This past spring my wife Carolyn and I were driving in the villages of northern France on a short vacation after a very vigorous winter of church, church, and more church. It was noon, and we were hungry so we pulled into the little village of Chatilon du Marne and found a very nice restaurant on the town square. After lunch, we walked around the village. It was quaint, picturesque; it was very welcoming. They had a giant statue of Pope Urban II, who was pope from 1088-1099 in a peaceful park on a bluff overlooking the Marne River and there was an old church nearby.
After enjoying the statue and a bit of church history, we entered the church itself. It was extremely simple, rustic, and in need of a little straightening up. At the back of the church were two confessional booths, which drew our attention.
Being Baptist, we had not had much contact with confessional booths up close and personal. We knew the general procedure but in this quiet and undisturbed setting, we looked both of them over in some detail. And then both of us saw it, clear as the nose on our faces. On one of the confessional doors, which was to be used by the penitent, there were cobwebs. Not just a few but many cobwebs all over the door where it closed against the main frame of the confessional booth. This confessional had not been used for a long time. Apparently, there was a lot of unconfessed sin in this little village.
As we walked back to our car, we saw the villagers going about their daily business, shopping, cleaning, mailing letters; and I wondered as I observed them what sins have you not confessed, or what are you carrying inside that is weighing you down?
I was like the street preacher in the New Yorker magazine cartoon, standing on a crowded street corner pointing his finger at passers-by and shouting, "Guilty, guilty." Over to the side the cartoon has one business-type saying to another, "How did he know?"
Jesus knew it and past generations of Christians did also, but we seem to have moved past it in our churches. We need to acknowledge that sin is a valid category of self-understanding, and repentance is the only remedy for it. Repentance is simply turning around and heading in another direction. It's a spiritual about-face and a march in the opposite direction.
We must note that Christ's first word was the word of John the Baptist - repent. Our hope lies in God's grace. The requirements of the Kingdom are first confession and then a new resolve. Without this neither ritual nor creed can save us.
Early Christians included personal confession and repentance in their services of worship much like Alcoholics Anonymous does today. These confessions would be followed by an announcement of penance and pleas for forgiveness. After 325 C.E., public confession was replaced by confessions to a priest. By the 13th century, two confessions a year were required. Today in many of our mainline churches, private confession has been replaced by pastoral counseling.
Right or wrong, we can be certain that today we do not locate our miseries in alienation from God - or sin.
Education insists that the problem is ignorance.
Psychologists insist that the core of our problem is a lack of an integrated self-understanding.
The political activists tell us that the critical issue causing human misery is an inadequate distribution of wealth and power, while the social engineer locates our problem in the cultural environment.
I agree that ignorance, inner disorganization, powerlessness, negative environments, and the gap between haves and have-nots are important and must be dealt with. But they are not our critically central problem.
It sounds out-of-date to modern ears and terribly over-simplified to the sophisticated among us. It sounds simplistic, but according to Jesus, our problem, our critically central problem is sin - our alienation from God.
Sin is a religious idea that presupposes God and His law. People are sinners because they have gone contrary to the will of God. "There is none righteous, no not one," Paul tells us in Romans. Sin is more than a matter of the will. It is a matter of the heart. The sinful deed expresses a still deeper sinfulness, a matter of the heart. Jesus finds the roots of sin in the human heart. Sin can only be destroyed by the work of God's love in the human heart. Christ died for sinners because he loved them. Love is born of love and where love is in command the pride, self-centeredness and disobedience which are the essence of sin can no longer continue.
It was the returning prodigal from the far country who said, "I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight." He did not come home negotiating his place in the family or with a perfectly logical explanation for his actions. He did not return trying to get the father to change the rules for him. He returned from the far country with a clear and simple confession of his dereliction and a desire to start afresh. He repented, confessed and vowed to start over.
It is strange today that the gurus of Christian growth tell the preacher not to mention sin, for it will keep people from coming to hear the good news. However, Jesus began His public ministry by calling for repentance. He was calling for an about-face in the lives of those who heard Him. He called for a change of direction, a change in the orientation of their lives. Repentance is one of the most important of all Jewish doctrines. It was preached by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus. He links His message to the baptizer with good results. Repentance involves profound sorrow for sin, restitution so far as possible, and a steadfast resolution not to commit that sin again. Such repentance unfailingly brings divine forgiveness without the need of mediation or a ritual act.
Moral change follows repentance and identifying our lives with Jesus Christ. The Kingdom is coming and we are to live by the rule of the King.
Central in the teaching of Jesus is the Kingdom. Although it will come in its full glory in the future, it is already breaking into our midst. The Kingdom is the sovereign reign of Christ in our lives. It does not happen in us until we heed his words and repent.
Several years ago, we purchased a new washing machine for our home. It was the most up-to-date model with all the whistles and bells. There was only one problem with the marvelous and expensive machine - the water did not flow into it freely. In fact, it hardly had any water in it at all at full cycle. When the repairman came to check it out, he said the problem was easy to fix and I could have done it myself. The hose connected to the faucet had a small filter much like a window screen. This had become filled with trash, preventing the water from flowing into the machine. When I cleaned it out, the water poured in and Carolyn was happy again.
Repentance is proclaimed by Jesus because the Kingdom of God is at hand. His Kingdom is God's sovereign reign in the human heart.
Repentance is a precondition to entering the Kingdom. The Kingdom is central in Jesus' teaching and preaching. Although it will come in its complete glory only in the future, it is already beginning to manifest itself in the events connected with Jesus' ministry. People can enter the Kingdom now through repentance - that's the offer. Israel had long dreamed of it. Jesus is saying that it is fast approaching and can be entered into ... the door is repentance. The conditions for entrance are no longer national or racial but purely moral and religious.
After 2,000 years, the message is the same: repent and receive the Kingdom. It is up to us. It is never forced nor coerced.
The famed English professor and writer C. S. Lewis describes this change in a unique way. It is like an unborn chick inside the egg. The chick is comfortable and unchallenged. The egg contains some nutrients for its sustenance, but they will soon be depleted. The chick must choose - stay in the egg and die or adventure out and live. The shell must be cracked from the inside and in so doing, it enters an entirely new world. This world, though new to the chick, is the world for which it is made. The choice to live or die is up to the chick.
Jesus presents that same opportunity to those who heard His first sermon, "Repent and follow Me." He also presents that to each of us. "Repent and follow Me." It's up to you.
Let us pray.
Eternal God, help us to be honest with ourselves and help us to be open to the Gospel and let us be clear in our decision-making, so that we too may have a new world and a new life. For we pray in the strong name of Christ our Lord. Amen.