On Ash Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, which, by church tradition, prepares us for Easter by reminding us of our need to renew our repentance and faith. Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).
“Repent” is not a popular word. Yet John the Baptist preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was the last of the prophets whom God sent throughout Old Testament times to call the people of God to return to him, forsake their sinful ways, and renew their commitment to him and his way of life. When Israel refused to repent they were judged by God as breaking covenant with him and they were sent into exile in Babylon. The prophetic message was consistent: the consequences of the failure to repent was judgment.
This call to repent was continued by Jesus in telling people that they had to leave their former ways of life and follow him. When the Holy Spirit came in power at Pentecost the people responded to Peter’s message by being cut to the heart, convicted of their sins, and asked the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins….With many other words he warned them; and pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation. Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” (Acts 2:37-41)
“Repent” means to change – to change your mind, to change your behavior, to turn around. It was symbolized in baptism in the early church, according to Hippolytus in AD 200. The candidates removed their clothing – they carried nothing of their old life over into the new. Before they entered the water the candidates made a final, dramatic renunciation: “I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy servants, and all thy works.”
There was the recognition that change could not take place without the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the willingness of the candidate for membership in the church to forsake their former way of life. St. Augustine struggled for years with his sexual lusts. He wanted to become a Christian but prayed, “Not yet.” He wrote,
“I felt my past to have a grip on me. It uttered wretched cries: ‘How long, how long is it to be’ ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow.’ ‘Why not now? Why not an end to my impure life in this very hour?’”
He was guided to read Romans 13:13-14. “Not in riots and drunken parties, not in eroticism and indecencies, not in strife and rivalry, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts.”
The church leaders had to examine those who sought to become members of the church to see whether they repented and believed. There was a time of testing and preparation before they were baptized – the season of Lent. Newcomers were brought before the community’s teachers, who would question them concerning their reasons for coming to the faith. Members of the Christian community would accompany the inquirers and testify to their receptivity to the word of God.
All this goes against the grain of our culture today where the highest value is seen to be acceptance and affirmation of the choices one makes about oneself. The Western cultural elite have established a new orthodoxy, a new legalism which maintains that what we choose for ourselves for our own personal fulfillment is nobody else’s business. We are autonomous and answer to nobody but ourselves. They say that “Nature or God has made us the way we are and as long as we do not hurt someone else we are free to become whatever we would like to be. We can socially construct our own identity and lifestyle without regard to anyone else. If you don’t affirm us and our lifestyle you are demeaning us.” We are reminded of Jesus’ words, “Judge not, lest you be judged…How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is plank in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:1-5) Yet Jesus was extremely judgmental of hypocrites and those who would not receive him as the Christ. He told the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees who accused a woman of adultery, “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” They recognized their sinfulness and left. But he told the woman, “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11)
Here is the challenge for us. If the moral code of the Western world is to be preferred how can church leaders today say to candidates for membership in the church, “If you are serious about your faith then repent, change your ways?” What right have they to exclude people who see the traditional moral code of Christianity as outdated?
How would the parable of the prodigal son look if the younger son, after squandering his wealth in wild living decided to return home with his partner and said, “If you loved me you would accept me as I am?” Would his father have welcomed him in the same way? Would the older son have been correct about his brother “who has squandered your property with prostitutes?” It happens often enough in families doesn’t it? Do we tolerate such behavior when we are aware of what influence they are having on our children?
No! What happened was that the younger son repented. He came to his senses. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” “I have sinned and I repent. I want to change my ways.” The message of Jesus was clear: if you follow me you need to deny yourself and change your ways. Whatever you did before in ignorance may be forgiven, but you must repent of it and change – leave your life of sin.
God and his church welcomes are those who repent and believe in Christ. We are a redemptive community. Christ has died for our sins on the cross. He gave his life as a ransom for many. There is a cost to our redemption. We are not worthy to be called his sons and daughters but he welcomes us to his table. This is not to be taken lightly. If there is no need for repentance and redemption then there is no need for a Savior.
The church has certain distinctives. It is to be distinguished from other organizations by its beliefs and its expectations. During this season of Lent let us take time to examine ourselves and to renew our repentance and faith.
The entrance into the Kingdom is through the panging pains of repentance crashing into a man’s respectable goodness; then the Holy Ghost, Who produces these agonies, begins the formation of the Son of God in the life. … The bedrock of Christianity is repentance. Strictly speaking, a man cannot repent when he chooses; repentance is a gift of God. The old Puritans used to pray for “the gift of tears.” If ever you cease to know the virtue of repentance, you are in darkness. Examine yourself and see if you have forgotten to be sorry. (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, December 7th.)
Prayer: We confess to you, Lord all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives; our self-indulgent appetites and ways, our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves; our excessive love of worldly goods and comforts; our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to witness to our Savior. Accept our repentance, Lord for all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts towards others, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us. For our unwillingness to change our lifestyles and surrender to your will for our lives. For our failure to take responsibility for our choices and actions. Anoint us by your Spirit and give us the power to change into the likeness of Christ. Clothe us with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts and make us thankful for all your mercies to us. Give us the desire to do your will. Amen.