ďHow on earth can I be expected to prepare spiritually for Christmas when thereís so much else to do?Ē † We dutifully begin the season of Advent resolving to prepare our inner selves to welcome our Lord once again on Christmas day. But somehow our best intentions are swamped by everything else weíre involved in. † I imagine most of us know all too well what Iím talking about. † So Iím sure you donít really want to hear me preach today about something as heavy as repentance. †
But thatís probably just how the people felt who heard John the Baptist in the wilderness calling people to repent in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. † They probably thought, ĎWe donít need this. † It doesnít apply to us. After all, we donít do anything seriously wrongí. †So why should repentance be part of our preparations for Christmas? † Itís a bit negative, isnít it? † And donít we repent of our sins every time we come to church, after all?
Today, as part of our Advent preparations for Christmas, I want to explain how repentance is more than just saying sorry; it is a change of heart and mind, only fully achievable by a total openness to God.
Letís have a closer look at this. †
1. † First, repentance is more than just saying sorry. † Iím sure many of know how an ingenious child soon learns how to say Ďsorryí, in a way that sounds full of remorse, † while heís actually already preparing the next misdemeanour. † Itís clear, isnít it, when we think about it, that saying sorry has got to be genuine. † But even if it is genuine, itís only one part of repentance. † Being sorry is another part. † Even that, though, isnít enough. † In St. Lukeís description of John the Baptist, we hear how John told his hearers to Ďbear fruit in keeping with repentanceí. † This had several implications. † It meant sharing things that were surplus to their requirements. †† For tax collectors it meant taking only the tax that was due and no more. † For soldiers it meant not intimidating other people or extorting things from them. †
So John the Baptistís main point was that repentance went far beyond saying sorry and being sorry. † It meant making sure that the fruits of your repentance could be seen in what you did.
2. † His second point was just as direct. † No-one is excused from the need to repent. † It seems, from St. Lukeís account of John, that there were people who argued that since they were descended from Abraham, they had a special place in Godís eyes. † God had promised to Abraham that all his descendants would be blessed. † But John said that this wasnít enough. † Labels or ancestry donít exempt you from the need to repent. † The people who claimed that being descended from Abraham made them privileged in Godís eyes were quite probably sincere in what they said. And in some respects they were right. † But this didnít give them a cut-price ticket to salvation.
3. ††So repentance is more than just saying and being sorry; it is something from which no-one is excused. † But what is it? † The root meaning of the word repentance is a change of heart and mind . † It comes from the Greek metanoia - meta/change; noia/mind. (eg metamorphosis; paranoia). †† In the original Greek itís a very strong word. † It is connected with the idea of conversion. It means an active turning away from those things which are not of God to those things which are. †††
One of the insights at the heart of the New Testament is the point that our own ability to do this is limited. † We can make an effort of will - for example by resolving to be less selfish. † But learning new patterns of behaviour is sometimes very difficult. † I wonder how many of us have tried again and again to stop doing something that we know is wrong, or to do things differently, † but we just donít seem able to. † The New Testament is clear that sometimes itís only with the help of Godís grace that itís possible to repent fully, to turn away from something that is wrong. † Sometimes Godís grace is given as a result of a painful experience. † We make a mistake, and we or someone else suffer from the consequences. † And so the distress thatís caused helps us in our resolve never to do the same again. † Remember how the Prodigal Son was only able to change his ways after his chastening experiences away from home.
Someone we succeed in changing only as a result of someone telling us something that weíd rather not hear, but which we know deep down is right. † Few of us enjoy being told that some habit or attitude of ours means that we might need to change our ways. † But sometimes thatís the way God speaks to us. † Sometime itís how he shows us the way to repent.
4. † It should be clear by now that repentance is not something to be taken lightly. Itís more than just saying sorry to God each Sunday in church. †† This of course may be an uncomfortable thought. † How do we go about changing our ways, to make them conform to what God wants of us, when so often itís so difficult? †
I said earlier that real repentance is only possible with Godís help - in other words through his grace. † How, then, can we know this for ourselves? † The key to a full repentance is in being open to God, being humble before him, and being ready to change. The role model here is Zaccheus. † He was open to what Jesus had to say; he humbly accepted Jesusí commands to pay back his ill-gotten gains; and was ready to do what Jesus told him. † Openness, humility, readiness to change. These qualities in Zaccheus were what enabled Godís grace to work in him. † These were what made a full repentance possible, a real conversion of his heart and mind.
I wouldnít wish to judge the areas of anyoneís life in which there may be some need for repentance. † Thatís between you and God. † But here are some of the most frequent problems which arise in our relationships with one another and with God:
††††††††††† ††††††††† - not taking the trouble to listen properly, either to other people or to God.
††††††††††† ††††††††††† - assuming that we are right and the other person is wrong
††††††††††† ††††††††††† - making judgements about people without knowing the full background
††††††††††† ††††††††††† - not being generous enough with time or money
††††††††††† ††††††††††† - falling into the temptation to undermine someone behind their back
Now this little checklist applies just as much to me as to anybody else. † But it might be of some help when you remember, this Advent, John the Baptistís call to repentance.