[A prayer for Sunday 21 February 2021 To listen to the sermon and the prayer, click here]
Lord, you know us far too well. Better than we know ourselves; Better than we want to know or be known.
We are not proud of our lives. Oh, yes, there are things we have done and things we have achieved. But we have failed some of the more important tests:
We have not been the loving children we could have been; We have not been the loving parents or partners we could have been.
We have been chasing dreams instead of creating memories. Looking for treasure instead of building relationships. We have lived fearfully, hoarding what we have. Yet you have called us to live generously as you have lived with us, To give, so that we can receive and give again.
You know us so well, Yet you remain our loving heavenly Father; Full of love for us, full of joy at the possibilities you see in us; Delighted to spend time with us.
Jesus, our friend and brother, Our Saviour and Lord, We want to walk with you on this Lenten journey. Help us to turn from our sins and renounce those things that destroy relationships; that create barriers among us; that separate us from you.
Help us find ways to connect with you and connect with one another in these strange times. Help us share one another’s burdens, Share each other’s pain, and walk with each other towards the light of resurrection to discover our place within your family.
‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’ The first question asked at Baptism. But the Christian life is not a checklist of dos and don’ts. It is a journey into relationship. The journey may not begin with repentance, but with a welcome.
Lent and the virus
Today is the first Sunday of Lent.
It is a period (traditionally) of fasting until the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ was a common question when I was growing up. Most of the time it was (reluctantly) sweets and chocolates.
Some would say that this year we have been forced to give up worshiping together, we have given up hugs and holding each other close. You could say we have given up the lower half of our faces!
But we must not think that these constitute the essence of worship or the only signs of friendship. They are just what we are used to, how we are used to worshiping and showing affection.
So, this virus is challenging us to change our pace and to find new ways to worship, to engage with each other and to care for those who are struggling.
In the same way, the period of Lent calls us to change our pace and challenges us to find new ways to live and to express our faith – to learn new ways in which we can draw closer to Jesus and draw others to him and to his family, the church.
But we must be sure that the new things are rooted and ground in our faith. So, what better place to start than with our baptism, our coming into the family of God? Traditionally, Lent is a time to prepare new members for baptism on Easter Sunday.
And the first question put to candidates for baptism or Confirmation is ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
This isn’t a very happy question, of course.
The second question is much more comforting: ‘Do you trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’
However, while we would much rather spend time thinking about Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, today we are going to concentrate on the first question: ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
Having a series of questions and answers about our faith does help us remember the basics, but it can also be a trap.
Like most people, we Christians like to take the easy route. We take the wonders of awesome God, the challenging words of scripture and the mysteries our faith and we cut them down to size and package them in bite-sized pieces – usually in the form of a list of what’s allowed and what is not, of who is in and who is out.
We translate ‘the way of Jesus’ into a checklist of do’s and don’ts.
And even these powerful questions of our baptism are reduced to some sort of test – get them right and you’re in. Tick here if you want to go to heaven.
Repent and renounce
So, our question today, ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’ is treated as an entrance requirement. If you do, you’re in. If not, well, come back when you’re ready.
Personally, I don’t think this question should be first on the list for people who are coming into faith.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that sin isn’t real and that it doesn’t separate us from God. It is real and it does. I’m also not suggesting that repentance and renouncing evil isn’t part of the deal – it is. It’s an essential part of our relationship with God, our journey with God. I am just not so sure that it comes first.
Sin and holiness – light and dark
There is absolutely no doubt that there is sin and evil in the world, and that there is a fair amount of it in the hearts of each one of us. It is equally true that sin and holiness cannot mix; God and evil cannot coexist. We cannot bring evil into the Kingdom of God; we cannot continue to sin, do those things that hurt God or his creation and expect to live happily in his family.
You can’t bring darkness into a lightened room. When the light goes on, darkness disappears. That’s how it is. You can block the light with furniture and create shadows where the light is hidden, but where there is light, there is no darkness.
So, when I suggest there might be a problem with this question, it’s not because repenting and renouncing evil aren’t important. They are; they’re essential. But they don’t always come first like we think they do. And sometimes, the way we understand them gets in the way of everything else.
We tend to see repentance as an entrance requirement. You have to do this if you want to come in. If you don’t wear a mask and you don’t sanitise your hands, you’re not coming in.
Repent, turn away from evil, then God will consider your application for adoption.
Jesus doesn’t seem to have understood repentance and renouncing evil like that.
For Jesus, it is part of the package of Good News, part of what we do on the journey. For us, it becomes a barrier to entrance.
‘You support abortion, you’re divorced, you’re rude, arrogant, cheeky; you drink too much, gamble, cheat on your spouse, lie, steal …. God doesn’t want you like that,’ we say. ‘Come back when you’ve sorted your life out.’
The prodigal son
But if we look at the stories Jesus told and his actions around sinful people, we find quite a different approach.
The prodigal son wasn’t asked whether he had really repented or had only come home because he was hungry. The father didn’t care. That’s a question the older brother would have asked, not the father. His son was home, and he welcomed him with open arms and a fatted calf. He didn’t give him a list: ‘Tick these boxes, and then we’ll have a chat about whether you fit in. And, of course, your older brother will have to approve.’
None of that. The father threw a party and gave him a place of honour in his heart and in the home.
And the older brother? Those of us who are ‘older’ in the faith? God doesn’t ask our permission before opening the doors of his heart, before welcoming sinners and backsliders.
We, too, have a place in God’s heart, but we’d better get used to the idea that we share that place with all the other children God loves and calls his own. And that, without our prior approval.
Woman caught in adultery
Then there is the woman caught in adultery. We like to emphasis the fact that Jesus told her to go and sin no more. But that was after he said, ‘I don’t condemn you.’
He didn’t give her a conditional certificate of forgiveness: ‘If you promise to stop sinning, I’ll forgive you. And if you do stop, well, then we’ll make this forgiveness permanent.’ [like employment & probation]
For Jesus, forgiveness is unconditional. And the crazy thing is, it comes first.
We think about sin as a list of dos and don’ts, and we must try to get as many of them right as possible.
The Bible looks at sin as to how it affects our relationships, both with God and with others. Again and again, God shows us he is interested in relationships not rightness, not ticking boxes. He doesn’t say, ‘I’ll let you in if you do it like this.’
Instead, he says, ‘Come and join the party.’
Past versus possibilities
You see, God is interested in our possibilities, not our past.
We ask, ‘What has this person done? How bad are they?’ and we start closing doors.
God asks, ‘How can I help this person shine?’ and he opens doors to new possibilities.
You see, God believes in the good news, in the power of the Gospel. He takes it seriously. I don’t think we share that faith quite so much.
God believes that if you come to his party, you won’t be able to help yourself; you’ll want to stay.
The pearl and the treasure
Jesus said we don’t need to force people or tell them to sell everything and to let go of their past. If they just get a sniff of that pearl beyond riches, if they just get a glimpse of that treasure hidden away, they won’t be satisfied with anything else. They won’t be able to help themselves. They’ll get rid of everything, just to have that treasure, just to own that pearl.
I don’t think we really believe that so much. We think God’s holiness has to be protected somehow; that the good news is so fragile it needs to be kept back. So, we stand at the door with a list of requirements. And repenting of sin and renouncing all evil is top of the list. If you want what God offers, if you want to join this family, if you want a piece of the Good News, you have to tick these boxes.
But, friends, we have to be very careful here because the question is ‘Will you … renounce all evil.’
The truth is we don’t know half of it.
I was a 14 year-old kid when I gave my life to Jesus. I repented of sin and renounced all evil. Of course I did. I’d heard about the party. I’d had a glimpse of the treasure. I knew what the pearl looked like.
But, at that point, I didn’t have any idea of just how much evil I was capable of. I wanted to follow Jesus; I wanted to let go of all evil. But I hadn’t even begun to do evil. Sin (real sin) had hardly had any chance to rear its ugly head in my life. What did I know about sin and evil and of its power and destructive force; of how much I would hurt those around me and destroy relationships? What did I know?
But I want to tell you this. God knew. He knew. He knew not how bad I’d been – that was nothing – he knew how bad I was going to be. And he still loved me and welcomed me with open arms.
You see, God believes in the power of his love. He knows that it is his love that will rescue, heal and give new life even to the worst of us.
So: ‘Do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil?’
It doesn’t mean will you promise never to sin again, never to entertain evil. Because, trust me on this, you are going to mess up. Some of you will mess up in ways you could not imagine. But God knows. Your baptism wasn’t a mistake. God accepting you into his family wasn’t a slip, like your neighbour’s Takealot order coming to you instead. You are meant to be here; you are wanted.
Our baptism is a reminder, not to God (he doesn’t need a reminder) it’s a reminder to you and to me that we are already part of the family of God, showered with his love. And nothing we can do will ever change that.
Do you want to share in this journey?
So, don’t be frightened by the question, do you repent of your sin and renounce all evil? And let’s be sure not to use it as a weapon against others.
It simply means, do you want to share in this journey; do you want to walk with one who loves you so much? He will walk with you through the ups AND the downs. He will never leave you.
Let me invite you to use this time of Lent, this quiet, separated Lent, to reflect on God’s love and find new ways to relate to him; find new ways to let go of the things that separate you from God and from the people around you; find new ways to connect with God and with the rest of his beautiful (and crazy) family.
How about five minutes a day reading the Prestbury Methodist Church Lent Diary (ask me for a copy, if you like) or a devotion of your own?
How about five minutes a day reading through the Gospel of Mark or John?
The journey begins today. It is a difficult one, scary even, but it ends in the victory of resurrection and the glory of God.
Blessing to you all.
[For the prayer from the end of the message, see here]