The Freedom of Repentance

Isaiah 11:1-10 | Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 | Romans 15:4-13 | Matthew 3:1-12

Jeremy Richards

Don’t you just hate sermons on repentance? I hate sermons on repentance.

When my sister and I were young enough to still take baths together, but old enough that we didn’t need supervision, there was an evening that we were in the bath and I had a bright idea. I suggested that we pretend the bathtub was a boat that was sinking, and we needed to bail out all the water. By the time my mom returned to check on us, we’d emptied half the bathtub onto the bathroom floor of a house we were renting. My parents ended up having to pay for a new floor to be put in in the bathroom! Needless to say, we were in big trouble.

I remember honestly not thinking we were doing anything wrong until my mom showed up. And then she called me dad. And I remember they were very upset. And I remember the realization suddenly dawning on me that we had done something wrong and we were in trouble. You know that feeling, when you get a pit in your stomach when you realize you messed up.

When I think of repentance I think of that feeling. I think of that pit in my stomach. And guilt, and shame.

My first reaction when I hear a sermon on repentance is always defensiveness. The pastor doesn’t know what I did this past week, how do they know I need repentance? It’s so judgemental of them.

My second reaction is to run cursory glance over the past week of my life. Did I do anything that bad? Normally the answer is no, so I think, “Okay, I looked into it, no need to repent.” Or, if I did do something wrong, I say a quick prayer, “God, I’m sorry I did such and such, please forgive me, amen.” And I’m good.

I tend to think repentance is only for bad people, or maybe for good people who occasionally do something bad. Repentance is only necessary in the wake of sinful behavior. Which it is. That’s certainly part of repentance.

But maybe there’s more to it than just that.

Our Scripture passage says that John’s message was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and that was his message to everyone, not just the Pharisees and Sadducees. He just gave them a little extra dose of hellfire and brimstone. But how can he give the same message to so many people from different walks of life?

He can give them the same message because a call to repentance is a call to do serious introspective work, work that’s never finished, but is an ongoing process, no matter who you are.

The word repentance indicates a turning away from sin. It’s not just simply saying “I’m sorry.” It’s changing one’s lifestyle.

Repentance is not a cursory glance and a quick prayer for forgiveness. Repentance is digging deep, sifting through the thoughts, habits, and presumptions that shape the way we think and act, the way we view ourselves, the way we view God, and the way we view others.

It doesn’t matter what his audience did or didn’t do the week before, or what we did or didn’t do last week, there’s always work to be done.

But this call to repentance is a scary one. It demands that we analyze our own lives, that we pray that God would reveal where we are lacking, where sin lurks in our hearts unbeknownst to even us.

Hal read these words from Malachi this morning, “For [the Lord] is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” And after he read the Scripture we said these words together: “For the Lord shall purify the Lord’s people like gold and silver, until they shine forth the Lord’s righteousness.”

Repentance is the acknowledgment that we are still being refined. It’s not only for bad people. It’s not about shame. Repentance is what all of us are called to – the best of the best and the worst of the worst. All of us are on a journey, being pulled deeper into life with God. That’s the kingdom that John says is at hand. But there are forces – what Ephesians calls “powers and principalities” – that not only pressure us from without, but are imbedded within us. And so, our journey into God and into the kingdom is also a journey into ourselves, where we let the hands of God reach in and find the shrapnel of death and decay that breed fear, hate, and pride within our very hearts.

I remember the first time I saw someone address racism in a Facebook post. I had just moved to North Carolina, and I was adding all these new friends to Facebook. And someone I had just become friends with made a post about racism as if it was still a problem, as if it still existed. I remember talking to Brie about it and being almost dumbfounded. In my mind, racism was a thing of the past. We lived in a post-racial world. Sure there were isolated incidents of racism, like the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but that was one person. George Zimmerman was the exception, not the rule. There were occasional racists, but racism as a structural, systemic reality was a thing of the past.

But then Michael Brown was shot. And then Eric Garner was strangled. And then 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot. And the list continued to grow. And I listened to the stories my black and brown classmates shared in class about the racism they experience daily.

So the summer following my first year of seminary, a group of 5 or so of us decided to read a book by one of the most popular professors at our school: Dr. Willie Jennings. The book was called “The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race.” We went through the book super slow, we took the whole summer to read it. We read half a chapter a week. And it completely changed me. The book traced the way racism has been a part of the world since it was invented the 1600s, and the way it continues to work, insidiously (not intentionally), within the hearts and minds of people today, the way that even the church has bought into ideas of white superiority, and the way it has come to influence our “Christian imagination.”

This book was too complex, and it’s been too long since I read it, to give you a real synopsis. I’m not concerned this morning with giving you a play by play of what the book was about.

I want to share with you what the book revealed in me. What I learned about myself.

As I read this book with my friends, I came to realize that racism was, indeed, alive and well in our culture, and, even more painfully, I came to see how I had internalized some of that racism. Not intentionally, but I had. It came with the way I accepted stereotypes about different groups of people based on their skin color or ethnicity, or the way I expected those who were from other cultures to conform to white ideals of what is “proper” or “acceptable.” This is often called “respectability politics” and it refers to the way white culture often expects and pressures those from other cultures to accept our way of talking, dressing, and behaving, and renders anyone who doesn’t conform to be suspect.

As I read Dr. Jennings book, and discussed it with my friends, and as I reflected on the ways I had come to view cultures that were different than my own – specifically non-white, non-European cultures – I came to realize that there was, indeed, prejudice in me. I hadn’t known it was there. But now it was staring me in the face.

I had a choice to make. It would be easy to ignore all of this, to keep living my life as I always had. I never did or said anything that was overtly racist or prejudiced.

Or I could address the subtle racism that resided in me.

I could repent.

I really want to get the point across that I was not a “bad person.” I wasn’t intentionally racist. I wasn’t malicious, or mean. I believed – consciously – that all people are created equal, but subconsciously I had adopted another narrative, one that said some people – or some ways of being – were superior to others. I was taught this narrative by the media, by movies, even by my school’s history books.

But, during my time in North Carolina, the Spirit revealed this “shrapnel” in me. This sin that I never knew was there, that was hurting me and hurting others – keeping me from entering into relationships with some people. And I believe the Holy Spirit called me to repent, so that I might be refined, and so that I might heal, so that I might be drawn deeper into the kingdom of heaven.

Since that time I have done my best to go through the process of repentance. It’s an ongoing journey. I have committed to listening to the voices of those who experience racism. I have fought against the urge to get defensive every time I feel that I’m being attacked. I’ve tried to get more comfortable with the idea that maybe I’ve been wrong, maybe I have been part of the problem. I’ve looked for ways to stand in solidarity with my black and brown sisters and brothers, and I’ve looked for ways to educate and dialogue with other white people. But it’s a process.

And it’s not just about racism, there are all kinds of unintentional sins that lie deep inside me. For example, I’m all about gender equality, but sometimes I have no problem letting Brie make the dinner and do the dishes while I play a video game or read a book. What do those actions say about how I understand her role and my role? So I can choose next time to help with the dinner or the dishes, or maybe even do both! That would be an act of repentance. That would be turning from the old ways to a new way.

There are all kinds of “isms” that this can apply to – sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, ablism, etc. – but it can also apply to the more “standard” sins as well, like pride and greed and lust and others, all of which can also subtly reside within us, even though (I’m pretty sure) we’re all really good people. Grant Park is full of some of the best people I’ve ever met! I tell people that all the time.

These pieces of shrapnel in us aren’t intentional, and often they aren’t even our fault. We didn’t put them there. We didn’t even know they were there in the first place! And yet, they are there, if we are brave enough to look for them. If we trust God enough to let God reveal them to us.

And praise be to God, they don’t have to stay in us. Repentance isn’t about guilt and shame. It’s about transformation. We are all wounded by the world, and as the old saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” These pieces of shrapnel that are imbedded in our hearts hurt us, and out of our pain we hurt others, but God is the Great Physician. God wants to reach in pull them out. But they are deep and they are barbed. It hurts us to have them removed. It might make us bleed, might make us cry out, but we need them to be removed, in order that we might be made whole.

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader the third book in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace Scrubb, the cousin of Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, comes upon a dragon’s treasure in a cave. He’s seduced by this treasure, gives in to his greed, and puts a golden bracelet on his arm before falling asleep as he waits for the rain outside the cave to stop. He wakes up to find that he has become a dragon, and the bracelet, which is responsible for this change, is causing him great harm.

Eustace has no way of removing the bracelet, and seems stuck as a dragon forever. It takes the lion Aslan, Lewis’ Christ figure, to free him. Eustace explains how Aslan saved him to his cousin Edmund. This is what happened:

Read from the book.

We all have sins, prejudices, biases in us that we wish were not there, and yet they are there. For Eustace it was greed, and once his greed had gotten hold of him, he did everything he could to get rid of it, but he couldn’t do it on his own. It took Aslan to free him from what the book of Hebrews calls “the sin that clings so closely,” or in another version “the sin that so easily entangles.” But Eustace still had some agency. He had to let Aslan free him. He had to let Aslan use his “claw” to “tear” open the skin that bound him – that kept him from being who he truly was.

Repentance is an invitation to be drawn deeper into the life of God, to be freed from all that holds us back from loving and being loved fully. When we repent we shed our prejudices, our assumptions, our fears, everything that holds us back. Repentance loosens our chains and frees us to be all that God has called us to be, and to love others for who God has called them to be. Repentance is the means by which we remove – or should I say, we let God remove – the obstacles that keep us from entering fully into relationship with God and one another.

To resist repentance is to stay stuck where we are, but to repent is to move out of the darkness and into the light. So let’s run to the light, the light that purifies, refines, and ultimately sets free.

That light is Christ.

In the words of Hebrews, “let us…lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Amen.