How do we repent?
January 21, 2018

How do we repent?

Passage: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

So we’ve got three readings today: Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel. Just like always. And all of them are circulating around a common theme.

In the Old Testament, God calls Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and warn them that their ways are so wicked that God is going to destroy them – blot them out entirely. So Jonah does what he’s told (eventually – for those of you who know the whole story) and the people listen to him. They might be wicked in all their ways, but when they’re called out on the carpet they at least have the integrity to admit it. And they repent. And, in God’s mercy, God changes his mind, and doesn’t bring calamity upon them. After all, it wasn’t their destruction God desired, but the cessation of evil. And with their repentance came the end of their evil ways and God was satisfied.

In the New Testament reading, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in the city of Corinth. Paul believed (wrongly, as it turns out), that the end of days was near and that Christ was returning soon. And with this belief is his urgent appeal for the Corinthians to get their mess straightened out: Stop your fooling around and petty ways and start to live like Jesus told us to. Whatever your other allegiances or commitments are, they now pale in comparison to living out the Kingdom of God with urgency.

And then in the gospel reading, we see the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. He shows up in Galilee and begins to preach the good news: “The time is fulfilled,” he says, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15).

The theme that binds all these readings together is repentance.

To repent is to recognize and admit that the way I’m living (or the way we’re living) is – in a word – inappropriate. It’s not the life God meant us to live. And it is the job of the prophet – be it Jonah or Paul or Jesus or someone in our own day – to point this out. And whether they’re being smacked upside the head with threats of destruction (like with Jonah) or being wooed by a better vision (like with Jesus), the point is the same: You were made for something better – something truer. And it is within your power to do otherwise. So stop what you’re doing; stop the way you’re living, and repent. Choose the better way, and set yourself on that path. It’s not to say that you’ll become perfect overnight, but that you’ll make a mark in the sand and say, “I’m going to start living my life in this direction now.”

So what exactly is it we’re called to repent from? Well, how much time have you got? There’s no end to the list for each of us, to say nothing of our collective misbehavior. But if I were to summarize it, I think (at least for us, in this culture) our bad behavior, our ungodly behavior, is rooted in two basic problems: We are afraid and we are selfish. Most everything else seems to flow out of this. It’s true of us as individuals. It’s true of us as families, as churches. And it’s certainly true of us as nations.

There’s so much we’re afraid of: we’re afraid of scarcity; we’re afraid of what’s different and difficult to understand; we’re afraid of sickness and pain; we’re afraid of being alone and undesired; we’re afraid of vulnerability… it goes on and on. There’s no end to what we fear. And from this fear comes selfishness: we want to ensure that I and my loved ones will have enough. But of course “enough” is a very fluid concept, and – so long as we remain afraid – there will never be enough to satisfy that fear-filled abyss.

We’re not happy enough, skinny enough, handsome enough. Our parents didn’t love us enough. Not enough money. Not enough vacations. Not enough friends. Not enough space to hoard the stuff that’s still not enough to make us happy enough. We’re not safe enough to protect us enough from the people who are not enough like us.

And what will it take for us finally to say, THAT’S ENOUGH! and turn, with humility and honesty, to the Christ who tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9)?

We have enough. But so long as we are afraid and selfish, we believe the lie that we are deprived. Yet all the while abundance is ours to share.

Think about it in terms of relationships and intimacy. I am in Christ, and Christ is me. You are in Christ, and Christ is in you. And if we are both in Christ and Christ is in both of us, then we must also be joined by that same divine union and affection. And the more I seek to believe this to be true, the broader I’m discovering this union to be. In fact, when I’m in my best, mystical state, it’s becoming difficult to divine any boundary at all. But when I become afraid, when I begin to feel lonesome and unknown, then I begin to believe in and fear my undesirability – that my inadequacies reflect my true person, and my behavior starts to flow out of this sickened place.

I remember once, years ago, I was on a long ferry crossing in the dark of night, and I felt very alone, very sorry for myself. I was unmarried at the time. And I saw a man carrying a tea tray to his wife, and suddenly I was wrought with envy. I wish I had someone to bring me a cup of tea, I whined to myself. And then, through some gentle slap from the Holy Spirit, I thought, Well look around you, who else may be lonely? And, seeing an older woman travelling by herself, I went and bought tea for two and I took it to her, and together we spent a very pleasant evening, crossing over the sea. It wasn’t marriage I needed that night. I needed to repent of my fear and my selfishness by having the courage and the generosity to love the neighbor in my midst, and by so doing, to discover that I was not living this life in isolation.

We have been given one another. Our lives are filled with sisters and brothers, waiting to be known, waiting to be loved. It is fear that keeps this bounty of intimacy at arm’s length.

As a culture, our fear and selfishness is perhaps most evident when it comes to the hoarding of resources. We consume a lot. A LOT! It’s out of control. And because we’re all doing it together, because we’re all sharing a common lifestyle, we don’t even see it as something to be ashamed of. If Jonah were to come preaching through the streets of America, I doubt there’d be a run on the market for sackcloth and ashes. We have no shame when it comes to our consumption. After all, it’s growing the economy. So how can that be bad?

Americans represent no more than 5% of the world’s population, and yet we consume a quarter of the world’s energy. “Our per capita use of metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meats dwarfs that of people living in the developing world.”[1] We produce half the world’s global waste. And in our race to consume and discard, whole nations are living in desperate poverty, and the by-product of our consumption is wreaking havoc on the environment.

Where is the prophet who will wake us up from our stupor? There’s no question that the call of Christ is to use our resources to bless the other. There’s no question that the heart of God is clearly on the side of the poor and the vulnerable. And there’s no question that the rate of American consumption stands in absolute contradiction to the priorities of the Kingdom of God. So what it will take? What prophet will finally arise with the authority to draw us, as a nation, into a posture of repentance?

I know it sounds like I am railing at you right now, but I’m railing just as much at myself. I’m part of this same broken system. My house has twice the closet space that my grandparents’ had. I eat beef more often than I should (Did you know that, by some estimates, in order to make one pound of beef, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, and uses up 35 pounds of topsoil?).[2] I’m not saying it’s a sin to eat beef. But how often should we eat it? And when we do, who is it that is going without the water? Without the grain? Have you seen the pictures of the children dying of famine in Yemen right now?  The U.S. didn’t cause that famine, but we do have the resources – or the control of the resources – to solve the world’s food and water shortage. But we choose otherwise. We choose to keep it for ourselves. And all the while, we have the audacity to call ourselves a Christian nation.

What do we do? I can vote in a direction that is more apt to care about the environment and the poor. But the truth of the matter is that, even amongst the bleeding heart liberals who are for the environment and so on, as a nation we still presume the right to live with far more privilege than is becoming of the children of God. We don’t need to live in poverty and scarcity, but if we are seeking to grow in our faith, to become more Christlike in our ways, then let us be clear: we must pursue a more modest way of living.

In a word, we need to repent.

How do we do it? We start by admitting that we have problem. We ask God’s forgivingness, and then we begin to put structures into place that will limit our own consumption, by giving our money away at the beginning of each month. Because if the money’s gone, it’s gone! I can’t spend it on myself, as much as I might otherwise choose in a moment of weakness! The old standard is to give a minimum of 10% away. Most people find this to be impossible. It’s not. For most of us, it’s totally within our means, if we are willing to live more modestly than we now choose.

I do believe that our nation is in dire need of repentance. And woe to us in the church, who claim to be followers of Christ, if that repentance does not begin with ourselves.

[1] Dave Tilford, representing the Sierra Club, quoted in Scientific American