Sunday 28th February 2016, morning

Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

by Revd Chris Palmer

Today’s readings are all about repentance:

‘Let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them.’  (Isaiah)

‘I tell you, unless you repent, you will perish just as they did.’ (Luke)
And Jesus says that twice, just in case we didn’t get the message.

Now the word repentance is associated with sin, and all the negative connotations and judgemental attitudes that come with that. But really the Greek word for repentance just means ‘change of mind’ and the English word at root means ‘change of direction’. So the real point is simply about changing. So I’m going to talk about ‘true change’, to avoid the baggage that comes repentance. Let’s unpack what true change really is

I want to say three things– though really they are just three aspects of the same point.

Firist, true change is inspired by love more than by fear. From time to time when they were younger my children got caught doing something they shouldn’t have been doing, and they were about to have some loved toy confiscated. Immediately they would blurt out, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again…’. It wasn’t a real commitment to change. It was sorrow is motivated by the desire to escape punishment. The law basically keeps order in this way, by threatening punishment. A similar reaction towards God is very common. Often our sense of what God’s punishment might be is ill defined – unlike the days when the threat of hell was defined too clearly, But a pervasive fear that God or ‘karma’ will get us pervades many people’s minds. Jesus has a go at this attitude, especially when it turns into finger pointing at others. In the Gospel, those who are the victims of the tower falling or Pilate’s brutal mixing their blood with their sacrifices – they’re no different anyone else. But when the finger pointing is directed at ourselves, we engage in a fear-filled sorrow. Often this kind of penitence evaporates when our fear of the consequences lifts, and we get into a cycle: doing the wrong thing, getting frightened of the consequences, saying sorry, no longer fearing consequences, making the same mistake again…  By contrast true change is inspired by love for God and God’s love for us. A sense of God’s unconditional love for us inspires us to follow his will, and we desire to choose that path in which the love of God is most real to us, that draws us into relationship with God and others.

Then second, true change – repentance – comes from believing in ourselves rather than writing ourselves off.  It’s so easy to indulge in an inner dialogue of self-hatred: I’m so useless, I’m so clumsy, I’m always making mistakes, I never get it right, I’m unlovable. These are just distorted thinking, and are not a change of heart in any meaningful sense. We heard about Jesus telling the parable of the fig tree, in which the gardener keeps believing in it. ‘Let it alone for one more year, until I dig it round and put manure on. If it bears fruit next year, well and good…’ God believes in us even when we are fruitless; he gives us space to flourish; he tends us and cares for us. And the manure – we may want a life free from pain and failure. But as the saying goes ‘shit happens’. And shit makes excellent fertilizer.  The most spiritually fruitful experiences are often the difficult times in life. Here we learn to move beyond self-reliance, or unexamined assumptions of ease, and rely on God’s grace when our natural resources proves insufficient.

Then third, true change is about hope more than regret. There’s a lovely quotation from Bishop Kallistos Ware: "To repent is to look, not downwards at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God's love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I can yet become". Of course there is an appropriate self-examination that seeks to understand our own failings and this means that we need to replay the past in a purposeful way to gain insight and wisdom. But if the recorder of our mind gets stuck on replaying the past, then we never experience the benefit of forgiveness. When we get into this kind of rehearsing our mistakes, we imagine we are being humble, but actually it’s self-absorbed, even self-indulgent. True change turns the focus towards God and what he is calling us to become. To embrace true change is to ask vocational questions, therefore: what is God’s call on my life, what is the particular way in which he is gifting me to live for him.

All of which is to say that there is a discipline about truly embracing change.  Like the word repentance, discipline comes with negative connotations. But remember that discipline and discipleship are basically the same word. Discipline is what Jesus calls his disciples to. True change needs discipline, because it’s not a generalised sense of our own uselessness and the desire that God will wave a wand and suddenly everything will be bright and glittery instead. True change is purposeful and hard-work. It requires a diligent, even pain-staking commitment to seeking God in an open and chosen way. It involves prayer, and listening prayer at that – in stillness of meditation listening for and experiencing God. It takes time, and involves a spaciousness of spirit and attitude; an outlook that is censorious of others is unlikely to produce inner penitence in ourselves. True change believes in God’s patience and waiting, but doesn’t take these for granted. It is open to wise sharing of faults and the spiritual journey with those we trust, rather than being consumed by a desire to isolate and tell no one. True change leads us into a fellowship in which we know our solidarity with others and identify with others’ experiences of struggle, rather than constantly comparing ourselves with others in a way that is harsh towards ourselves or other people.

And the real point is that true change leads to joy. Because to encounter God’s love, God’s forgiveness is always a reason for rejoicing. This kind of joy is not really about happiness, or singing and dancing – though singing and dancing are good. But it’s a deeper joy that remains through the stormy times in life. Lent is a season of joy. We don’t usually think of it like that, but really it’s a time for change and discovering forgiveness, and therefore for joy – a joy that is the fruit of lives that embrace true change.