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Renewing Repentance: the Freedom of Confession

A sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here)

*pounds fist on pulpit* “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Yeah, I know. I can’t really pull it off.

I am just NOT a fire and brimstone kind of preacher. I don’t pound on the pulpit, and I can’t imagine preaching a sermon focused on condemnation, shame, and threats of the wrath to come. Not only is that not in my nature…I also don’t think it’s in my job description. Because it’s my job to proclaim God’s good news. And I don’t think shame or fear are good news.

So then, what do I do with John the Baptist?

John is ALL. ABOUT. REPENTANCE. And, to be honest, my first response when I hear the word “repent” is to cringe a little, because I’m used to hearing it used in a shaming, condemning, fear-inducing way. I grew up in the Evangelical subculture, hearing regular calls to “repent.” Those calls were directly connected with very specific expectations about acceptable moral behavior, and with threats about the consequences of failing to meet those expectations.

And I know I’m not alone in hearing overtones of condemnation when a preacher starts talking about “repentance.” A 2007 Barna research group study found that 87% of American young people who are not involved in church perceived Christianity to be “judgmental” – in fact “judgemental” was the most common association the respondents had with Christianity.[1]

That common public perception is a real and troubling challenge for Christ’s church.

Not just because it drives people away, but also because it can drive those of us in the church away from talking about repentance. At least speaking for myself, I know that my fear of preaching a law without gospel – a vision of moral expectations that lacks good news – can make me swing too far in the other direction and preach a gospel with precious little law.

And gospel without law can be pretty shallow. A message of love and acceptance that requires absolutely nothing from us – not even in response to God’s gift of unearned grace – sounds easy and wonderful… until we realize that it leaves us unchanged. It ignores the truth of our brokenness. It leaves undisturbed those secret corners of our souls… the shadow places where cold voices whisper to us about our failures, our unworthiness, our need to hide our shame and pretend that we are fine. And ignores the truth that we contribute to the pain in the world, that we are complicit in personal hurts that we know about, and systemic evils that we may not even understand.

A gospel that tells us we have no need for repentance can never silence the shadow voices, and it can never move us closer to God’s kingdom come.

We need a gospel that includes the call to repentance. We need what commentator Matt Skinner calls “God’s good and disorienting news”[2] … a message whose power to disorient us – to turn us around – is part of its goodness.

I think that “good and disorienting news” is exactly what John is proclaiming. Clearly the people of John’s own time heard his message as good news, because they came streaming out of the cities and countryside to hear him. And they were not coming to hear a message of “you’re just fine the way you are.” They came for a word of repentance. They came to confess their sins. They came to have their lives actually changed.

Because that’s what repentance means. At its core repentance is not about a moralistic standard of behavior; it’s about CHANGE. The Greek word in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is metanoia:

Meta for change (like in metamorphosis), and

Noia for mind.

When John calls the people – calls us – to repentance, he is telling us to change our minds.

To change what matters to us;

To change how we understand ourselves and our place in the world;

To admit that what is wrong with us requires more than cosmetic tweaks on the edges of our lives;

To leave a different person than we were when we came.

And that’s a message of GOOD news because it makes space for us to confess that we NEED that change. It makes space for us to tell the truth that we know about ourselves:

The truth of fears that twist us up inside;

The truth of pain that has been done to us, and of pain that we have caused;

The truth that sometimes we hurt the people we love the most;

The truth that sometimes we fail to confront evil in the world;

The truth that we do not live up to our ideal image of ourselves.

The call to repentance is an invitation to name all of our pretense and our self-defensive strategies as the lie that they are. To stand exposed, in vulnerable honesty.

I think that’s why John delivered his message in the wilderness, in the harsh and desolate landscape where nothing will grow… where there is nowhere to hide. In the wilderness we can’t pretend that everything is fine. We can’t pretend that we are perfectly capable of handling everything. In the wilderness, In the words of Debie Thomas, “life is raw and unsettled, and our illusions of self-sufficiency shatter fast. To locate ourselves at the outskirts of security and power is to confess our neediness in the starkest terms. In the wilderness, we have no choice but to wait and watch as if our lives depend on God showing up. Because they do.”[3] In the wilderness, our sources of external security get stripped away so that we can see more clearly.

Did you know that this clear seeing is what judgement means? It’s true! Look up synonyms for judgement in a thesaurus and you’ll find words like perception, discernment, appraisal, evaluation.

So, in a way, those un-churched respondents in the Barna poll are right – Christianity IS about judgement… but not in the sense of condemnation. Not in the sense of moral self-righteousness wagging a finger.

Rather, the message of the gospel is an invitation to see clearly. To hear the good and disorienting news that the scrambling, anxious life of maintaining our defenses is NOT our only option. We can be vulnerable. We can tell the truth about the brokenness that the world tells us to hide… tells us to be ashamed of.

Because God offers us metanoia… God offers us change… God offers us transformation.

In the call to repentance we are called into the freedom of speaking the truth out loud. The truth that we are not who we want to be. Not in our own strength. We long for change.

We have a chance to do this every week. To speak the truth of our sin out loud. To admit our vulnerability together. As individuals and as a society. We have this chance in the time of Confession that opens our worship. We are given strong, unflinching words that call us to repent. That call us to drop all our defenses, and all our pretenses. That call us to let go of the need to prove that we are “good people.” We are invited to say out loud, to say together that everything is NOT OK. To say that in our own souls and in our world, things are done that should not be done, and that things that should be done are ignored. We have the chance repent. We have the chance to pray for actual change.

We have the CHANCE to do that – but just reading the words on the paper won’t bring us that freedom. Just like just getting baptized by John wouldn’t do anything for the Pharisees and Sadducees he challenged. Because they we doing it just for show – without true confession; without a spirit of repentance.

We can’t do confession by rote. That’s not how change happens.

The people John baptized came confessing their sins – saying out loud that they knew they couldn’t keep on as they had been going. They needed repentance. They needed to be changed. And that vulnerability is what turned their hearts toward God. It’s what prepared them for the message of Jesus.

And it’s what will prepare us for Jesus in our Advent time of waiting, and seeking renewal. The good news of repentance is good because it is disorienting. Because it changes our minds, and our actions. Because it teaches us to drop our defensiveness, our pretense that we have it all figured out and we don’t make mistakes. It teaches us to say instead:

“No everything is not OK – we need help. We need the promise of Emmanuel – God with us. We need the Savior who comes as a vulnerable, helpless baby, and can teach us how to live a vulnerable life… because that vulnerability is what keeps our hearts open to hearing the good, good word that changes us, and that will bear good fruit in our lives.”

Thanks be to God.



[3] (Read this whole essay – it is powerful!)

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