Reclaiming Repentance

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the child of God for whom we await!  Amen.

We all have moments that we’d like to take back.  “Do-overs,” one might say.  Things we’ve done, or things we’ve said that we wish we hadn’t…that we regret.

I remember being young…probably in 3rd or 4th grade, a bunch of us neighborhood kids were playing in the front yard, just goofing off when David Kinney rode his bike down the sidewalk past my house.  David and I were not friends…as a matter of fact, we didn’t get along at all…we were rivals…you know…in that 4th grade kind of way.

As he rode by, I remember that I felt my pent up irritation bubbling up.  I’m pretty sure I probably glared at him, again, in that 4th grade kind of way.  As he went past us, I remember that he turned, and he yelled something at me. To be honest, I have no clue what he yelled…something inappropriate I’m sure…I just know that he made me mad.  Really mad.  And I remember that my anger kind of boiled over, and that the switch in our brain that allows one to control their emotional reaction suddenly was moved to the “off” position.  I looked around, seeking retribution.

I reached down, and grabbed the baseball that was lying at my feet, and in my fit of anger, I aimed, and I hurled it as hard as I could.

Now normally, this would present no risk at actually doing any kind of damage.  He was 40 or 50 feet away, on a moving bike, and it’s a Buegler genetic trait, that we’re no good at any kind of throwing sports.  I played soccer as a child…for a reason.

I have this distinct memory that the instant the ball left my fingertips, I felt both shock and relief.  Shock, because “oh my gosh, did I really do that?”  As well as relief, because there’s no way I could hit him…My ball was already headed for a spot behind him…clearly a miss.

But then, something even more shocking happened.  For the first, and only time in my life, I threw a perfect curve ball.  I swear, I couldn’t duplicate it if I practiced for months.  The ball left my fingers…but as it flew, it arced…it curved…  And do you know how when something bad is happening, time seems to switch to slow motion?  Yep.  I could track the ball, arc its way straight towards David Kinney’s head.

Luckily, for both of us, as bad as I was at aiming, I also didn’t have much for velocity.  “Plink!” and the ball hit a glancing blow…but down he went.  And just for a moment, everything froze.  All my neighborhood friends were shocked that a) I’d done this, and that b) I’d hit him!  David Kinney immediately hopped up, shocked, angered and crying, and ran straight for his home.  I slowly went into the house to await the inevitable.  A few minutes later, the phone rang…my Mom answered it, and I was grounded.  Until I was 21.

But I remember the feeling: as soon as it happened; as soon as the ball left my hand, I wanted it back.  I wanted to reach out and somehow catch it.  I felt terrible.  I knew it was wrong.  I knew it was mean.  I knew I was in huge trouble.

Have you ever experienced moments like this?  Moments you wish you could relive, so you could make a different choice? Things you’ve done?  Things you’ve said?

Do you know what this is?  This, my friends, is repentance.

I’m guessing that the first thing that comes to most folks’ minds when they hear the word repentance is “apologize.”  To repent is to say you’re sorry, right?  Or better yet, that you’re really, really sorry and will never do it…whatever “it” is…again.  And we don’t like to think too much about repentance…because to acknowledge the need to repent means to admit to our guilt.  And the word repentance carries a lot of baggage.  It’s been used like a club too often, with one person telling another that they should repent.

But I think this idea of repentance is misunderstood.  To quote the famous philosopher, Inigo Montoya, “That word?  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Yes.  Repentance does connect with admitting our guilt.  That is a part of repentance but, honestly, a pretty small part.   And we need to reclaim this word, “repentance” from those who would use it like a club, because it’s not just about guilt.  The heart of the word repentance means turning around, starting over, taking another direction, and choosing another course. It is less about judging ourselves and others for what has been done wrong, and is more about choosing a new path that is right, and important and necessary.

Repentance was a part of my experience with throwing the curve ball not because I apologized (though Mom did make sure I apologized!) but because when it happened, even in 4th grade, I suddenly understood that when anger is unchecked, there can be terrible consequences.  It’s a lesson I still carry with me to this day.

Repentance also underscores that change isn’t necessary for change’s sake.  Rather, change is necessary because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all God’s people and for the whole of creation.

Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, and that you’ve been traveling another way, and then changing course towards where God is pointing.

And as much as we don’t like admitting our guilt…our brokenness, being reminded that we’re heading in the wrong direction, and being told to change course?  We tend to resist that.

Anglican Priest, Nicky Gumbel tells us of a man “who sent a check to the IRS for back taxes with a note attached that said:   ‘I felt so guilty for cheating on my taxes I had to send you this check. If I don’t feel any better, I’ll send you the rest.’”

Change is hard.  Turning our lives in a new direction is complicated.  We are creatures of habit.

There are so many things I could repent of, that we as a community and nation could repent of, that even we as a species could and should repent of.

  • Poverty and food scarcity.
  • Pollution and climate change.
  • Racial injustice.
  • The lack of clean water.
  • Overflowing prisons.
  • The divorce rate.
  • The number of children living below the poverty level.
  • Crime and violence.
  • And the list goes on.

Which means it’s not long before it’s mighty tempting to give up on the whole repentance thing, and just hunker down with friends and binge on Netflix.

But John the Baptist is making it quite clear that this is not the life we are called to.  We are called to repent…to turn away from our own paths and to figure out what God is calling us to, and to move in that direction.

John says:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  This Jesus is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.  So

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

John the baptism is reminding us that in this season of Advent, we are called to turn…to turn towards the cradle.  The cradle is the place where Jesus will be born.  The cradle is the place where the light of God, the light in the darkness is first sparked.  And it is the place where we find our peace.

And it is time.  This Advent.  It is time.  Author Madeline L’Engle writes that “God did not wait till the world was ready…God did not wait for the perfect time…God came when the need was deep and great.”

We live in a world where the need is deep, and it is great.  And today, John the Baptist speaks to us:

  • Repent
  • Turn toward God
  • Align yourselves with God’s will
  • Feed the hungry
  • Welcome the refugee and the stranger
  • Tend the sick
  • Stand up for those who are marginalized or oppressed

John the Baptist reminds us to do what is right.

And he reminds us that we do this because Jesus is coming.  Born in the cradle, he comes to first align our paths with God’s, and to make those paths straight. Together.  Aligned.  And Jesus’ path will take him from the cradle to the mountain; from the mountain to the valley; from the valley to the cross, and from the cross to the empty tomb.  And he does this, for each of you.

And so we repent.  We turn and follow. We turn towards God, and we align our path with the path of Jesus, who turned first towards us.

Here is my word of encouragement for you today:  Repent.  Begin this turn.  And do it one step at a time:  Choose one, just one, element of your life of which you would like to repent; that is, change direction, and choose this Advent season as a time to do that.

  • Is there an unhealthy relationship you want to repair or address?
  • Can you imagine using your time differently and toward better ends?
  • Is there some practice or habit you might take up that would produce more abundant life for you or those around you?
  • Is there a need around you that you can meet?

We all need to ask ourselves these questions, myself included.

I’ve been thinking and praying about this.  And I have my “thing” I’m going to change:  I feel like God is calling me to be more direct.  There are issues…problems in the world that our faith can speak to.  Issues of poverty, issues of deep need, issues of justice, issues that separate God’s people from each other.  My commitment this Advent is to speak to these issues more freely; to remind us that we have a role in God’s mission.  It may not always feel comfortable to hear, but I really believe it is God’s call.  And it’s my commitment.

What will be your commitment to align your path with God’s?  Because John the Baptist is quite clear:

“Repent…turn towards God, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Jesus is coming!  Prepare his way, make his paths straight.’

Let us repent, and turn towards the cradle that will be the birthplace of light, peace and love.

Thanks be to God!



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