Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Grace of Repentance”
January 22, 2017
The preacher moved out from behind the pulpit, calling out by name a young man who nodded off in the middle of his sermon. He goes up to him and says, “have I proven to you that I love you yet? I love you but you better not close your eyes when I am talking.” The anger in his face is visible as he proceeds to call out several other members of his congregation. He says to a young man that he is not worth 15 cents and that he shouldn’t perform his wedding next month adding, “you’re one of the sorriest church members I got.” He calls out the sound guy for having an attitude problem and tells his mother, “Mama you get out of my way when I m messing with that boy. I am his preacher.” The sermon lasted for an hour, and forty minutes of it was a tirade against his congregation. Shape up, get right, repent of your failures as a Christian, repent of your failure to show up to church, do better, and all of this was directed at the congregation while the preacher continually reminded them, “I’m important, I am the preacher, my job is to whip you into shape.” Today’s sermon on repentance will be nothing like that. Jesus gives the imperative to repent, but if we look at his life and ministry, when he confronts people about their sins it is never to break them and leave them bloodied with guilt, but to show their need for his love and forgiveness. I want to show today that properly understood, knowledge of sin is good, even joyful knowledge.
Biblically, the word repent has two meanings. In the Old Testament the word used most often usually means to turn around or change direction. In the beginning of Zechariah, the prophet hears the LORD call out to Israel, “Return to me, says the LORD of hosts, and I will return to you” (Zech 1:3). In the New Testament, the word most often used means to change one’s mind, thinking, or practice. Repentance then is the commitment to new life on the part of believers. It is a turning from the way we were and want to live towards the God who desires for us to have an abundant, satisfying life.
We have a problem though, the vast majority of Americans really don’t think they have a sin problem and thus don’t have a need to repent. Two examples separated by thirty years help show this. In the 1986 February edition of People magazine, a story ran about Americans view of sin. The article showed that on a scale of sin to not-sin murder, rape, treason were at the top and definitely sinful. However, things like cohabitation before marriage, lying, alcohol abuse, etc were somewhere in the middle to bottom, so not-sinful. The study concluded that “Overall, our readers said they commit about 4.6 sins a month.” Thirty years later, President Trump was interviewed by Anderson Cooper regarding his faith. Cooper asked him how forgiveness and repentance playout in his spiritual life. Trump responded, “Why do I have to repent or ask forgiveness if I am not making mistakes?” Most of us think that our behavior is actually amoral unless it has consequences for someone else. We see this with the expression, “If it’s not hurting anyone, why does it matter what I do?” However, sin actually grieves the heart of God. After seeing the destructive patterns of our ancestors God would lament, “The LORD saw the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:5-6). Our hearts contain enough wickedness and evil intention to condemn us and that fact alone grieves the heart of God.
Since our hearts are already sinful, then we will perform sinful acts. Which means that the prohibitions and warnings in the Bible should be taken seriously. Going to a party or dinner with friends and getting intoxicated is a sin, even if you think no one was harmed but your liver. Why, because God’s heart for us is to enjoy wine but not for it to pollute our minds and actions that is why the Psalmist can say that wine is good because it “gladdens our hearts” (Ps 104:14-15) while the wise writer of Proverbs can warn, “Wine is a mocker and strong drink a brawler” (Prov 20:1). Yes, pornography is sinful and destructive because it debases an image bearer of God to satisfy the lusts of another image bearer of God. I could go on: greed, envy, gluttony, pride, anger, etc are all symptoms of the great human disease of sin. As Paul would say, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
How is this knowledge of sin good even joyful? We only become aware of our sinfulness because God’s grace comes to us first. Before Jesus came preaching repentance, grace happened because he was born to the virgin Mary. The Psalm we recited today said that God calls to our hearts “seek my face,” and then we agree to seek God. Paul would tell the Roman Christians, “while we were still enemies of God, Christ died for the ungodly”. We would not even have knowledge of our sin if God was not already at work in our hearts and lives. I had no desire or even knowledge that I was sinful until I heard the good news that Christ died for me and reconciled me to God. Grace precedes repentance, stirring the heart and the affections, so that we can replace the pleasure of our sin with the pleasures of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ call to repentance is not a law to break us but a grace to heal us. Christ died for all of us so that we would no longer live for ourselves but for the sake of him who died for us. Confessing sin is not a low point in our walk with Jesus it is the sign that his grace is at work in our hearts and we are dying to our sin as we are being made alive in Christ.
Finally, and this cannot be overstated, we are children of God. Greta recently learned about “Daughters of the King” the women’s prayer ministry here at Christ Church. She told me she is too young to join them and fight evil (her words not mine). We explained that the Daughters of the King are a group of women who pray but that she is already a daughter of the king. She looked at me with the intense inquisitive face only toddlers can make, “Are you a daughter of the king daddy?” I explained I am a son of the king. The Bible repeatedly tells us that because we are sinful and separated from God, he pursues us and adopts us. We are a family and that family status is not jeopardized by my failures and need for daily repentance. “I do not stop being a child of God because I am a problem child” is how one of my seminary professors put it. So take heart sons and daughters of the king, repentance is not a death sentence it is the beginning of a new life grounded in the grace of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Amen