Saturday, 30 March 2013

The Lent Series: Repentance

First of a series of three sermons - warning, long post!  

Are you sitting comfortably?  That’s a shame, because Lent is many things, but comfortable it is not.  Lent is the season of disturbance, of separation, of examining and facing down temptation and sin.  Like Advent, Lent is a penitential season, but while Advent is a time of joyful anticipation, Lent is altogether more serious. When I told the prison management team that I was planning to start Lent with an Ash Wednesday service, one person said, ‘Ash Wednesday, that’s a bit of a downer, isn’t it?’ 

Yes, possibly.  But Lent is not necessarily sad, or painful.  It is, however, challenging.  This is where the Christian life gets serious.  The Christ child, the cute baby in the manger, has grown up and is looking down the long road to Jerusalem.  We leave Epiphany and the beauty of Candlemas behind and follow Jesus into the desert to find – what?  Some peace?  Some space?  Jesus goes into the wilderness and finds hunger, thirst and temptation.  Jesus is challenged in the desert, and for centuries the church has taken this forty-day period as a time to reflect on, and face up to, our own challenges.  Lent is given to us as a time to focus on repentance, on obedience and on sacrifice, and my three Lenten sermons will focus on these three themes.

Repentance is not a fashionable word.  Preachers nowadays tend not to command repentance from the pulpit, at least in our tradition.  Hopefully we have learned enough humility not to command people to do anything, but perhaps we can point the way.  Repentance is a basic, biblical requirement.  Jesus is clear that repentance is essential to salvation.  From the time of his baptism to the ascension, Jesus preaches repentance. 
I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.
St Peter carries on the message:
 ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
St Paul doesn’t let up either:
Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?
Repentance.  It is so unfashionable we forget what it means.  To repent is to turn from sin, to turn towards Christ.  It means more than saying ‘sorry’ or feeling sorry, however deep those feelings run.  Remorse, penitence, they are first steps, but true repentance life-changing.
Repentance. Comes from the Greek metanoia – meta, to change, and noia, mind.  To repent is not just to feel sorry, but to change, to transform, the way you think and act.  Repentance is a transforming experience of grace, and Lent is our time to seek repentance.

The final proclamation of Jesus, before the ascension, is reported like this:
’Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations.’
Repentance and forgiveness of sins go hand in hand.  True repentance, entering that state of grace, means to accept forgiveness from God, to offer forgiveness to others and to turn away from sin.
We confess our sins, we receive forgiveness and we confirmed and strengthened in all goodness.  We are not to confess one day and commit the same sins again the next.  The process starts with forgiveness and ends with positive change.  Jesus is in the business of changing people to change the world.  God’s kingdom draws nearer when people change for the better.

It is, however, easy to get stuck at the first hurdle.  Accepting forgiveness is difficult.  It requires us, honestly and unflinchingly, to account for our sins and to admit them before God. Confession is good for the soul.  We do not need to confess to a priest, only to God, but there are times when confession to a priest may be helpful, as long as it is clear that God does the forgiving. 

But if accepting forgiveness is difficult, forgiving others is even harder.  We have to forgive, again and again.  Seventy times seven, Jesus says.  Let it go.  Forgive.  Because forgiveness is the only way to move forward.  Without forgiveness no conflict can end, no broken relationship can be healed, no angry family row can be forgotten.  Forgiveness heals both the giver and the receiver. 

I say this often to my other congregation in Cookham Wood, many of whom come from a culture based on pride and revenge.  I ask them about forgiveness and they say, well, some things you can’t forgive.  They say ‘you can’t just let things go’. Sometimes they listen, often they don’t.  I don’t know if I’ve helped them to let go, but it has certainly helped me.  I realised that I was suggesting that they forgive violence and abuse of the worst kind, to let their bitterness go and to accept that the only person you can change is yourself.  I was suggesting to the young people what is almost impossible – to let go of all the awfulness that has been done to them, to step out and refuse to perpetuate the endless cycles of domestic violence, gang conflicts, robbery and debt.  I make this enormous demand in the name of Christ, and assure them that they will be given the strength to do this great work of forgiveness.  I cannot then come home and fail to forgive the sins done to me. 
And if forgiveness seems impossible, in Christ we have the ultimate example – innocent, blameless and forgiving his enemies all the way to death.  It is only by his grace that we can find the strength to forgive.  It may take time before we are ready, it may take support, it may take counselling or therapy, but I firmly believe that forgiveness is the route to true healing of the soul.  There is time.  This doesn’t have to happen overnight, and it may happen in stages, but we are all called to do this task of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And that’s the hard work done.  Without the baggage of guilt from our own sin, and bitterness from others, we are free to change.  We can be the people God wants us to be.  We can turn to Christ, we can live in peace, we can be agents of change, we can take that healing grace into a broken world.

Of course, that is not the end of the story.  The potential to sin is always with us – a ‘human existential’ as the theologians have it.  We can, and will, continue to fall, but grace stays with us.  As we grow, year on year, we meet and fail new challenges, but the grace of God lifts us up again to carry on.  Repentance is not about dwelling on past sins, it is the opposite.  Free from old sin, we look to a free future. Repentance assures us of our own freedom.  We are free to sin or not to sin.  Whatever has happened to us in the past, whatever sins we have endured or committed, we have that precious freedom.  Our choice is to be bound by sin or to be free in Christ. 

To return to my starting point, Lent is not sad.  Repentance is the hopeful heart of our faith.  With and through the grace of God, we are healed, forgiven, restored and empowered. 

I wish you a holy Lent, a time of grace and peace.  I hope that together we can overcome our difficulties and challenges. 

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