The Second Sunday in Lent - By the Reverend James Ross Smith
Year 2: Psalm 103; Deuteronomy 8:1–10; Hebrews 2:10–18; 1 Corinthians 1:18–25
Jesus’ first words in the gospel of mark, the oldest of the four gospels, are these: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of god has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” [1:14]. These are prominent words, and, therefore, seem important. They sound like an announcement. And, in a way, they are. Not an announcement about the future, but about the present. Something new is happening right now. And “repentance” is at the center of the new thing that Jesus is doing. Which shouldn’t really surprise us: it was at the heart of what john the Baptist was doing, too, as Saint Mark has already told us. So, from the very beginning repentance is an important part of the good news and what Jesus says and does.
You’ve probably heard it said in a million sermons that the word used for “repentance” in the Greek Old Testament, and in the New Testament as well, is a particularly interesting one. The Greek word metanoia means a “change of mind or purpose” and it’s a word that comes to mean “repentance” for the biblical writers. Which makes sense, because buried in that Greek word—the thing that’s getting changed in the word metanoia— is something called the “nous”, which means “mind”—in particular the mind as it is “employed in feeling and deciding, [namely what we sometimes call] the heart.” And so, the nous is the part of the human being where decisions and resolutions and a sense of purpose are born.
Now, I suspect that your ordinary Greek-speaking Jew or Christian didn’t think about all that when she happened to use or read the word metanoia. I don’t think that’s how language really works. But it might very well be the case that lurking in the back of her mind was the intuition that metanoia, what we call “repentance,” involved change. After all, that’s kind of how Greek worked. For instance, the Greek word metamorphosis means a change of shape, or form, or appearance. So a word beginning with “meta-“probably suggested the possibility of change or transformation. And that’s interesting, because our English word “repentance” doesn’t necessarily suggest change. It comes from a word for “regret,” or “being sorry for something.” But the awareness that one has done wrong, which is then followed by regret, is really just the first step. In the bible, real repentance means that you have to move from awareness to action. Only in that way can a real transformation of the self take place.
Which raises the question, how did those early Jews and Christians think about such a change? Where did it come from? What did Saint Mark think about that? What did Jesus think?
Well, for one thing, Jesus’ first words in the gospel of Mark don’t seem designed to frighten us. They are a kind of wake-up call, for sure. But Jesus is talking about repentance here in the context of the coming of god’s kingdom and therefore of the very presence of god. And Jesus seems to be suggesting that all of this, repentance included, is good news. It’s not a threat, let alone a dismissal or an expression of contempt. It’s gospel. It’s good news.
Now it’s true that a lot of Christian teachers and preachers down through the centuries have used threats and fear in order to drive home their message about repentance. But not all of them did. Some of them have answered that question—how is the human heart transformed?—by saying that it is the result of an intense, beautiful, sometimes anguished, sometimes tear-filled, but always grace-filled encounter between god and the individual human being; and that it involved some kind of cooperation between God’s will and our will. The spirit moves, inspires, urges, and cajoles, but the spirit preserves our freedom to choose. The Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to like to force change on anybody. We have to be involved in the work of repentance if real change is to occur.
Our brothers & sisters in Alcoholics Anonymous talk about “making amends” in a way that I think might help us to understand what repentance means. For them, the ninth step, “making amends,” involves doing more than just making an apology. It means one tries, if possible, to fix something that has been broken—and that something can involve other people or it can be something inside a person, or both. But change is always involved. As one writer puts it, “amends are about a genuine change in our behavior instead of the patchwork of an apology. We take on a whole new way of life. We stop accumulating fresh insults to ourselves and others.” As the book Alcoholics Anonymous puts it, “if we are painstaking about this phase of our development…we will [neither] regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.”
This of course sounds very hopeful, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Real repentance seldom is. That’s why it’s important to remember that repentance is not a solo act. It is not accomplished by the exercise of the human will alone, no matter how determined that will is. Repentance always involves a conversation between god and the human heart. Our second reading tonight gets at this in a really lovely way: Christ is the pioneer. He has gone before us. He's walked the walk. He endured temptation. He suffered and he died. He understands us. That’s why, Hebrews says, we’re not an embarrassment to him; he’s not ashamed to call us sisters and brothers. But more than that: he’s on our side. How wonderful that verse is: “for because he himself has suffered and been tempted he is able to help those who are tempted.” And, in the end, that is good news, very good news indeed.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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