Well, I was going to preach a sermon this morning, but I’ve changed my mind.
That got your attention, didn’t it?!
It’s a curious phrase, isn’t it, “changing your mind”. It’s a figure of speech, of course. We don’t actually change our mind; what we change is the way we’re thinking about a particular issue, and that change of mind leads to a change of action. “I was going to marry so and so, but as I got to know her a little better I realized that we had very different goals in life, so I’ve changed my mind”. “I was going to start a new job with such and such a company, but then I discovered that their benefits package wasn’t as good as I’d been led to believe, so I changed my mind”.
A change of thinking, leading to a change of action: that’s actually very close to the meaning of the word ‘repentance’. And ‘repentance’ is our subject for today. In our service on Ash Wednesday we used these words:
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.
Here we are given six concrete habits or practices that we can build into our lives, as a way of opening ourselves afresh to Jesus and making him welcome in our hearts. During the six Sundays of Lent I’m thinking with you about these six habits. We started last week with self-examination, and today we’re going to move on to the second one – penitence, or repentance. What does that mean, and how can we build it into our lives?
It’s good to remember sometimes that the books of the Bible were not originally written in English. The Old Testament books are mostly in Hebrew, and the New Testament books in Greek. Translating words from one language to another can be a tricky business. Linguists will tell you that it’s actually quite rare to find a word in one language that’s the exact equivalent of a word in another language; more often than not, one of the words will have shades of meaning not found in the other. So when we’re studying the Bible it’s sometimes helpful to explore what the word means in the original language; it can help us get a better idea of what the original author may have meant.
In the Old Testament there are two main Hebrew words used to describe the idea of repentance. The first word is naham, and it’s usually used to describe something God does; ‘The Lord changed his mind’. So for instance, when the Israelite people made a golden calf to worship at Mount Sinai, God was angry and told Moses he was going to wipe them out, but Moses managed to persuade him otherwise; Exodus tells us that ‘The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’ (Exodus 32:14). Obviously the author is writing from a human point of view; Moses received a warning from God, but in the end the plan wasn’t carried out, so God must have changed his mind or something! But this idea of changing your mind and following a different course of action is one way of looking at repentance.
The other Old Testament word is shub, and it means ‘to turn’ or ‘to return’. Obviously the idea here is that an individual or a nation is heading in the wrong direction; their actions are contrary to God’s will and are taking them further and further away from God. So God sends a messenger or prophet to challenge them; the people listen to the words of the prophet, and they ‘turn away’ from their evil deeds and ‘return’ to the Lord their God.
One verse in the Old Testament where both these words are used comes in the Book of Jonah. God sent Jonah to preach his word to a pagan city, Nineveh. Jonah expected the Ninevites to reject his message, but to his surprise, they didn’t; they repented, fasted, put on sackcloth and cried out to God for mercy. The result is described for us in Jonah 3:10:
‘When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them, and he did not do it’.
They turned from their evil ways, and God changed his mind and turned from his plan to punish them: two kinds of repentance!
In the New Testament, the Greek word we often translate as ‘repentance’ is ‘metanoia’; like ‘naham’, it means ‘to think again’, or ‘a change of mind leading to a change of heart and behaviour’. Mark 1:14-15 says,
‘Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”’.
So people are living in a particular way, with a particular set of beliefs about life and what’s important to them. And then along comes Jesus with an announcement to make: the kingdom of God has come near! God is king, and he’s about to work to bring about his loving rule in the world. People need to get ready for this, so Jesus challenges them to change their thinking and their behaviour. A new way of seeing the world – ‘the kingdom of God is near’ – leads to a new way of living – ‘repent and believe the good news’.
I want to share three biblical stories of repentance with you to illustrate these words.
The first is the well-known parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. A man has two sons, and the younger son says to him, “Father, I don’t want to wait until you die; I want my share of the property now”. So, amazingly, the father divides his property between his two sons. The younger son then takes his share and goes off to a faraway country where he squanders the money in what the King James Version calls ‘riotous living’!
Eventually the money runs out, and at the same time, a famine comes on that country. Pretty soon the younger son is in a bad way, and so he goes and gets a job with a pig farmer – which of course would be a little shocking for a good Jewish boy, pigs being unclean and all – and he’s so hungry that even the pig food looks good to him. Eventually he has a moment of epiphany. Here’s how Luke describes it:
‘But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’” So he set off and went to his father’ (Luke 15:17-20).
This is a decisive moment of repentance. The son has taken a certain course of action, but in a moment of clarity he realizes that it’s getting him nowhere, and the future is looking pretty dire. He thinks again, he changes his mind, and he turns from his foolishness and returns to his father.
That can happen to us, too. Maybe without realizing it we’ve allowed ourselves to become addicted to something – alcohol or another drug, or a certain kind of destructive behaviour. For a while we manage to avoid facing the truth, but eventually something happens that makes it impossible for us to deceive ourselves any longer. We see ourselves as we really are, and we decide to pick up the phone and contact someone who can help us begin the journey of recovery. That’s metanoia – a change of mind, leading to a change of action.
Another New Testament story is the famous tale of Zacchaeus of Jericho, who, we are told, was ‘a chief tax collector and was rich’ (Luke 19:2). Tax collection in the Roman Empire was private enterprise and the tax collectors made their money from the commission they charged. Rome didn’t really care how much they charged as long as the empire got its proper cut, so you can guess how tax collectors lived and how they were seen by ordinary people!
When Jesus comes to Jericho, Zacchaeus is secretly quite interested in him. But Zacchaeus is a little guy and can’t see over the crowd, so he climbs a tree to get a good view. However, Jesus calls him down from the tree and says “Zacchaeus , I’m coming to eat at your house today!” Pharisees and ordinary taxpayers grumble loudly, but you can’t stop Jesus once he’s made his mind up, so off they go. And the next thing we know, Zacchaeus is making an announcement:
‘Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much”. Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham”’ (Luke 19:8-9).
Here we can see that repentance is severely practical. Zacchaeus’ major sin is greed and theft; he’s been fleecing the taxpayers of Jericho, and their complaints against him are legitimate. Jesus isn’t going to let him get away with just going to an Ash Wednesday service and getting an ash cross smeared on his forehead! Repentance means putting right what is wrong, and Zacchaeus knows it. Maybe he’s a little flamboyant about the way he announces it, but Jesus knows his heart is in the right place, and I’m sure the taxpayers of Jericho appreciate it, too!
Once again, this tells us that repentance is practical and can be costly. It’s not just a vague idea of ‘I’m going to try to be a nicer person’. It means that we examine ourselves, as we saw last week, and we ask God to show us what the most important issues are in our lives. Then we put definite plans in place to turn from our sins and start doing the right thing. And sometimes it helps to do as Zacchaeus did and to make those plans known to someone else, so that they can hold us accountable for the commitments we make.
The third story comes a bit earlier on in the gospels, from the life of John the Baptist. John, like Jesus after him, has been announcing the coming of the Kingdom of God and calling on people to repent and be baptized. Some people in the crowd ask him to be more specific about exactly what repentance involves. Here’s how Luke tells the story:
‘And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”. Even tax collectors came to him to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you”. Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages”’ (Luke 3:10-14).
John doesn’t mince words, does he? ‘If you’ve got two houses and you know someone who’s homeless, share with the homeless person’. ‘If you’re a tax collector, don’t charge a commission on your taxes’ (that would definitely have bankrupted a few tax collectors!). ‘If you’re a person in authority, don’t throw your weight around or use your influence to get rich – be content with your salary’. Notice how these are all what we would call today ‘issues of social justice’? Repentance isn’t just about my private morality; it’s about God’s will being done publicly, on earth as it is in heaven, and my part in making that happen.
So we’ve seen that repentance starts with our thinking: we’ve had a certain set of assumptions about life, but then Jesus challenges those assumptions. ‘The reign of God is at hand’, and that means God is the real ruler, not me, and not anyone else. It means that my life doesn’t belong to me; I’m accountable to God, and the day is coming when I will have to give account.
So I look at my life in the light of the Kingdom or Reign of God, and I see that my sinful behaviour is getting me nowhere; in fact, it’s going to make things worse and worse. So I decide to stop deluding myself, and I turn away from my current way of living and start doing things differently. That’s what repentance means, in a nutshell.
But there are two more things I want to say about repentance before I finish.
First, for some of us, certain milestones, certain times of the year, can be a real help. The idea of ‘new year resolutions’ is often mocked, but I would like to suggest that the usual problem is not in the ‘new year’ but in the ‘resolutions’ – people make unrealistic resolutions, or they make too many of them, or they don’t make concrete plans about how they’re going to put them into practice. “I’d like to lose weight this year” is not a good new year’s resolution. “I’m going to stop eating between meals, and stop having desserts, and take a daily walk” is much better, especially if we can enlist the help of another person to keep us on track.
For myself, I’ve very rarely had much success with making concrete changes in my life without the help of a milestone or a season. By ‘a milestone’, I mean ‘a new job’, or ‘a new home’, or ‘a new decade of life’. ‘Seasons’, of course, means something like new year’s, or Lent, or Advent. It just seems that for some of us, these things can give us just that little bit of extra impetus we need to make changes.
Lent, of course, is one of those seasons. So if you’ve got a pretty clear idea of some specific changes God is calling you to, why not jump on board right now, while Lent is still young? Make some concrete plans, ask for God’s help, and see if you can get someone else to help you by holding you accountable for the commitments you make.
The second thing, of course, is that little phrase ‘ask for God’s help’. We Christians know very well that, as the old prayer book used to say, ‘We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves’. We are weak, but God is strong, and he has given us his strong Holy Spirit to live in us. So we will want to call on the Spirit to fill us every day, and we will want to walk in step with him through the day, asking for his help over and over again if we find ourselves weak and tempted.
Remember what Jesus said when the disciples asked him, “Then who can be saved?” ‘Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). And Jesus also says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). So let’s abide in him, and let’s call on his Spirit daily for help, so that, as John the Baptist says, we can ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8).
I want to end this week with the verse I began with last week. Jesus is speaking to the members of the Church in Laodicea:
“Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20).
As I’ve been speaking to you this morning, is it possible that you’ve heard that quiet knock? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit has been whispering to you in your heart, saying, “This message of repentance is for you, you know?” If so, why not open the door and let Jesus in – and then ask him to show you what he wants practical repentance to look like in your life?