Sunday before last was the Second Sunday of Advent. Our readings were Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, and Luke 3:1-6. The Gospel reads in part
The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Our preacher, who is usually very solid if not dynamic, included a few odd assertions. And by odd I mean wrong. Two rather important points: (1) John the Baptist introduced the practice repentance and baptism. (He did not. It was a Jewish practice long before John hit the scene, as any cursory look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, can attest.) And (2) that John’s sermons did not include any “timeless truths.” While point #1 is not new it is a timeless truth.
The preacher further compounded his error by asserting that we do not “need to repent because we are bad, but because we are loved.” Now the latter half of that sentence is true; we are loved by God, without a doubt. The assertion, however, that repentance has nothing to do with our own status as sinners is ludicrous. It doesn’t even pay attention to the Gospel reading (“proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins“) and after all, this simply goes against the very meaning of the word. If we have done nothing “bad” then there is nothing to regret or for which we should be remorseful. One does not have to be a southern preacher to realize that we are all sinners who need to repent of our sins. More than anything else though the attitude that “we don’t need to repent because we are bad” fails to understand the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus’ own message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt. 3:2). This too is the message of Advent.
So what did it mean that John and Jesus called us to repent? Well this part our preacher got right; it is to prepare us for the coming of the Messiah. A significant and vital part of that preparation is a recognition that are a sinful (“bad,” if you will) and in need of forgiveness. Advent, not unlike Lent, should be a time of prayerful self-examination as we look to the coming of Christ and our perfection in him. Now this is not, in my view, to be an exercise in self-flagellation, beating ourselves up saying “I am noting but a worm! Oh! Woe is me!” But it should involve our being honest with God and ourselves about our failings. We need to acknowledge the sin in our lives and ask God’s forgiveness and healing as well as his strength to change. Thus when we welcome Christ into the world and our hearts, while we are not already made perfect, we are at least prepared to be perfected by His Great Work in our lives.
I teach a lot of “leadership” courses and seminars nowadays and attend even more. I am struck that while so many in our churches continue to play down the value and importance of acknowledging our sin and our need for repentance and forgiveness, those who write about leadership and run assessment and development programs all recognize this. Of course they do not look for “sins.” What they do is look at one’s strengths and weaknesses (“opportunities for strengthening” was one euphemism I heard last week). In order to be a strong leader one has to recognize what one is good at, but also where one is not strong and in need of change. For example, if I am really good at creating a vision of the future for my organization, but I cannot articulate that vision to others or build them up into a team to execute the vision then my strength is useless.
So what is repentance good for? For preparing us to welcome the Savior into our lives, both the infant Jesus and the Risen Lord. We must acknowledge our weaknesses so that he might make us strong.
The Kingdom of Heaven draws near, let us repent and prepare to welcome our Savior.
6 thoughts on “Repentance, what is it good for?”
I think we need to broaden our language for why we must “repent” (whether Hebrew “turn, turn back” or Greek “change one’s mind”). Yes we are sinners, and often bad, but I am increasingly sensitive to sin as a kind of disease, a form of brokenness, and sometimes we are broken more by the sins of others than our own. The bottom line is we need to be healed – and forgiveness is often a large part of that healing.
Last week went to a presentation by persons who have worked among Muslims in the Middle East for about 29 years, the last decade in Baghdad. Yeah no kidding. Presentation about how there is one gospel but expressed/understood differently by West and East. And Jesus was Jewish, an *Easterner* not a Greek Westerner. He argued – and I would quibble with this as an overstatement – that Paul/Western thinking tends to understand the gospel in terms of guilt. Hence, perhaps, terms like bad and failings. And Jewish/Eastern thinking might emphasize the gospel more in terms of honor/shame and clean/unclean.
That being so, and the presentation does leave room for debate, how does one understand “repentance” in a Jewish/Eastern context?
So I agree with you, the preacher was definitely going down a very odd path. I wonder about what concepts and *words* we bring to bear on our understanding of “repentance”. Remember my theory that all sin is somehow a movement toward death/non-existence. Repentance is movement toward the source of life, love, and healing – whether we are “bad” or merely “broken”.
Thank Rick, excellent points, as always. I agree that a broader discussion of what “repent” means is appropriate. Hebrew and Greek as well as Western and Eastern to be considered.
In that vein, I think that a Jewish/Eastern thinking does, in fact, fall in line with the sense of brokenness and needing healing. The concept of tikkun ‘olam comes to mind, with the sense of “healing the world.” (Although the modern conception is far from the medieval in many quarters.)
I think my main point stands, however, which is that we need to be aware of our condition so that we can see our need for forgiveness and healing.
Good article. Bad/loved sounds Orthodox. Have you ever written on the leadership style of Jesus? I regularly say in my attempts to teach that you can learn everything you need to know about leadership by studying the life of Christ. He was pretty good at empowering those He led.
John, I contemplate such a book every time I am in the checkout line at Walmart. 😉 There are lots of books on the topic. I also think that David is a very strong subject for the discussion of leadership. I often bring the Samuel narratives into my leadership discussions.