Repentance, The Door to Renewal

January 19, 2020

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Mark 1.14-20, Jer 1.4-10, at Evensong on Sunday 19th January 2020, the Second Sunday of Epiphany.

If you go to the bottom of the High Street to the Welcome Gospel Hall, and look up a floor, you’ll see a luminous poster proclaiming Jesus’ words from our second reading, ‘Repent and believe in the Gospel’. The word ‘repent’ sounds a foreboding note, setting a bar against any casual enquirer.

Before we can even begin believing, this Church says on its website, we must admit we are wrong, helpless, foolish and bereft of God, destined for hell and destruction, and completely unable to find our way to life unless God perform a miracle in our souls, to regenerate us from the mire of total depravity and impending death.

‘Repent’ is a weaponised word, to make us worry.

But repent can be heard differently, as invitation and summons, a word not meant to attack our conscience but to clear the way for a meeting with the living God. That’s what I want us to notice as we look across the whole Bible to understand more about repentance.

The first surprising thing about repenting is that in the Old Testament God repents at least as often as us – if we understand repentance in its basic sense of ‘changing your mind’.

You might be surprised that God can change his mind: we imagine God as unchangeable. And it’s true that God is changeless in character and purpose. Like the Brighton Rock, He is Love all the way through (though not so sweet). However, God does change His mind, so that he can keep loving us in the varying circumstances we create by our choices for good or ill. God adapts.

Think of the famous story of the Great Flood. It begins with God looking around and seeing the damage of the multiplying human population, and in the old translation it says: ‘And it repented the LORD that He had made man upon the earth, and it grieved him at his heart’. (Gen 6.6)

God decided he would have to act against the evil, but once he had taken this drastic action and cleansed the land, he sends a rainbow to show he won’t be sending such destruction again. (Sadly, we’re now capable of creating our own global destruction without God needing to intervene.).

God repents. He changes his mind. But we have to repent, too.

The word used in the Old Testament to describe our repentance is different. The verb to turn (or re-turn) is how the prophets usually talk of our own need to respond to God.

They promise that when God’s people turn from their evildoing, then God will repent of his evil, that is, as soon as we turn to him, he will stop sending calamities to wake us from our wilfulness.

There is, then, plenty of repentance going on in the Old Testament on both sides of the relationship between God and us. And the story of the Old Testament is of God trying again and again to win back his people, not just so that he can bless them, but so that he can use them to bring the light of peace and justice to the nations.

The sad story of the Old Testament is that people were not obedient, however, which brought defeat and exile – and their eventual return to their homeland was far from triumphant. God’s rule, His kingdom, seemed still so far off.

So when Jesus comes and announces that God’s kingdom is close at hand and that his people need to repent and believe the gospel, this should be heard first and foremost as God in Jesus reigniting hope in the future.

The people need to turn away from hopelessness, defeat, resignation and believe something better – that there can be a new and different future. Perhaps it’s this repentance we are being called to in our own time – both a change of mind and a turning around – a radical realignment.

On Friday Glasgow announced that it would by 2030 be the UK’s first carbon-neutral city. For the largest city in Scotland to achieve this will require a lots more than a change of mind; it will require a complete change of direction. Motorways run through a city full of old gas-heated housing; but with changes at every level, from political to personal, they are aiming to get there.

The word for repent is often translated as convert, turn around. Nothing less than a complete turnaround will bring us the hope of God’s redemption.

The call to repent issued first by John the Baptist then by Jesus was a call to join a programme of national and international renewal. That’s certainly how the people who first heard John the Baptist would have heard their cry, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of God is near’.

John called everyone to join the programme – those not following the Jewish Law (‘sinners’) and those ostensibly following it (‘the righteous’). Whether they were good or bad didn’t matter. What mattered was being baptised into this new national movement, and that’s why Jesus himself was baptised, even though he didn’t need to be, to show that he was full committed to God’s programme to set things right.

Turning to face God’s invitation and demand is daunting. In our first reading God calls the prophet Jeremiah, who does his best to avoid God’s claim on him: he is only a boy, he pleads. But God is not having it. He has known and appointed him since before his conception. He draws near and touches his lips.

We have the scene vividly depicted in our 12th Century Winchester Bible, with God and Jeremiah looking into each other’s eyes, and Jeremiah both recoiling but also standing on his toes as he is drawn into God’s commission: ‘See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’.

How can Jeremiah even begin to play his small part in this enormous project of bringing in God’s kingdom? He can only do so by through a total realignment to God.

So Jeremiah repents and begins to believe that God can use him in remarkable ways to transform the life of the nations, to be part of God’s future.

Repentance turns out to be a vital part of our relationship with God and what he wants to do with this world of his.

And it seems to me that deep repentance is what we most need to save the planet. Consumers, including consumers of religion, have to find a new identity to be any use to God. There is a climate emergency, which has been caused by many misconceptions of our place in the world.

Sadly, bad theology has fuelled the fire – beliefs such as thinking of ourselves as God’s own viceroys here on earth and of ourselves having souls and animals not.

To all this God says, ‘Repent, believe in the Good News’. My programme is very far from trying to trip you up, consign you to hell or whisk you off to heaven. The kingdom that is coming is creation healed, and you have a massive part to play in that – by doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with me your God, all your days.

It is very far from what you are doing now, sucking up the world’s resources, taking false comfort and advantage over others, making yourself gods. But …

My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Therefore, we have to change our thoughts and ways entirely, by repenting.

And we need to repent urgently and gladly, for the kingdom of God is near.