Sermon - 22nd February 2015
Revd Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available in mp3 format via the link on our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Introduction – Lent
The season of Lent started last Wednesday and today is the first Sunday of Lent. Many churches don’t do much for Lent, and Christians, in the West, don’t observe Lent in the strict way that our sisters and brothers in the Orthodox Church do. Disputes about how one should observe Lent were part of the reform movement in 16h Century Zurich. For most of us Lent might be observed by a bit of inconvenience – we give up chocolate, or alcohol. One friend of mine is giving up Facebook for Lent which might be a bit more of an inconvenience than chocolate!
There are some clues in the title for Lent in different languages. Our word Lent comes from an old English word meaning Spring – the Latin word Quadragissema simply means fortieth – a reference to the 40th day before Easter, the Greek word is the same. However, in German and Slavic languages the word used means “fasting time” which takes us back to earlier Lenten practices where Christians would give up eating all meat and diary products for Lent – something Orthodox Christians still do. The day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday was a time to go to confession (and so be shriven or forgiven) and eat up all the meat and dairy products in the house – hence the making of pancakes.
The 40 days of Lent have various ideas behind them. It’s a commemoration of Jesus’ 40 days in the Wilderness where he fasted and prayed; there is an echo of the Old Testament idea that pleas for forgiveness were accompanied by prayer and fasting and there is the idea of preparation for Easter. In the Early Church people were prepared for baptism during Lent and received into the Church during the Easter celebrations: this made Lent a period of reflection and preparation.
Over time the purpose of this preparation for Easter was refined to help us think about how we need to change and, to use a rather old fashioned word “repent”.
Repent? What does that mean?
John the Baptist called people to repent. Mark rather glosses over John’s ministry but in the other Gospels we hear of his call to repent and his invitation to the people to be baptised as a sign of this repentance. One of the problems in the 16th Century was that the Gospel passages had been mistranslated and John was thought to have said “do penance” and so the rigours of Lent were seen as a way of expressing sorrow for our sins and, for many, as a way of atoning for our sins. More accurate Biblical scholarship made people realised that John’s call wasn’t to do penance but to repent. So what does it mean to repent?
The Greek word literally means “to turn around.” Now we might say something like “to turn our lives upside down.” We read of people doing this all – people who do this positively and negatively. The person who changes career mid life, or who chooses to leave a failing marriage, or who becomes an active member of a faith community – it’s all about turning lives upside down. When we repent we do this, we seek to change direction.
We think repentance is about saying sorry for the things we’ve done wrong – often in church services we may say a confession together, be invited to think about our sins and to express sorrow for them – all this is important but repentance is rather deeper than simply saying sorry.
Many people in court are very sorry for what they’ve done – or at least for the fact that they’ve been caught – but magistrates are more interested in if they’ve repented. Have they turned their lives around? Have they made changes so that the factors that led them to offend are no longer present. So we may look for evidence they’ve engaged with drug or alcohol services, or they have voluntarily paid back stolen money or they have sought out help for dealing with anger issues. These would be better signs of repentance than telling us they are very sorry!
How did Jesus repent?
So whilst we can easily see what repentance might mean for a criminal it’s harder to understand why Jesus wanted to be baptised when John was preaching baptism as a sign of repentance. After all what on earth did Jesus have to repent of. Maybe it helps when we remember that baptism is about turning one’s life around.
This kind of repentance, for Jesus amounts to nothing less than death. Jesus’ baptism marked the start of his public ministry – a ministry which signals the end of his former life. No longer will he be bound by the assumptions, ideologies and obligations of his former life. He no longer sees himself as subordinate to the Temple authorities, the powers that be in Jerusalem, to Herod or even to the Romans. There is a political component to Jesus’ baptism as, from now on, he preaches the coming Kingdom – a proclamation which is always a threat to the status quo. The good news of the coming Kingdom isn’t good news to those who quite like the kingdoms of this world! After his baptism Jesus is now a citizen of that coming Kingdom – and so is free of earthly obligations which conflict with God’s purposes.
Jesus is confirmed in this new identity by God’s voice speaking from heaven. The implication in St Mark is that only Jesus hears this voice; it’s a message for him give him confidence in his change of direction. There is also an interesting link – God tears the heavens apart to speak to Jesus just as He tears apart the Temple veil when Jesus dies. These are both powerful signs of God’s kingdom breaking into our world.
How can we?
So what might repentance mean for us? Clearly we have sorrow for our sins, clearly we seek to ask God’s forgiveness but, as we’ve seen repentance is rather more than that. I was raised as a Roman Catholic and one of the disciplines I think the Catholics have right is the that of going to confession. I won’t go as far as to say that I liked confession – I’m not sure you’re meant to. But the physical act of kneeling and confessing your sins to another person brings home how serious thing are and helps gain some perspective about this repentance thing – of course if it is merely reduced to a ritual then we miss the point.
Repentance can involve many things - but all of them require us to change.
- This week we’ve heard lots about tax and people who have got away with avoiding paying it – are we honest with our taxes?
- We go to great efforts in the URC to use fairly traded products – do we make the same effort at home.
- Could we make an effort to be nice to a work colleague or fellow church member we don’t like?
- Do we need to turn our lives around more radically? Are you in the right job? Is God calling you to do something different?
- Are you using your money as God wants you to?
One of the sins of the contemporary Church is that we’ve made Christianity a private spiritual experience instead of the proclamation of God’s coming kingdom this has implications for our spirituality. This Lent we need to work on this repentance thing – getting our lives back on track and aligned to God and his coming Kingdom. It’s hard, but the world will only believe the Gospel we proclaim if we truly live it.