Wednesday, March 8, 2017

It's Not Too Late

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Repent. I'm a preacher, and still the word makes me want to roll my eyes. That's not because I don't believe in the power of repentance. I do. I cling to it with every ounce of inadequate, failing strength that I have. But, as a child of the American south and the evangelical church, I have had more preachers than I can count point their condemnatory finger at me and tell me that if I don't repent I will go straight to hell. After a while, it gets tiresome. It becomes counterproductive. Instead of encouraging me to honestly assess my need for a savior, the "Turn or burn!" message makes me tune it out. There's a part of me that begins to believe the fallacy that I'd rather burn in hell than spend eternity with a bunch of preachers in heaven who have the smug satisfaction of knowing that they aren't there.

Although reluctant, Jonah was the sort of repentance-focused preacher that turns me off. He walked through the streets of a city where he did not belong, amidst a people with whom he did not identify, and cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" which was his way of saying, "If you don't repent, God's going to get you." He didn't bother to develop any relationships with the people there. He didn't get to know them. He didn't bother to hear their stories. He didn't show them love or patience. He just yelled at them. "Repent or else!"

Even Jesus--loving, sweet Jesus--picks up that message and tells the crowds that they are on a one-way path to condemnation. He calls them evil. He speaks of judgment. He compares them with others, pointing out how they are found lacking while other, even more notorious sinners are going to be saved because they repented. Sound familiar?

And now it's my turn: repent, y'all. For all the reasons that Jesus and Jonah and every angry, sweaty, vein-popping preacher has ever had for repentance. Repentance is how we find salvation. It's how the forgiveness that Jesus offers us becomes real. It's how we turn around from a path that leads away from God's will in order to come back to his gracious plan for our lives. It's how we find our true selves. It's how we find God.

But I want to take just a moment to point out something that that may be obvious to you but somehow seems hidden when fire-and-brimstone preachers get all wound up about repentance. Repentance itself is evidence of a God for whom it is never too late.

Do you remember the whole story of Jonah? God told Jonah to go up to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the need for repentance. But what did Jonah do? He ran away. He didn't want to do it. And why not? If you read ahead in chapter 4, you see that Jonah, after God forgave the Ninevites, complained to the Lord, saying, "That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster." Jonah didn't want the people of Nineveh to hear the message of repentance. They were the enemies of God's people--the evil, terrorizing, sworn enemies of Israel. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, that terrible northern neighbor that had attacked the villages, towns, and cities of God's people. Jonah didn't want them to repent. He wanted them to burn in hell. (They didn't really believe in hell back then, but he wanted the equivalent, which was that God would wipe them off the face of the earth.)

Repentance is a reminder not only of our sin but also of God's willingness to forgive. Perhaps ironically, that truth is found on the lips of the Assyrian king: "Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." God has the power to give life and take it away. God has the power to build up and to destroy. God has the power to save and to condemn. If God wanted to, God would be just in wiping us off the face of the earth. Surely we are as wicked as the people whom God destroyed in the great flood. But God has promised not to do that ever again, which is to say that God's very nature is to withhold judgment. Why bother repenting if God had already made up God's mind? Why bother returning to the Lord if the Lord will reject us forever?

We believe in repentance because we believe in second chances...and third chances and fourth chances and so on. Repentance itself is a testimony to God's forgiveness. We repent because we believe that God forgives. If we didn't believe that, why would we bother? Repentance is not our attempt to please a wrathful God. It is our attempt to internalize the magnitude of God's forgiveness. Repent, y'all. Repent not simply because you are a sinner in need of forgiveness. Repent because God is a God of mercy and love.

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