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Why Repentance is Good News

A sermon on Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Annika Gordon on Unsplash.]

In last year’s Ash Wednesday sermon, I told you all how much I love the rituals and focus of this night….

how the reminder of my mortality is cleansing,

and the words and touch of dust are healing,

and the message of the service offers a sanctuary in which to confess my vulnerability in an atmosphere of grace.

I still affirm the value of this sacred space and time for truth-telling about our human frailty… but this year it feels harder to find rest and renewal in these truths… because the last eleven months have felt like one long Ash Wednesday in which we are called – day after day – to remember that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Reminders of mortality assault us every time we tune into our news feed… or tense at an unexpected phone call… or put on a mask just to leave our homes. The touch of ash too easily conjures up images of raging fires – those set by nature, and by accident, and by anger – which leave us feeling helpless to know what can possibly heal our land. And in the midst of toxic divisiveness and distrust - whether in our Nation’s capitol, or much closer to home - a call to vulnerability just… doesn’t sound that appealing. We are exhausted, and defensive, and emotionally spent. What good news can we find in Ash Wednesday this year?

We come to this night’s worship weary in body, mind, and spirit… only to hear dire words of warning: From the prophet Joel, we hear calls for the inhabitants of the land to tremble (Joel 2:1), for the people to return to God with fasting, weeping, mourning, and the rending of their hearts (Joel 2:12-13), and for their ministers to weep in begging for God’s mercy (Joel 2:17). And from the gospel, we are told that even our acts of devotion can go wrong… being warned repeatedly against hypocrisy, and the danger that we will receive no reward from God if we seek approval from others, or any treasure that does not last.

I have to wonder: After a year in which fear and loss have been our constant companions, does God really want us to tremble and mourn? And when, some days, it’s hard to muster up the hope to pray at all, do we really need to worry that we are praying wrong?

These are fair questions, and I could spend the rest of this sermon softening these texts for us by explaining their context, and limiting their application. I could reassure us that we’ve been through enough already, so these warnings… and calls to repentance… and exhortations to move deeper into our faith are just too much to expect right now.

I could,…but I’m not going to do that.

I’m not going to, because I actually believe that the call to repentance - the call to self-reflection that pushes us to examine our motivations and confess our errors – that call is exactly the good news that we need after a year like we have had.

That’s right: repentance is good news. At least, it is according to the gospel reading assigned for the first Sunday in Lent. The gospel describes the opening of Jesus’ public ministry this way: “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.” (Mark 1:14-15).

In other words, despite what we might have been taught, repentance is not about shame or fear or self-punishment. Repentance is good news.

It’s good news because the call to repent is a call to transformation. In the original Greek, the word for repent is metanoia, which translated literally means change of mind or thinking.[1] Jesus is saying that in order to trust the good news that God’s kingdom is near… that there is a deep reason to hope… our minds have to change. We can’t stay stuck in old patterns of despair, or self-protection, or fear. And neither can we hold on to patterns of living that cut us off from God or neighbors. We can only experience the hope of God’s presence and work in the world if we turn from the patterns we are stuck in and open our eyes to a new way of seeing.

I won’t pretend that such change is easy. It might mean work, and even discomfort, to shift our mindsets, but don’t you long for such a change… especially in our current context? Don’t you long for a new way to navigate this world of COVID, and division, and tension, and fear? Don’t you long for an orientation toward cooperation, rather than each person out for themselves… For an increased compassion, especially for those who don’t usually get any… For the ability to listen and learn, before jumping to conclusions or to defense of one side against another…

These are changes our society as a whole desperately needs right now, but cultural change starts in our own hearts… and in our willingness and ability to bear witness to a different way for being; in other words, to bear witness that God’s kingdom really has come near and we can be part of it.

Because that’s the other part of good news of Jesus’s ministry… the call to trust that God is living and active in this moment… so that our patterns of self-defense, and suspicion, investment in protecting our own interests aren’t needed any more.

Jesus calls us to repent and believe. And so too do the scriptures that we heard tonight.

The prophet calls the people to tremble, and fast, and weep… but not in fear. Rather he is calling them to soul-deep repentance… to a genuine turning back toward God, because: “God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13). The people the prophet is addressing have been facing a devastating situation in fear and despair, but they are being called back to hope in God’s mercy and protection.

And in the gospel, Jesus is exhorting his followers to shift the way they perform their spiritual practices by actually believing that these practices are done to God. Because if we trust that we fast, and pray, and give as an expression of our faith in God then that is our motivation.We won’t make a big show of them. We won’t look for human praise, because… that attention and approval isn’t the point.

Repentance and Trust go hand-in-hand… In order to trust God, we have to shift our thinking. And in order to shift our thinking, we have to trust God.

So, no. Even after the last eleven months and all that we have been through, the truths and the practices of Ash Wednesday are not too much to expect of us. They are exactly what we need.They are what we need because they are what turn us toward hope. They turn us toward trust that God’s kingdom has come near. They turn us toward faith that God’s love is steadfast, and God’s mercy is sure, and God does not ignore the faithfulness of God’s people. They turn us toward hope because hope is drawn from trust, and nurturing that trust requires repentance.

It requires us to face the brokenness of our country’s divisiveness, and of its hate toward those on the margins... because we cannot trust the steadfast love of God if we cannot even hold compassion in our own hearts.

And it requires us to mourn the ways that we have sought our own rights, or protections, or needs regardless of the impact on others…because we cannot trust that God is gracious and merciful when all our instincts are bent toward selfishness.

And it requires us to pray when no one is watching. To pray not because that’s what good Christians do, but because our heart is crying out to God to hear us... because that’s when we remember that God actually hears our prayers. And that God is our source of hope.

And so, beloveds, I invite you to lean into the practices of Ash Wednesday tonight. To pray prayers of repentance with a heart longing for change. To receive the reminder of your mortality as a gift of grace. To move into the forty-day journey of lent trusting that whatever God is calling you to release, that letting go will mean one less weight pulling you away from trust in God’s mercy and Love.

Thanks be to God.


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