Minister’s Reflection – March 14/19
Rev. Dave Crawford
(Here I’ve converted an older sermon into a devotional of sorts.)
“In those days Jesus Came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
“Now after John was arrested, 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 would do well on Twitter! I mean, here in this passage so much happens so fast, doesn’t it? No extra wording as filler, no babbling. Short. Quick. Succinct. Compared to the other Gospels, it’s as if Mark wants to quickly cover a large span of time speedily. And he does. It is indeed concise.
Also concise today are Jesus’ very first words, each phrase worthy of a sermon on its own, a power-packed and very brief declaration. Of particular interest for me is the assertion of a concept, which Jesus didn’t invent, the concept of repentance! “Repent”, he says, “ … and believe in the good news.” Ever think about repentance? As part of your spirituality? Part of your belief system? Part of Lent? Might there be some value in heeding the words of Jesus here? Repent!!
The word in Greek is “metanoia”, and why Greek is important has to do with the original language of the New Testament. While Aramaic was the common spoken tongue in Jesus’ world while he lived (check out Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” to hear actual Aramaic), in the later era during which the Gospels were written, Greek was dominant. Metanoia means literally to turn around as if you’re walking in one direction and you stop, turn around and head in the opposite direction. In spiritual terms, the word as Jesus uses it, means to stop, consider one’s behavior, one’s thoughts, and if there’s something not quite right, something one knows intellectually is not reflective of God’s ways, God’s realm, to change it, to strive to change whatever it is and return to God and God’s ways. A simple example or two: if you worship material things, repent and worship God; if you are estranged from a loved one, repent and try to fix the relationship. Stop, turn round, and start over by doing, saying or thinking differently, as far as one is able. And believe God loves you if you fail, when you fail.
Yet isn’t there something missing from this whole discussion of repentance? There’s a word I haven’t yet used in this reflection because I fear you’ll be turned off, offended, because I fear you may not come back to church. That word is “sin”. Repentance in the old days was easy because everyone knew about sin, talked about sin, accepted its relevance, its power. Lent was easy in the old days because it could be encapsulated in the phrase “Jesus died for our sins”. We don’t much like that word anymore though, do we? Which makes Lent a bit challenging, takes a bit of the starch out of the collar of what Easter means, which is our Lenten destination.
When I was at St. Giles Presbyterian Church, a man of power and great wealth in that church (in fact the entire annual budget depended on his financial support) during my first Lent at St. Giles he pulled me aside after worship, kind of strong-armed me,
and said “I don’t think you should us that word.”
I said, “What word?”.
He responded quietly, surreptitiously, looking around as if we were doing a drug deal. “Sin”, he whispered forcefully. “I don’t think you should use that word and I don’t want to hear that word again, got it? Find some other word, not that one.”
I don’t take well to being strong-armed, particularly when it comes to theology. So the next week I used the word “sin” more than I had the previous week. I got a dirty look, no handshake, and within a couple of months he had left the church. Yet he isn’t the only one… In fact, you may have sided with him, which is ok. Let me just ask this: if we the modern church casts aside this concept of sin, our imperfection as people, our flawed status as human beings, what is there for God to do with us? What about other concepts like salvation? Grace? Resurrection in fact? What does Jesus mean by “Repent!” anyway?
In an uncomfortably honest sermon by William Willimon, he writes this:
“Our sin is so deep, so connected, insidious. I wear clothes from Walmart made by horribly mistreated workers in Bangladesh. I eat Tyson chickens mass-produced in factories where minimum-salary workers labor in stifling North Carolinian heat. But what would you have me do? Flagellate myself for being well-fed? Give up chicken in favor California vegetables plucked by underpaid Mexican workers? What good would that do?
“My ancestors had slaves, of which I’m more than ashamed, but what can I do about it now? My ancestors stole the land from native Americans but that was a long time ago, distant past. How can I take responsibility for that? Better to forget.
“You’ve got a past too”, he says to us, “You’ve got ways you’re tied in with the principalities and powers you don’t even know about yet. And when you do know about it, you’ll lack the power to do anything to get out of it. What can you do? Develop ever-more subtle, elaborate mechanisms of defense and denial?
“The darker the shadow inside”, said Carl Jung, “the more polished the mask we must wear.” There is a cost to a life spent polishing the mask. What’s to be done?
“The Christian faith has an odd response. You can repent. Our claim is that Christ gives us the resources, for the first time in our lives to be honest. If we can be honest for ten minutes here on Sunday, maybe we can be honest for the forty days of Lent, maybe then for the rest of our lives. Lord have mercy, we sometimes sing… Kyrie Eleison, Christ have mercy, and because he actually does … does have mercy, we can be honest. We don’t have to polish the mask for he already sees the shadow we’re attempting to hide beneath the mask. We need not vainly lie about our past, for he knows our history and make it his own… Because he loves us, embraces us, dies for us, returns again and again despite our sin to us, we can confess. His strong love enables us to tell the truth. I tell you, there is no greater gift, no larger grace in the Christian faith than this: the ability to repent.”
Billy Joel had a great song back in the 70’s, actually quite a few great songs, this one called “Honesty”. Remember? “Honesty is such a lonely word. Everyone is so untrue. Honesty is hardly ever heard, and mostly what I need from you.” Here in church I’d change it a bit to say “honesty is mostly what God needs or desires from us, honesty and trust and service.” What is repentance if not honesty, with ourselves and God, the freedom to be honest about it all.
Karl Barth put it this way: “Forgiveness precedes repentance. Only when we first know that we are accepted and loved by God can we then be free to be honest about who we are. Love, total, unconditional love enables us to be honest.”
And so Lent continues. May you find the journey to be uncomfortable yet comforting, troubling yet inspiring, confrontational yet life-enriching.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news.”