The Gift of Repentance

"Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance; for you felt a godly grief, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death."
2Corinthians 7:9-10

We've all seen those sandwich-board signs (or their cartoon counterpart) where someone invokes us to "Repent for the End is Near." Repentance, if we think about it at all, tends to be negative--it's the rude, shrill exhortation of a self-appointed prophet claiming to care about our eternal life, but coming across to us instead as shaming and judgmental. Can "repentance" be a good word? Can it, in fact, be life-giving and holistic? I think it can.

These past few weeks I've been teaching on the goodness of the Christian message, the gospel as we call it. Tracing its origins from the Old Testament to its radical nature in the preaching of Jesus Christ (particularly in Mark 1:15), my goal is to blow our understanding of the gospel out of the water, to smash old categories of thought in which this glorious message has been confined, and to give us a sense of its radical, cosmic implications. Can't get into all that here (you'll have to go to to dig further, I'm afraid); but let me just probe for a bit this word "repentance."

For much of its use in the Bible, "repentance" is a pretty secular, non-religious word. It just means "make a U-turn." Seriously! You're headed west on Canyon Boulevard and you realize you've missed the 29th St. Mall. You need to make a U-turn at 15th Street and head east. It can also mean "change your mind or heart" about something. We used to feel one way about something (a candidate or an issue, for example); now, in light of new knowledge, we change our minds.

When we reach the religious realm, "repent" means to quit heading one way (the wrong way, away from God), to turn around instead, and head the other way. It means turn--turn from death to life, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It means to turn away from all that is ultimately futile and empty to that which brings fulfillment and joy.

Now here's the big point: repentance is not a once and for all event! It's not like you do it only once, upon your initial conversion or turning to God. No, the best way to understand repentance is to see it as ongoing, a lifestyle of learning to turn away. It means to detect on increasingly deeper levels that which is unhealthy inside us and to turn instead to God's better way in Christ. At first, this means for us who come from other backgrounds (I wasn't raised Christian), that we need to turn away from the grosser forms of immorality and damaging self-centeredness. It means initially identifying those self-defeating patterns of gossip or rage or impatience or substance abuse or sex and turning those over to God in pursuit of health and wholeness.

But as we progress in the Christian spiritual life, God takes us deeper, down into the morass of our sin-soaked lives. We begin to address our age-old issues of motivation: we see how pretense and hypocrisy can characterize much of our Christianity. We then learn to cop to pride and vanity and arrogance, much of these played out--sadly, we realize--on the stage of our church activity. As we go on repenting, God peels off layers of sin in our lives like desiccated onion skins. One after another and sometimes painfully, God scours off the hardened husks of our false lives, stripping us down to the fresh newness he longs to expose in us. And repentance, this ongoing lifestyle of turning from attitudes and behaviors, thoughts and habits, and turning to God's new life, is our means of participating.

To use another metaphor, it's like pumicing off an old callous or even brushing and flossing our teeth--routine behaviors which we do because we know that health lies beneath.

The added benefit to all of this is that the character produced by ongoing repentance is winsome and approachable, humble and tender. People softened by sincere, repeated repentance (and the consequent experience of God's grace) have about themselves an attractive, welcoming spirit. This spirit draws Christian and non-Christian alike. Out of characters softened by repentance and new life, God is able to do some incredible things in us and through us. I suspect that it is to the degree that we are regularly repenting that we will grow in grace and be spiritually transformed.

The Power Source

Power--and the transfer of power--is on everyone's mind these days as we ready for the old presidential administration to leave and the new one to take office. What are the limits of power? Its benefits? Responsibilities? Opportunities? These questions of power are real and relevant, particularly in a troubled economy where the use of power may or may not provide a solution to a recession and increased unemployment. These questions of power are also pressing in a place like Gaza, where the use (and abuse) of power (whether by Hamas or Israel) is hurting innocent, captive civilians.

Today's lectionary readings focus on power: where does ultimate power rest? In whom is the proper use of power found? First, the psalm of the day, Psalm 146 makes a bold statement: "Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that day their plans perish" (verses 3-4). Whether voted in by a majority, protected by the Secret Service, or armed with sophisticated weapons, a new presidential administration's power is limited. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, it doesn't matter: these are mortals whose power is not ultimate and whose office cannot provide for our deepest longings and desires. By contrast, the psalmist urges people to invest their aspirations elsewhere: in the God whose power will never change. "Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God" (v. 5). What follows is a list of God's work for justice, the comfort of the oppressed, the release of captives, the restoration of sight to the blind and finally a declaration: "The LORD will reign forever." Here's true power, a power that liberates and is used consistently for the good of all.

The epistle reading today centers this power in Jesus Christ, as the apostle Paul prays that his readers will be able to grasp this, trust this, and be reassured (Ephesians 1:15-23). If you've got a Bible handy, look at the many times "power" is referenced here. In particular, note verses 20 and following: "God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion...[God] has put all things under his feet." This is the focus of the final reading this morning, Mark 1:15-28, as Jesus, in verse 15, preaches his first public sermon (his inaugural address, if you will). Here it is: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

True power, the best power, the power that liberates and provides justice, that gives peace and hope for all, rests not in a new president or a clever economic policy. It rests in the King who's come to regain his rightful reign over the citizens of earth. This king comes for the first time in humility and gentleness, offering all who will hear his voice the chance to change their other allegiances and willingly submit to his peaceable kingdom.

Transitions and New Leadership

Ah, the delectable lectionary (see my earlier post)! My spiritual breakfast this morning began with a familiar passage: Joshua 1:1-9, which has become very personal for me over the years (that's another blog entry, I'm afraid!). God seems to use Joshua 1 with regularity to reassure me of his abiding presence in the midst of transitions. A quick recap: young Joshua is taking over the leadership of God's people from newly deceased Moses, a giant of the faith. It's a time of turbulence and uncertainty and great challenges abound as Israel is called to cross the Jordan and go into the land to take possession. With Obama's inauguration right around the corner and with our senior pastor's last sermon preached yesterday, this text seems providential. The drumbeat reassurance God gives is this: "Be strong and courageous! Do not be frightened or dismayed. For the Lord God is with you wherever you go" (Joshua 1:9). It's a good word for new leaders and for a people being newly led.

Now get this: the epistle of the morning was Hebrews 11:32 - 12:2, where a long litany is recited, describing God's faithful leaders. It details the famous and the obscure, all of whom led under great hardship and failed to receive the reward. However, as the text makes clear, they led with vision and faith, trusting that the ultimate fulfillment of their leadership lay in God's hands and, indeed, encompassed future generations (that means us!). The big point of the passage is the exhortation at the end, to keep our eyes fixed firmly on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. That's vision! That's proper navigation. That's our strength and encouragement in transition. Jesus (the New Testament Joshua!) leads us into the new places God has for us. His presence is our reassurance and keeping our focus on him is the way to stay steady in unforeseen turbulence.

It couldn't get any clearer with today's gospel lesson: John 15:1-15! It's the famous "vine and branches" parable. Here Jesus reminds us that we are the branches, he is the vine. Our fruitfulness (in life, ministry, witness, service, justice, and more) lies in our abiding in him--our dwelling consciously and by faith in his living presence, our obedience to his commands to love one another and our world. This posture of quiet trust and relational closeness is the key to transitions and to faithful discipleship as we step into new places (and indeed a new year).

One sidebar comment: over the past week or two I've been thinking a lot about Gideon and the ridiculously limited resources God purposely gave him as he took over leadership (see Judges 6-7). I'm going to reflect on Gideon in another post sometime soon. But for now, believe it or not, here's how this morning's Hebrews 11 passage began: "And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon..." Delectable!