Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Is Repentance Good News?

During the summer before I started my last year of seminary, I had the privilege of serving as an intern at St. James Episcopal Church in Fairhope. That summer, I got to see the ins and outs of parish life. I visited people in the hospital. I went to staff meetings and Vestry meetings. I taught a short Sunday-school series, and I also had the chance to preach. A lot of rectors are reluctant to share their pulpit with anyone—especially a green, still-learning-the-craft seminarian. But not Mark Wilson. Without hesitation, he put me on the schedule and said, “Go for it.”

I preached my heart out. I don’t remember which scripture lessons were assigned for that day, but I do remember that I wove the Prayer of Humble Access into the sermon because the texts were about sin and repentance. I remember hitting the congregation with a heavy dose of sin before wrapping it up with a hopeful word about returning to the Lord. Looking back, I recall that it wasn’t a very good sermon. In fact, it wasn’t good at all. I made plenty of rookie mistakes. I used too many different images instead of focusing on a consistent theme. I didn’t draw the congregation into the sermon with a story or analogy that they could relate to. I went too long on some unnecessary points and skipped over some important transitions. In short, it was the kind of sermon you would expect a seminarian to give. But they loved it.

If you count my time in seminary, I have been preaching sermons for eleven years, and, still, it never fails to amaze me how well received even mediocre sermons are if they are about sin. People love hearing sermons about sin. They come out of church and say the most positive things. Any preacher knows to read between the lines when he hears something like, “Beautiful day we’re having today. I thought it might be colder. Maybe I’ll go home and sweep the back patio. Oh, and nice sermon, too.” But, when I preach about sin, there are long, lingering looks on the way out of church, nods of affirmation, hushed tones of appreciation, and almost confessional compliments. Why is that?

Usually, when I think of preachers who are likely to talk about sin, I picture the kind to whom I cannot stand listening—the kind who stand on the corner and hand out flyers about “turning or burning” while they are yelling the “good news” at everyone who walks by. When the gospel of Jesus Christ is presented in those terms—in the “you’d-better-do-this-or-else-you’ll-burn-in-hell” terms—I feel a strong urge to run in the opposite direction. I feel repulsed by the message. I feel shame that I share the same occupation as such an angry preacher. And I feel a deep sadness that such a misguided proclamation of what should be the good news is actually pushing people away from God. But, when I preach about sin and when I hear other preachers in churches like ours preach about sin, it has the opposite effect. Somehow, it draws us in. Instead of pushing us away, it draws us closer to God. Why is that? I think it’s because repentance is good news.

As we heard in today’s reading from Mark (1:1-8), “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.’” And what did that messenger say? “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Come and be baptized and await the coming of God’s kingdom.” It is remarkable to me that Mark begins his account of the “good news” with a message of repentance. For him, this is where the gospel starts—not with a lengthy genealogy or with a touching birth narrative or with a theologically sophisticated prologue but with a call to repent.

Repentance is good news. When given its full and proper richness, repentance is very good news because it is the beginning of a new relationship with God. The word “repentance” has its roots in words that mean “to turn around.” When we repent, we turn our hearts around, and the process of turning has two essential pieces to it—that from which we turn away and that to which we now turn. Yes, repentance is about turning away from sin. It is about forsaking all that impairs our ability to know who God is and what God’s will is for our lives. It is about leaving the old behind. It is about turning our backs on evil. But repentance is also a turning toward something even more wonderful than we can image—God’s love. As we turn toward God, we turn toward the one who forgives us. We turn toward his acceptance of even a wayward child. We embrace what it means to be redeemed. We look forward to the full and rich and wonderful life that God has in store for us.

Why do people like it when they hear sermons about sin? Because I don’t know how to preach about sin without preaching about forgiveness. Because God is a God of love and forgiveness and redemption. Because we believe in a gospel of truly good news. If you’ve heard a message of repentance but didn’t like what you heard, there’s a good chance you only heard half of the story. Hear, instead, the good news of Jesus Christ: God invites you to leave your old self behind and embrace the new, forgiven, redeemed self that God loves without limit. Repent, for God’s wonderful, loving kingdom is at hand.

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