Now, we repent a lot, not only in Lent but virtually every week when we confess our sin. But Lent is a time to think more deeply about repentance and to practice repentance more intentionally. And if that sounds a little depressing, we should remember that the invitation to repent as part of the good news that Jesus comes to proclaim.
At the simplest level, repentance is just apologizing to God.
So think about a time when someone owed you an apology. When someone does me wrong, I need to hear that apology before I can move forward. I need to know that the other person feels bad about whatever he has done, preferably really bad. The worse the person feels, the better because that somehow makes up for my anger or my hurt. It is like their pain balances out my pain.
When we talk about repentance, we sometimes seem to think that God is like that, that sin has hurt God somehow, that God cannot let it go until we show God how very sorry we are. And so we confess our sins, and we hope that we feel bad enough to make our confession effective, and we wish that we could feel worse.
If true, that would be depressing. But that is NOT the best way to think about repentance.
We tend to lead with our insecurities and our wounds. But not God. God is not an insecure, damaged human being who has trouble letting go of his anger or hurt.
As our gospel reading reminds us in probably the most famous line of the entire Bible, God leads with love. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The next line is less famous, but just as important. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
That is really good news. If God waited for us to make the first move after our sin, for us to turn back to God, for us to apologize for our sins and our failures, we would be out of luck, stuck in our sin and without hope.
The good news is, God loves us even in our sin. God forgives us in our sin. God saves us in our sin.
We do not repent to change God’s mind about us, to convince God to love us. God’s grace comes first. It is God’s grace and love and forgiveness that make our repentance possible in the first place, not the reverse.
Still repentance matters.
Sin is us turning our backs on the God who created us for love and intimacy with Him. Sin is self-destructive and self-defeating. One of my mentors used to say that sin is like us beating our heads against a wall. God tells us to stop sinning. But we refuse, and we keep beating our heads against that wall.
Repentance means recognizing that we are hurting our heads. Repentance means not beating our heads against the wall anymore. Repentance means turning around, facing God, acknowledging our sin and folly, and allowing God to bandage our injured head.
Repentance is not about feeling bad. Repentance is about letting go of our bad feelings, which turns out to be hard for most of us.
I recently read a book in which the author advises his readers to review our lives all the way back to childhood. He admits that the sins of childhood mostly seem pretty innocent by adult standards. But he points out that they may well have seemed major to us when we were children.
So I thought back, and I remembered a sin that has lingered with me.
I was seven or eight years old. My slightly older cousins were visiting. As a special treat, my parents allowed us to write on the walls of a room they were about to paint.
We all got to work. I drew a smiley face, and underneath it, I wrote “have a nice day.”
My cousin thought his sister had drawn the smiley face, so he began to tease her. She denied it. And I thought to myself, I should admit that I was the one who drew that smiley face. But clearly a smiley face wasn’t cool. I kept my mouth shut.
I have not thought about that incident very often in the last forty years. But I haven’t forgotten it either. For all those years, I have carried a little bit of shame about my cowardice that day.
Repentance is about confessing our sins and laying down our burdens. So last week, I called my cousins and told them that story. Of course, neither of them had any memory of it. I didn’t need to confess to them to earn their forgiveness about an incident they had long forgotten.
But confessing helped me. It felt good to tell them about this long-ago sin and to admit my shame. It felt good, because then I could let it go.
That is what repentance does for us. Repentance is not beating ourselves up. Repentance is not our effort to change God’s mind. Repentance is how we open ourselves up to the healing grace and mercy and love of God, a love that we already have and yet cannot experience because our sin gets in the way.
And so, week after week, we confess our sins. We repent. And we hear the words of absolution, the words of forgiveness in God’s name.
And then, at least in theory, it is done. The sin is behind us, and we can forget about it.
That is the theory. In fact, most of us have trouble trusting the good news of God’s forgiveness. We cannot quite bring ourselves to let go of our sense of guilt and failure, or our self-inflicted wounds.
For most of us, repentance is a process. But, this is important, repentance is a process of us opening up to God’s love, not a process of us persuading God to love us.
For some of us to experience the fullness of God’s forgiveness and love, the ritualized confession that we make each week is not enough. That is why, each Lent, we are invited to the special work of self-examination and repentance.
That invitation is a gift, and we should all take advantage of it. So spend time in prayer this week, reflecting on your sins, offering them up to God, and asking for God’s forgiveness and help and healing.
For some, that may still not be enough.
If sin continues to weigh heavily on you, you may want to make a formal, sacramental confession. We tend to associate sacramental confession with the Catholic Church, but we offer it too, and Lent is the best time for it.
Our slogan about confession is, “All may; some should; none must.” That is, “all may” make a sacramental confession, and I am available for that. “Some should” make a formal and sacramental confession because their consciences are heavy and they need extra help accepting God’s forgiveness and love. But, of course, “none must.”
The goal of Lent is to experience God’s healing love with a new power. Repentance, in whatever form we choose, is how we do that.
And so, on this second Sunday of Lent, I give thanks to God for the invitation to repent, to lay down our burdens, and to receive the healing love of Jesus Christ. In Christ’s name. Amen.