Rev. Katherine Todd
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Let’s talk about repentance. Doesn’t that sound nice?! 😊
What do you think of when you hear the word repentance? Do you think of our prayers of confession? Do you think of closed booths in which folks make their confessions before a priest?
Repentance seems to serve a function. The Bible speaks of it many times.
Most famously in the Bible we hear this call to repentance from John the Baptist.
So I wonder why was it so important for folks to repent before Jesus made his way on the scene?
I suspect many view repentance as a way to feel better when they’ve done wrong. And it is true. Saying we are sorry is a vital step toward healing and reconciliation.
But what we’ve come to know over the years is that there are several more necessary steps for true healing and reconciliation, and saying we are sorry is only step one.
Next comes that notion of making things right.
Now I think this idea that we can make something right is a misnomer. In fact, there are so many things that we ourselves can never make right.
I was at Shiplock Park down in Shockoe Bottom several weekends ago. This park has trails all along the canal and river, and it showcases the canal elevator system that was key to Richmond’s economy in the 19th century. Raw and finished goods were transported by river boat via the canal system, and making it over Richmond’s rocky falls area of the river created an engineering challenge – which was met by this complex system of locks and dams that when used in succession bypassed 7 miles of rocky fall area on the Richmond portion of the river and could raise and lower a boat several stories.
For those of you who have been to Brown’s Island, you may have seen the monument of a man on a boat. This monument recognizes the headmen – the men who navigated the canals – keeping Richmond’s economy vibrant and growing. Most of these headmen were freed black men, and some were indentured servants from Ireland and England. The statue on Brown’s Island was a small but significant way of seeking to honor the African American contribution to this city.
Does it make up for the injustices suffered. Does it right wrongs?
I would say no.
But is it important. I would say yes.
Another statue on the canal walk is much smaller, it is a replica of a old wooden crate, used for shipping. It stands in Shockoe Bottom to commemorate one man’s bold journey to freedom. When his wife, pregnant with their 4th child and 3 children were sold to a plantation farmer in NC, Henry Brown was overcome with grief. He could only stand and watch helplessly as 350 chained men, women, and children walked by him, his wife, unborn child, and three young children included.
Propelled by grief and the fierce yearning for freedom, Brown reports he felt God’s help in imagining a creative way to escape. He reached out to members of the underground railway. He fashioned a box 2×3 foot in size and mailed himself to the north, to freedom. It was a 3 day journey. He had only one bladder of water a 3 biscuits. Several times, the box was thrown & left upside down. In agonizing pain, he thought he would die, but God brought him alive to freedom. A life-size replica of this box, with the outline of a man inside, stands by the canal, the place where so many black men worked as headmen, where many enslaved men of color worked the mills and factories, and where many like his wife and children were sold and traded, shipped and received by other men claiming to own them.
Does this small monument make things right?
Does it heal the deep wounds of our city’s history?
It does not.
But it is one small voice. It is onestory among the many never given voice, and it is an important start.
So if repentance does not heal all wounds, what is the point?
How does it lead us on toward life and wholeness and healing?
Well, as we touched on last Sunday, repentance is not merely a saying that one is sorry. Biblical repentance means to turn completely around and move toward what is right and good and true.
This simple word, diminished in our English translations and in our execution of repentance over the years in the church, is packed with all that is needed. And it was in fact Jesus who said it with such profound love and eloquence when he spoke to the woman accused of adultery saying, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ response to this woman was not condemnation. He told her accusers they could begin the prescribed stoning with the one among them who had not sinned, throwing the first stone. Eventually all her accusers leave. Not one stone is thrown. The only one present and sinless is Jesus himself, and he does not condemn her. Rather, he says, “Go, and sin no more.”
True repentance begins when we humble ourselves before God.
It is that classic and necessary returning to an awareness that God is God and we are not.
It is an opening of ourselves to the Spirit of God.
It is an asking that God make plain to us what is out of joint, what is wrong, what is not right.
And then, with all that God has revealed to us, we respond. We apologize. We express our regret. We say we are sorry.
But it doesn’t stop there.
From there, we make efforts torightthe wrong.
Though knowing, we ourselves can never undo the damages and havoc we have wreaked in our sins, both collective and individual, we turn. We turn away from sin and toward righteousness. We turn away from evil and toward what is good.
It is not enough to name and say the bad, to name and confess our sin.
What is needful is that we return to doing good.
Go, and sin no more…Jesus says.
You see when we get rid of something bad, be it as simple as a bad habit or as complex as a society’s enslavement of other human beings, we need to REPLACE the sin and evil with GOOD and right living. Otherwise, other bad things will often spring up to quickly take it’s place. When we give up smoking, we may find ourselves running to sugar. When we gave up slavery, we found ourselves running to segregation. And on and on it goes…one sin replacing another sin… This is not entirely useless. Sometimes the choice seems to be between one evil and another, with our task being to determine the lessor of two evils… But until we replace sin with righteous living, we cannot begin the slow but vital work of healing.
Sin is only eradicated with right living.
Bad things are overcome by good things.
Darkness is only overcome by light.
And so repentance is much more than “I’m sorry.”
It is an opening of ourselves to God.
It is an allowing of GOD to reveal to us what is not right
…much of which we could never identify or sense on our own, with our very culture and habits all protecting and reinforcing some of our sins…
And then it is a turning. A turning toward wholeness and healing, a turning toward right living, a turning back to God and God’s ways.
Now in this did we ever say that repentance makes us right before God?
It does not. It alone cannot. We cannot earn righteousness.
Did we say that repentance makes all the evil go away & everything right with the world?
Repentance is vital and necessary to wholeness and life, but it is only a tool that readies us for wholeness and life. On our own we cannot achieve that wholeness and fullness of life we are made for.
But what God knows about us is that we need repentance, in order to receive the fullness of life Christ lived and suffered and died to give us.
The people needed John the Baptist to make the way ready for Christ by calling the people to repentance. This call opens us. When we remove what is wrong, we make a space – and that space is only best filled by our Lord.
Because while it is fine and dandy to say we must replace sin with right living, the painful reality is that we will still sin again.
Does it mean we should not try?
Does it mean our repentance before wasn’t sincere or good or earnest?
What is does mean is that we come face to face with our utter need for God.
We cannot make it on our own. We can no more make what is right wrong than we can stop making new mistakes and engaging in new sins…
Without God’s totally irrational love for us…
Without God’s incredibly undeserved mercy…
Without the free gift of God’s grace and steadfast love, we are stuck in patterns of sin and death that we cannot escape from or make right on our own.
And so John the Baptist was helping folks humble themselves before God
Empty themselves of sin and all that steals away life and wholeness
And open themselves to the One who could and would and will make all things well.
In this Lenten season, as we prepare our hearts for Christ’s ultimate sacrifice and final victory over sin and death, may we humble and open ourselves before God in prayer. May we find ourselves repenting of all that would kill steal and destroy, and may we turn back,
…back to the One who can make all things well,
Who does make all things well,
Who is making all things well,
Who will make all things well.
Thanks be to God!