1:9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
1:10 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.
1:11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
1:12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
1:13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
1:14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
1:15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
When I was in about first grade, my teacher made up this chart for my class. It has each of our names along the side, and all the days along the top. And at the end of each day, depending on whether or not we had followed the rules that day, she would give us either a happy face, or a sad face.
I lived for those happy faces. I knew exactly what I had to do, and not do, to get one. And when at the end of each grading period I got to go home with an unblemished row of happy faces, I was in heaven.
When I was six, if you had asked me about sin, I probably would have told you about the happy faces. If you do all the right things, follow all the rules, you get a happy face. If you don’t, it’s a sad face. It was all very cut and dried, and easy to understand.
I was thinking about that as I was thinking about this text, and repentance, and what it means to acknowledge that you’re not living the way you should. Jesus goes to John the Baptist and is baptized. He then goes out into the wilderness for forty days, like our forty days of Lent. And then, after being tested, he comes back and begins his proclamation: “The time is fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
We don’t talk about repentance much. It’s always in the back of our minds, but we don’t actually say much about what it means. We like to focus on hope, and grace, and faith. We say the prayer of confession every week, but it’s over in a minute, and then we sing the Gloria together and move on.
But then we get to Lent. And we have this more solemn season of the church year, where we start to slow down, and look at who we are, and how we act. And we have days like Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, that remind us that human beings are flawed, and fallible, and sometimes prone to do the wrong things.
Repentance is a hallmark of Lent. But what does it mean? I find it helpful to look at what the two languages of the Bible, Hebrew and Greek, say it means. To repent, in Hebrew, means “to return”. And in Greek, to repent is metanoia, or to change one’s thinking. In other words, change the way you think about things and return to God.
When Jesus is calling us to repent, he’s calling us away from sin. He’s calling us to turn from sin and towards spiritual life. But sin is sometimes hard for us to talk about. We’re not the kind of church that stands on street corners and tells people to repent. We’re not a church of judgement where we tell people what they are doing wrong in their lives. We’re not the kind of place that has tearful confessions at the altar, or solemn ones behind the doors of the confessional. We, like most other mainline Protestant churches, acknowledge that we all sin, but without much fanfare. But in the back of our minds, we wonder. “Am I doing well enough?”
When I was about six, I think I thought God had a big version of my first grade teachers chart. I probably envisioned God making that crucial judgement between the happy face and unhappy face at the end of each day for each of us. And like those rules on the classroom wall, I wanted to do just enough to know I was safe. If I could only have a list of God’s minimum happy face requirements, I’d be all set.
As we grow older, of course, it takes more than a chart to help us make the right choices. There are more variables, more responsibilities, more nuance. What is age appropriate at six, is not so reliable when we are even a few years old. And by the time we get to adulthood, the chart feels like a cute memory of a simpler time. Life in the real world requires more than charts.
Which is why curious that sometimes our spiritual thinking stays on the same level. Most of us appreciate that life is a nuanced thing, with each of us called to a different path in life, and different challenges. And yet sometimes we think tend to judge our choices in life based on a sort of easy criteria. Do I get a happy face? Or a sad face?
If God had a chart, most of us, on most days, would probably see ourselves getting smiley faces. We don’t hurt other people. We don’t steal. We aren’t blatantly unkind. We try to be good. Most days, we rest assured that we are good enough people. That we have done enough to stay in the positive. And by contrast, we probably think we know who gets the sad faces. And we know the minimum we need to do to not end up like them. That gives us conscience. That eases our mind at night when we sleep. We can go to bed saying, “I’m not a bad person.”
And you’re not. But what we sometimes don’t understand is that that old way of looking at things, that childhood worldview where we do just enough good things or too many bad things, doesn’t work after a certain point. Just like our grade school teachers put them away after we grew old enough, old spiritual life demands something more than them as well. At the end of the day, God doesn’t stand in front of a chart with all our names, deciding who gets sad faces. Which is not to say that God just gives us easy grace, and happy faces either.
But it is to say this. At the end of the day, God throws the chart away and calls us to something better. At the end of the day, God calls us to do the same thing Jesus called us to do in Galilee. God calls us to turn away from what distracts us, and repent. But more than that, God calls us to something more.
God wants more than the bare minimum. God wants us to strive for more than just a minor mark of approval, or meeting the letter of the law. God wants us to be honest, and God wants to actually have a relationship with us, to know us.
That’s what Lent is about. It’s about turning away from sin, repenting, and deciding to be in relationship with God. It’s not about getting our ticket punched by doing what we have to do. It’s not about following a long list of rules because we have to. It’s not about God as the big grader in the sky who tells us whether we pass or fail. It’s about God who loves us so much, that God doesn’t want us to be separate anymore.
That’s what sin is, after all. It’s our separation from God. We sin not so much when we break one in a long list of rules, but instead we sin when our will begins to differ from God’s, and we wander off on our own paths. Repentance is about turning around, and going back to God’s path and trying not to stray from it again. It’s not something we can do by reciting some words on Sunday and hoping for the best. It’s something we do by deciding our faith will not be peripheral to the rest of our life. Instead, it will be the lens through which we view the rest of our life.
Now that’s not always easy. Because relationships never are. The first Scripture passage that we read this morning, the one from Genesis about covenant, talks about the same thing. It’s about God wanting us to be in relationship. It’s not about anger or judgement or condemnation, but it’s about honest relationship and covenant. And being in relationship to someone else is always hard, but it can also be rewarding.
You probably know what it’s like to be in a covenant, because you know what it’s like to be in relationship with another, whether friend or partner or family member. You know what it’s like to care enough about someone to know that your choices affect them. To know that the relationship doesn’t work if it stays peripheral. It only works when it stays honest, and centered.
It’s the same way with God. God never chooses to leave us, but we sometimes do the things that make us drift away from God. And at the end of the day, we find ourselves off alone on a path of our own creation, instead of with the God who loves us more than we know.
That’s when we can repent. That’s when we can look at what feels disjointed or disconnected in our lives. That’s when we can say to God, I’m tired of walking alone. I want to come back and walk with you.
And that’s what Lent is about. Forty days of choosing to walk with God, instead of choosing to walk away. It’s forty days of believing that there is a better life, and a greater joy, waiting for us. It’s forty days of being honest with ourselves, and being honest about the fact that our lives would be better if we just let God into every part of them.
God already knows who you are. God knows who you are on your best days and your worst. When you stand on Sunday mornings, and pray the prayer of confession, and then keep silence as you reflect upon your own life, you’re not telling God anything God doesn’t already know. And the good news is this. God still loves you, and God still wants to be in relationship with you.
Lent is about repenting, turning around and coming back to God. And that means Lent is about coming home. Coming home not to the same old house with closed off rooms full of secrets, or doors that hide the truths about ourselves we fear the most. Lent is about coming home to God’s house, where the doors are always open, where we are know at our deepest level, and where we are known, and understood, and loved.
This Lent, will you come home? Will you come back to a home in which you are not judged on charts or with happy or sad faces? Will you come home to a place where all of you is welcome? Will you come home to a relationship with someone who loves you at your worst, yet calls you to be your best? If so, then take the first step out into the wilderness of Lent, and repent. Be honest, and be prepared for what happens next. God will lead you back home, and back into life. Amen.