that the people of Edmonton would flock to St. Timothy’s. … But, that’s what happened with John the Baptist. John left the centers of political and religious power and went into the wilderness. He dressed like a prophet and called the people to purify themselves in the wilderness, just as they purified themselves so long ago. When they left Egypt under Moses’ leadership. John was calling them to once again reenter the Promised Land through the Jordan River.  He called the people to repentance and they flocked into the wilderness.
            So why wouldn’t the people of Edmonton flock to repent? When I say the word “repent” we get pictures in our minds of someone in the street wearing a sandwich board that says “the end is near”. Or, we get a feeling of being accused and judged. Hearing the word “repent” said in Church can bring up all kinds of uncomfortable feelings for many people. Many people carry wounds about feeling judged by the church maybe because of a divorce, or issues to do with sexual orientation, or because they have raised doubts about God or Christianity.  I know people who, to this day, carry wounds because of the way they were treated when they got pregnant without being married. My grandfather left the church and never returned after he was told by the priest from the pulpit to quiet his four children down. There are innumerable stories that could be told. No doubt many of you have stories you could share about feeling judged. So when those of us who carry these scars hear the word “repent” said in church, suddenly we are in danger of having that wound reopened.  So, one reason we don’t like the word is because of past experiences that have been negative, where judgment was placed on us and we didn’t feel that it came with any love.  
            Another reason we cringe a little when we hear this word is that we are a part of a culture that doesn’t want us to feel bad. Something is wrong if we feel bad. We don’t want to have funerals- we want to have celebrations of life. We avoid situations that make us feel any sort of negative emotion. Repentance for most of us means feeling guilty or unworthy. When we do bump up against something we feel bad about we are likely to blame someone else for it. WE say things like: I came from a dysfunctional family; This is just the way I was made- it’s in my genes; Everybody does it.  Or, we try to delegate the whole process of repentance to a bygone era. I was once at a dinner where I was accused of being out of date and medieval for fasting during Lent. “Repentance isn’t for modern Christians”- was the message.  We do this to try to ignore or deflect any sort of negative feeling, especially guilt. The problem is that most of us feel this deep down in our bones, and as much as we try to surround ourselves with positivity and try to alleviate ourselves of guilt by passing the blame to someone else, or trying to convince ourselves that repentance is a crude medieval enterprise, we still feel it. We still recognize the need inside us for transformation.
            People were flocking out to see John the Baptist, not because they wanted to feel bad about themselves. They ran to John because in repentance they saw hope and life. Our problem is that often when we think of repentance we think of it from our end and we leave it there. In the Bible we read, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone… so turn and live” (Ez 18:32); “Turn to me, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will turn to you” (Is 45:22; Jer 15:19); “I am the Lord who does not remember wickedness, provided one turn from his evil ways and all his iniquities so that he may live” (Ez 18:21-22). God desires our repentance the way a doctor desires that we will take a particular medication. We define Repentance as recalling the awful things we have done and then feeling bad about those things. The people went to John not bcause they wanted to focus on their sin, but because they wanted to turn towards God. Really that is what repentance means. It means turning to God. This comes with an honest look at our lives to see where we might have turned away from Him.
            Christian Spirituality includes repentance. Not as a way of living in guilt and bad self-esteem, but as the starting point to turning to God. The verse from Isaiah that is attached to John the Baptist is 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’. We repent to prepare the way of the Lord to enter our lives. Confessing sin is a part of this process, but we don’t confess in order to stew in our guilt. Rather, we recognize that this is a part of our lives already.
            The goal of human life is to love and serve God. When we understand this and live this we will find our deep happiness. That is the teaching of the Church and the experience of the saints. Loving and serving God leads to lives of meaning and joy. This is not a simple joy, as if we will never deal with pain or suffering, but it is a joy that will underlay our lives. If the goal of human life is to love and serve God- if that is the meaning of our lives, then ultimately the meaninglessness we sometimes find in our own lives stems from not being properly turned toward God in certain areas of our lives. In certain parts of our lives we are convinced that we need to trust something or someone other than God.  Repentance is the process of turning towards God in all parts of our lives. Repentance is turning to the One who loves us, and created us, and wants the best for us. Sometimes we have gotten stuck on repentance as being a locked stare on our mistakes and short comings. Not even a turning away. Perhaps we need to refocus on repentance as a ‘turning toward’. If we do not take repentance seriously, then we will not grow in our spiritual lives. Spiritual life is the process of turning towards God.
            We all have parts of our lives where we have a tendency to turn to something besides God and the best he desires for us. Repentance is about God realigning our lives with Christ’s life. It is the process of becoming the kind of person that reflects Christ’s image.  
            John the Baptist takes this process extremely seriously. That is why he is so hard on the religious leaders who come. “You brood of vipers” he calls them. He doesn’t necessarily say they shouldn’t have come. His biggest problem is that they aren’t bearing ‘fruit of repentance’. Their actions don’t communicate repentance. They are just going through the motions. Joel 2:13 says “rend your heart and not your garment”. In ancient Judaism rending your garment was an outward sign of grief. But, it was easy to do the sign without feeling the inner grief. Our grief is to go much deeper. Going through the motions won’t do. Coming to John to get wet in the Jordan river isn’t what this is about. John wants to see fruit of repentance. A stereotype of the Pharisees was that they were about outward action. They cared primarily about your actions, and if you had the right pedigree. Do you act according to their understanding of the Torah and the traditions of the elders? Are you of the right blood- are you of the seed of Abraham? If so then you are a part of the in-crowd.  John wanted hearts to be changed… he knew that no real change comes without the heart changing first.
            I believe that John was so hard because of his great care for others. He believed there were consequences for living a life that was turned away from God. John talks about a tree that is cut down and thrown into the fire, and a chaff that is burned. He uses this symbol of fire that is so loaded in our spiritual minds, but notice that he also talks about the Holy Spirit and the messiah as connected to fire. Christ who is coming will baptize with Spirit and with Fire. 
There have been those in the church who have done with this verse what the Pharisees did. Just as the Pharisees suggested that they had the right outward action and were of the family of Abraham, there have been those in the church who have suggested that the trees and wheat grain that will be saved from the fire are the church. We have the right action. We have a certificate saying we have been baptized. We show up on Sundays, so therefore we are the in-crowd. We are safe from the fire as opposed to those naughty people who sleep in on a Sunday morning. But, I worry that we would be making the same mistake as the Pharisees.
John wants to see fruit of repentance. He wants to see that we have the humility to recognize that there are parts of our lives that need changing- that need turning. The interpretation I find more convincing is that within us all we have branches that need trimming and chaff that needs to be burned. We are living trees with dead branches. We are wheat with the chaff that is still attached. Repentance is putting forward our dead branches and chaff to be burned by the fire Christ brings. This isn’t about God wanting to cause us pain. The branches God wants to remove are infected. He wants them thrown into the fire so that the rest of the tree will not be infected.
If we believe that God is for us and not against us- if we believe that God loves us- then we will not fear repentance. He desires our repentance the way a parent desires a phone call from a child, and the way a doctor desires their patient will take their medication.  Repentance is ultimately about hope because it implies that there is a better future to turn towards. It implies that our future selves can be more like Jesus and God wants to make that possible. 

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