Texts: Luke 13:31-35 & Genesis 15:1-12; 17-18
Now there’s a loaded term! It’s one of those church-y type words that we hear used an awful lot, but nobody really seems to know what it means. From Acts: “Repent and be baptized, all of you!” From the first three gospels: “The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news!” We’ve heard it an awful lot, but there’s something missing. We’ve used it so often that it’s become almost meaningless to our ears. We carry on our way, using the language we’ve always used, and nothing changes. We’ve lost the meaning, and nothing changes…
Today is the second Sunday in the season of Lent. We’re taking time to reflect on both our life and our faith as we walk with Jesus on the way to the cross. It is a time of preparation. Jesus invites us to take a long hard look at ourselves… and perhaps learn something new. Last week, we took a look at the word “temptation” –this week it’s “repent.”
From experience we can easily get bogged down in the small stuff. An observer of business practice once said that when it comes to discussing budgets, the amount of time taken on a given line item in a budget is inversely proportional to its value. People are far more willing to haggle over pennies than they are millions of dollars. In the same way, we can really get bogged down or misled by a single word. Whenever we hear the word “repent” in the New Testament, it’s rendered from the Greek word “metanoia.” It literally means to change one’s notions, or better yet a change of mind or heart. In English, however, we translate metanoia with repent. We’re pretty familiar with this… it roughly means to be so sorry for something that we are willing to make changes or reparations. Perhaps this is where we’ve gotten lost. In our own modern definition, the word “repent” carries with it an awful lot of baggage… it carries the guilt trip. Yet in the original Greek, it doesn’t. When Jesus says “repent and believe the good news!” he’s not laying on any kind of guilt trip whatsoever. Maybe in this time of Lent, it’s not about our sense of guilt or regret, maybe what God is calling us to examine is our willingness to change. The trouble is, we have no problems feeling sorry or guilty. We’re just not that good at adapting to change.
When we encounter Jesus in Luke’s gospel this morning, he seems to be lamenting something. Instead of a call to repentance, Jesus stands outside of Jerusalem, the great city of the faith, and proclaims, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
…and you were not willing! Jerusalem is the symbolic bastion of the faith, a great monument of the covenant that God once made with Abraham and Sarah all those years ago. Yet it had become so steeped in its tradition, that it had become an unchanging monolith. The establishment that lived within its walls saw itself as protecting the faith, defending God by defending all of their traditions and practices. Yet, on the outside, Jesus laments the city’s inability to adapt and change. He laments that they will go so far as to shoot the messenger. They will kill or stone prophets and preachers who call the people to change their ways. Jesus is lamenting the city’s inability to change.
It really puts a different spin on things for us. It begs a question that is incredibly important to our life in faith… which is more important… our willingness to change or feelings of remorse and regret?
Have we missed the point? After all these years of having the word “repent” beaten into our brains, maybe we no longer know what it truly means? We understand guilt, we know regret, we feel shame… but at the core of it we don’t change. Those who originally translated the word into English chose the word “repent” because the end result is a genuine willingness to change. Yet we’ve gotten bogged down in the guilt part. Every time we see the word “repent” in the Bible, it is a call to change one’s ways, not to feel regret. We can only feel sorry for ourselves for so long… and if it doesn’t lead to anything transformative… then we’ve missed the point. Guilt and shame should not be the only motivators in Christian Spirituality!
I have to admit, I much prefer the original word “metanoia” because it captures the original intent of what both the early church and Jesus seemed to say. God calls us to change our minds, to change our ways, our hearts, and be part of God’s reign. It may well mean that we do regret things that we have done. It is important to reflect on ways that we have done wrong to one another… but the most important thing is the change itself… the willingness to change our ways that comes with living as part of God’s love. The point is not to feel guilty all the time, but to be ready to adapt, and a willingness to listen for what God is calling us to be. Otherwise we become an unchanging fortress, like the Jerusalem that Jesus laments over. The willingness to change, grow, and adapt comes out of living in the joy of God’s promise.
This Lent, maybe one of the things that we can reflect on is our own willingness to change our ways. This is true for us both individually and as a church community. How willing are we to change? What does it take for us to truly change our ways? What stops us? Is it regret? Is it joy? Is it fear?
God calls us to look at all those things that prevent us from growing and changing, and to set them aside. Why? Because God calls us to live without a fear of what is to come… because regardless of what comes, God is still there, with us, and caring for us. Even though Jesus knew that if he went to Jerusalem, his fate would be more than unpleasant. In Lent, we are walking with Jesus to his crucifixion, but we know that it doesn’t end there. Beyond the symbol of the cross is the symbol of an empty tomb… despite what sensationalist film-makers do with bad archaeology… We know that what Jesus did and said did not die on the cross… we know that despite trying, the establishment failed to silence God…
We don’t necessarily have to feel sorry or regret in order to change our ways. Our motivation for change can be any number of things… we can change our ways out of a sense of joy, happiness, sadness, anticipation, righteous anger… just about anything… Change in our lives comes when we respond to God, whether we know it or not. Metanoia is a change of mind and action, not simply an inner feeling. It doesn’t have to be big, sweeping changes, but can start small. Like ripples on a pond, they radiate outward, getting bigger.
Maybe this Lent we need to set aside the guilt and shame of repentance, and be able to see the full range of what Jesus’ call for metanoia… really is… a change of mind, a change of heart, a complete transformation into the new life that Jesus calls us to