Repentance…what does it mean anyway?

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Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
December 5, 2010

John baptized with water, but Jesus’ baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There is something going on in baptism and repentance that is much greater than we see with our eyes. Sometimes repentance is God coming to us and painfully cutting out what is ugly and dead out of our lives. In the Gospel reading this is the chaff, the worthless parts that get burned up. This is the 180 turn when we are headed down a path of destruction, that God turns us around and says, “No, you are too precious to me and I’m not going to let you go there again.” The removal of things we cling to in life that cause us harm can be very painful. Anyone who has horded one’s time, been obsessed with money, gone through the 12-step program, or been in an abusive relationship knows this. It is not easy to have these things cut out of our lives, but it is necessary and good and we cannot do it ourselves. We need God to do that painful, life-giving work in us, and it is called repentance when you let God do it.

Isaiah 11.1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15.4-13; Matt. 3.1-12

Grace to you and peace from the One who calls us to repentance and give us new life. Amen.

This week I started to cover the windows in my home with plastic, or what seems to be more like saran wrap. I don’t particularly like doing it because it is awkward and difficult to do by one’s self, especially if windows are decorated with blinds, curtains, and various hardware, like mine are. It is pain-staking work, putting up tape, cutting the plastic, covering the window and blow-drying it in place. All this work to save some money on heating costs, preserve energy, and prepare for winter. As I put up the plastic, I kept envisioning the day next spring in which I would joyfully rip off the plastic and fling open the windows to let the crisp, clean, spring air in. But…that feels like an awfully long way off in these early, snow-filled days of December. So, for now, I’ll cover my windows to prepare the best I can for winter.

Preparation…is not our whole life filled with preparation from infancy? We prepare to walk by first crawling. We have training wheels to help us balance before we’re ready to ride like the wind on our bikes. There are all kinds of things for preparation to attend school at any period in life. There are retirement funds and health insurance. We try to do the best we can with what we have in order that our lives might run a little more smoothly.

Advent, the season we are in right now, is about preparation. We prepare to celebrate Christmas, the coming of God into the world in the form of a human being, a baby. This type of preparation doesn’t mean putting up the Christmas tree or all the lights on the house, or baking cookies and buying presents. These can be wonderful, fun things in our lives, but they are not what it means to prepare for the coming of God into the world in human flesh and bones. It means much more than that and it is much more difficult than finding the perfect gift for someone.

The tricky and confusing part about the season of Advent is that we are waiting and preparing for Jesus, who has already come to earth 2000 years ago as a baby. What is different about this time around is that instead of waiting for a baby, we are preparing for the resurrected Jesus in flesh and bone, who died and rose from the dead, to come to us again. Through Scripture we are told that when the resurrected Jesus comes again we can expect a few things: the dead will be raised, all will be judged, and death will be defeated forever in/with eternal life.

The question is: How are we to prepare for such an event as this when it seems so beyond what we can understand?

For one answer to this question we’ll need to turn to a guy we might label as, how might we describe him…not your average Joe, smelly, homeless, and odd at best. He has a wardrobe of camel’s hair and eats grasshoppers with honey and is often mistaken for the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. All this aside, John the Baptist is the one who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus and we are to take him seriously and listen to what he has to say.

John says that to prepare for the coming of Jesus means that we are to repent. “Repent,” he says, “for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” This was true 2000 years ago and is still true today. John invited people to repent be baptized. Baptism was a symbol of repentance and they continue to be intimately linked still today. Baptism and repentance are not once-over things. We daily remember that we are baptized and give our lives over to God.

Repentance is a concept we’d probably rather not think about. It is also a concept that we often get wrong. Repentance is usually thought about as saying you are sorry for something you did wrong, which is typically associated with some kind of moralism like stealing or swearing or something like that. If this is how you have thought about repentance, wipe this idea from your mind because it is not helpful in a life of faith.

Repentance is much more than an apology or feeling sorry for what you did. Apologies are for spilling milk and forgetting someone’s birthday. Repentance is about a way of life baptismal life, a changing of the mind, a turning towards what is life-giving. It is a 180 degree turn from where you are headed and letting God take you in a new and better direction. It is about admitting to God and to yourself that you need God to direct your life. This is not in a sense that you live your life and God helps you out once in a while when you need God, but rather it is the way in which you let God run your life.

For starters, here is a basic example of daily repentance by asking God to help one live a certain way of life:
        Martin Luther prayed this prayer every morning:
                God, I ask you to preserve and keep me this day also, from all sin and evil; that in all my thoughts, words, and deeds, I may serve and please you. Into your hands I commend my body and soul, and all that is mine.

Luther understood that repentance wasn’t just the asking for God to make his life new, he understood that repentance also involved what followed: thoughts, words, and deeds that served and pleased God. This is the good fruit that John the Baptist is speaking about in our Gospel reading. Honest repentance produces life and good things that flow forth from God through us, and it is a lovely thing.
Another example of repentance has a more painful aspect to it. My favorite book of the Chronicles of Narnia Series is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C.S. Lewis. It also just happens to be coming out in the theaters this coming Friday and I can’t wait. There is a scene in the book in which the young, snobby, pain-in-the-butt boy, Eustace, turns into a big, scaly dragon. He is unable to do anything for himself and he is near despair when Aslan, the lion (and Jesus figure in the book) takes Eustace the dragon up a mountain to a pool of water.

    This is how Eustace describes Aslan tearing off his scales and making him new again:
                The very first tear Aslan made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off…. Then he caught hold of me and threw me into the water. I’d turned into a boy again. After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me in new clothes. And then suddenly I was back here.  Which is what makes me think it must have been a dream (pp.109-110).

John baptized with water, but Jesus’ baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. There is something going on in baptism and repentance that is much greater than we see with our eyes. Sometimes repentance is God coming to us and painfully cutting out what is ugly and dead out of our lives. In the Gospel reading this is the chaff, the worthless parts that get burned up. This is the 180 turn when we are headed down a path of destruction, that God turns us around and says, “No, you are too precious to me and I’m not going to let you go there again.” The removal of things we cling to in life that cause us harm can be very painful. Anyone who has horded one’s time, been obsessed with money, gone through the 12-step program, or been in an abusive relationship knows this. It is not easy to have these things cut out of our lives, but it is necessary and good and we cannot do it ourselves. We need God to do that painful, life-giving work in us, and it is called repentance when you let God do it.

Last but not least and probably the simplest example of repentance I can give to you today, you are already doing: participating in worship. It is much easier to think you can do life on your own or despair when you don’t participate in worship. In this place we hear of God’s love for us and realize our need for God in our lives, and it calls us into repentance. It is in the coming to worship again and again and again that God cleanses us through water and Word and prepares us for the coming of the resurrected Jesus.

As Christians we are in a continual season of Advent, of preparation and hope for Jesus to return. So we will go on preparing for winter by putting plastic on windows, all the while looking forward to that spring day of ripping it off and opening up the windows. But more importantly, we will keep on repenting in order to prepare the best we can as we look ahead for the coming of the risen Christ, (in whom we are baptized) who is both our redeemer and judge. Thanks be to God.