Sermon: Repentance

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Preached on 22nd February 2013
by Revd Paul Cleever-Thorpe

Repentance.     (Bible readings: Jonah ch.3-ch.4 v.1;        Mark 1:9-15; Acts ch.13 vs.26-39).

Now I wonder whether you would describe yourself as being a ‘half a glass empty’ type of person or a ‘half a glass full’ person? There are often positive sides even to the most discouraging of situations…

Take, for example, a certain one way system in the centre of Morpeth which is within touching distance of us here this morning!

I am thankful that my own sorties across town can be planned outside of what rush-hour we have here..others perhaps are not so fortunate!

Can there be a positive slant to a ten week gridlock of traffic?

Of course there can!

What about ‘free publicity’ and a raising of the profile for St. George’s URC? My goodness, on one of the local radio stations St. George’s, because it is the landmark closest to one end of the one way system, has been mentioned every fifteen minutes during the early morning traffic bulletins!

Everyone knows about you!

This morning in our worship we are thinking not about what it might mean to keep going in one direction but rather to consider changing course, as a certain cruise liner’s captain will obviously wish he had chosen to do last year.

Infact, we are not simply talking about changing course but of turning around completely and choosing to take the opposite direction.

“The Kingdom of God is near”, says Jesus towards the start of Mark’s gospel… “Repent/ Turn away from your sins and believe the Good News.”

Not only are the words ‘Turn away’ vitally important in that declaration of Jesus, so too is the small word, “and” as, I hope, we can come to appreciate in a few moments time.

The actress, Meryl Streep, won her Oscar number three in 2012… but one thing which she will have learned about The Iron Lady whom she was portraying is that Margaret Thatcher was rarely one for backing down or changing course.

As she famously said at the Tory Party Conference of 1980: ‘The lady’s not for turning!’

The Methodist rite of baptism challenges parents to make their own act of repentance, or ‘turning’:

‘Do you turn away from evil and all that denies God?’

However, the challenge, of course, does not end there…

A second question is asked of the parents in baptism:

‘Do you turn to God, trusting in Christ as your Lord and Saviour?’

The ‘turning away from’ is inextricably linked with a ‘turning to’.. this is where the ‘and’ is significant within those words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel.

For John the Baptist, in the earlier part of Mark ch.1, has already called the people to do the ‘turning away bit’.. from their sins. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

What John however is unable to do, Jesus is supremely equipped to do: ‘to call the people to believe the Good News or to turn to God’…

Because Jesus himself embodied this message: ‘Put your faith in me, for I and the Father are one.’

The baptism of Jesus then is one of both repentance and faith…as the parents of a child are reminded, and as the congregation is also reminded when the child her or himself is baptised..

“We pray that this child will die to sin, be raised with Christ, and be born to new life within the family of the Church.”

Whether we have been immersed in the waters of baptism or sprinkled with it, we have undergone a powerful moment of transition.

We believe that through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power of evil has been broken…baptism symbolises this victory not just for the individual who is being baptised but also for the whole community of faith within which the child or adult is being welcomed.

Repentance and Faith…held together.

Let’s consider for a moment the word ‘repentance’ – the Greek words used in the NT to describe this are mainly forms related to the verb ‘metanoein’ which literally means ‘to change one’s mind’.

But this verb also describes a radical change in the person’s disposition, which makes sense doesn’t it as repentance calls us not just to acknowledge our wrongdoing but also to completely review and evaluate God’s demands upon us.

The transformation implied, therefore, through ‘metanoia’ is not merely a matter of mental judgment but of a new moral attitude and a new pattern of behaviour.

A good example of this is in the well-known story of Zaccheus who gives back to those whom he has cheated four times what he owes them.

Look also at the preaching of the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles.

Yes, they sometimes summon people to repent but on other occasions they also summon them to BELIEVE.

Acts ch.13…Paul & Barnabas at Antioch (verse 38):

“We want you to know, my fellow Israelites, that it is through Jesus that the message of forgiveness of sins is preached to you; and that everyone who believes in him is set free from all the sins from which the Law of Moses could not set you free.”

 

Repentance and faith, then are simply two aspects of the same movement and so both may be regarded as being gifts of God.

Prevenient Grace, grace which goes before, is God’s gift to us, undeserved, not able to be earned, yet generously given. It is the Grace of God at work in our hearts which moves us to repentance, helps us to forgive and to be forgiven, and which invites from us a ‘faith’ response and a commitment to trust and to follow Jesus Christ.

As the 12th chapter of Romans tells us however, we are to understand this conversion not just as being an event but also as being a continuous process. Isn’t this what Paul means in Romans ch.12:  “Be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds!”

 

Hence also the inclusion in my diagram of the grand sounding word: ‘Sanctification.’

For this is the word theologians use to describe how the Christian cooperates with God’s grace, how she or he receives the Holy Spirit as the means by which they may be spiritually and morally cleansed… how they harness all of their human faculties in their committed service of God for the upbuilding of Christian fellowship and for the working out of God’s will in the world.

Are not repentance and faith the active side, the dynamic side to this whole process?

Martin Luther certainly thought so and it is he who rediscovered the deeper meaning behind the Greek word, ‘metanoein’.

This word, as we have said, is a New Testament word, and so does not figure in the text of the book of Jonah. The writer of this book asks, in effect, the question: ‘For what purpose did God deliver His people?’

Having read the book of Jonah we could give, perhaps, two important answers to that question:

  1. God is not only the God of the Jews but of the whole world…a message at the very heart of the season Epiphany;
  2. God addresses sin wherever He may encounter it and yet, ultimately, does not desire the destruction of any sinner but their restoration;

As I came towards the end of the book of Jonah I couldn’t help thinking of a possible New Testament parallel to him, and that is the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son; let’s be honest, you could read that well-known parable and argue that the younger son was too indulgently treated, whilst the elder brother had a very raw deal.

He had worked hard for the family business whilst his brother had been gallivanting off and frittering away money left, right & centre…he struggles to understand and to accept how such mercy and love should be showered upon the rebellious son by their Father…

Jonah greatly regrets, does he not, he greatly regrets the mercy which God shows towards the Ninevites after they have repented (see ch.3 v.10f).

Clearly then, Jonah knew God to be a God of mercy, of patience, of kindness…the difficulty was that he wasn’t able to see how this could apply to Gentiles as well as to his own people, the Jews.

Friends, what we know of God has to be applied…our theological understanding of course, needs to be reflected in how we live our lives and serve others in Christ’s name…we cannot discriminate between those who are deserving of God’s loving mercy and those who are not.

May we cooperate fully with God in order that the good news of Christ’s coming might be heard, understood and responded to by those who live closest to us, and by those who live around us.

Amen.

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