Second Sunday of Lent - "RE: 'Repent'"
This week I am continuing the sermon series that we’re going to be working through together for the season of Lent, a series entitled “RE.” “Re” is a Latin prefix that denotes change or transformation, and each of the sermons in this series begin with that transformative prefix, and they also are connected to a Lenten practice that I’m challenging us to take up during this season of Lent.
As we learned last week, Lent gets its name from the Latin word for “forty.” Excluding Sundays there are forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Forty is a number that is often used in the Bible to indicate a time of trial, testing or refinement. The idea behind the five practices that we’re going to be challenged to take up is connected to this notion—that hroughout the season of Lent we are going to be challenged and tested as we seek to draw closer to Jesus during this symbolic journey with him to the Cross.
During this series we’re going to learn what it means to: Remember, Repent, Renew, Restore and Remain.
This week we’re going to talk about repentance.
There are two basic words in the Bible that are used for repentance. The Hebrew word is shuv which indicates a turning around, or a change of direction. The Greek word metanoia is used throughout the New Testament and it means “to think differently after” a change of mind, behavior or actions. The Hebrew word has a much more physical meaning, and the Greek word has spiritual or internal connotation.
One of the things that I get asked from time to time is if there is a difference between apologizing or asking for forgiveness and repentance. The truth is, there is a distinct difference between repentance and just being sorry.
When you are just being sorry, you are upset you got caught. You may not even be all that sorry about what you did—you just want some immediate relief from the discomfort that you are feeling in the moment. Maybe, just maybe you do feel a bit of remorse, but the fact of the matter is, until you got busted doing what you were doing—you probably would have kept doing it.
For example, my eleven year-old kid who gave his brother a sock on the arm for messing with his stuff might be sorry that I am now furious with him for doing so, but he’s sure as heck not sorry for doing it. In his mind the little so-and-so deserved it. He’s now in trouble, though, and is quite willing to say whatever he needs to in order to alleviate the discomfort of possibly being grounded for a month.
Repentance is much different. If you think about the way the Greek and Hebrew words in the Bible work together to create a definition—that’s truly what repentance is all about. It’s not just a bunch of words, it’s a demonstration of a changed heart and mind. When you repent of something that you've done to hurt someone you love, you work hard not to do it gain. You change your life, you change your habits, you do whatever you can to demonstrate that not only have you changed direction, you’ve changed how you think and feel.
I have this long list of things that I am always apologizing for. I think we all have that list. Maybe I do something to hurt my wife’s feelings—like not listen to her when she’s talking, for example. Or perhaps I am short and angry with my kid when he’s not moving fast enough in the morning when everyone is running late. At the heart of all of these lists is an underlying selfishness that I am struggling to let go of, and the fact that I am constantly having to apologize for these behaviors means that I’m really just saying sorry, but not changing my ways.
Basically, I’m not addressing the fact that I am so preoccupied with my own junk that I think is so important that I tune out what my wife. Or I’m too busy doing my own things, the stuff that I feel needs to get done in the morning, and constantly lose track of time, which makes me late, which leads me to blame my kid.
And the whole time I am apologizing for these things rather than being repentant, is an inner monologue, a voice in my head that keeps telling me, “You’re fine, everything is okay, this isn’t really your fault. just apologize for now and they’ll stop being mad, hurt, upset, or whatever…”
This little exchange with that voice in my head is the story of the Garden of Eden all over again. The serpent is always whispering in our ears, isn’t he? Hissing away in that soft, sultry voice saying, “Go ahead, just eat of the fruit of that tree you know you shouldn’t eat from… you won’t die—you’ll be like a god.”
We were meant for so much more than what the serpent offers, but sometimes it takes true repentance in order to find it. Repentance is a changed mind and a changed direction that restores relationships. The fact of the matter is that it’s true repentance of the things we’ve done to wrong others and separate ourselves from God that lead us to our full humanity.
The was a study done not too long ago at the University of Texas about the psychological effects of repentance. True repentance, the study demonstrated, leads to elevated levels of hope and gratitude.
To begin with, when you truly repent—when you experience that change of direction, of mind and of spirit, you find yourself full of hope. Hope has a long term psychological affect that plays out in very real ways. Hopeful people are more open to others and to new ideas. They more easily navigate relationship issues and stress.
Additionally, true repentance also leads people to experience deep gratitude. People who are grateful more easily produce happiness, and experience highly improved social skills. They also benefit from a positive memory bias, in other words they tend to remember the best things about people, circumstances and the like, rather than always focusing on the glass half empty.
As I said last week—everything is spiritual. I believe that we are fearfully and wonderfully made and what this study in Texas uncovered is simply the truth about who we are as people created in the image of God.
What this leads us to understand, and what I want us to focus on throughout this sermon is that Repentance is a changed mind and a changed direction that restores relationships. And when I say relationships I mean our relationships with God, and with other people.
Our lectionary text for today casts a vision of the kind of repentance that leads us to our true humanity. It comes to us from the Gospel of Luke chapter 13.
31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
The Herod that is mentioned in this passage is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas is the king that had John the Baptist executed after is stepdaughter performed a strip tease for him and his friends, and he rashly promised her anything she wanted. Her mother, who had an axe to grind against John the Baptist (who had basically called her a whore), made the girl ask for the prophet’s head on a silver platter.
So why were the Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod was out to get him? Well, you can be sure it had nothing to do with their warm and tender feelings for him because they had none. They may have been trying to divert Jesus out of the area, which was under Antipas’ control, and into regions where Pilate was in charge. They may have already begun planning to get him turned over to the Romans.
During his response to the Pharisees, Jesus begins recalling moments when Jerusalem did not repent. He personifies Jerusalem here, much like the prophets of old. We tend to do the same thing from time time with our own country. “How often…” Jesus laments, “God gave you chances to repent, to change direction, to transform and more fully enter into a life-giving relationship with God.”
Then Jesus says, “See your house is left to you…see what is going to happen. You are bent on rebellion, on armed conflict, on solving these issues with the Roman empire on your own terms, and it will lead to your destruction.” Lack of repentance, Jesus is saying, will lead them to desolation. Just thirty seven years later, Jesus’ prediction would indeed come true as Jerusalem was sacked and the Temple destroyed by the Romans.
The image that Jesus paints here of God desiring to cover his children with his wings like a mother hen are reminiscent of the words that are used in the Genesis account as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation like a giant bird, or as the Spirit hovered over Jesus like a dove. Jesus paints an image of God’s spirit hovering over those who need to repent. Eager to restore them, eager to protect them, eager to give them all the best God has to offer.
Here’s the thing, so often we get ideas of sin and repentance all twisted up in our minds. Maybe you were led to believe that repentance is like this: You are a sinful, rotten person and only when you fall down on your knees and beg for mercy will God even think about forgiving you. And don’t even think about messing up again, pal.
I used to feel that way, believe me. I felt like I was living my life with one foot in hell and the other on a banana peel. My notions of God were so incredibly wrong. I saw God as an angry and vengeful old grump just waiting to throw a lightning bolt at my sorry butt every time I did something wrong.
And so I was constantly messing up and then constantly saying I was sorry, and then constantly messing up again. It was an endless cycle of self-loathing, and self-fulfilling prophecies that went something like this: “That’s just the story of my life…” “I always mess up…” “I’m just not good enough…” “God could never really love someone like me…”
But when I started seeing God like Jesus pictured him here in this little story—I began to see everything differently. God wasn’t hovering over me to strike me down when I messed up, God was having over me because he wanted to be there to help soothe me when I did. God didn’t want my repentance because he wanted to see me grovel, God wanted my repentance because he wanted me to truly live, to be fully human, the person God had always dreamed for me to be.
What do you need to change direction on today? What do you need to think differently about when it comes to you images and ideas of God. Is God a mother hen waiting to soothe you and protect you, or is God a ticked off old guy ready to kick your teeth in?
And how do you need to repent today? What are the things in you life that are keeping you from being the person you were always meant to be? What do you need to change your mind about finally in order to be that person?
What do you need to repent of that is keeping you from being fully in relationship with God and with the other people in your life that God has given you to love, cherish and care for? What kind of repentance do you need to embrace today?
Because repentance is a changed mind and a changed direction that restores relationships.