Repentance Blessing Not Curse?
3rd Week of Lent 2010
March 7, 2010
Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 33:7–20
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 10:1–13
Holy Gospel: Luke 13:1–9
Grace, peace and mercy from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen!
A common message runs through all three readings this Sunday - “Repentance!” How appropriate. Lent is a season of repentance. It makes us to take a long hard look in the mirror of the Law. And when we do that, we have no choice but to acknowledge our sin and the eternal damnation we deserve. Whether we like it or not, whether we think we need it or not, the call of Lent is a call to repentance.
Repentance was foremost thing on Luther’s mind when he wrote the 95 theses. The first of them reads: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” He willed the entire life of the believers to be one of repentance.” Not just once, but every day. Dying daily to sin, flesh and the devil then rising in the newness of life in Jesus.
In the Greek language, the word “repent” carries the idea of changing one’s desires, one’s mind. To repent literally means to have a “change of heart.” In Baptism you are given a new “heart and a new spirit.” You receive the heart of Christ, and therefore the will of Christ which is now set against your flesh and its evil desires. St. Paul describes all that in Galatians 5:17 “For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you can not do the things that you ought to do”. That’s the paradox of living in repentance.
In Hebrew, the understanding of repentance is carried by the word “shuba” it means “turning” or “turning back.” To repent in is to turn, or better, to be turned, from sin to righteousness, from death to life, from self to God. And that too is a constant thing, as the life of Israelites demonstrates. Those who have been turned to the Lord constantly need to re-turn to the Lord who is their God.
Before we can properly heed this call to turn to the Lord, we need to be certain that the Lord to whom we turn to is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. What’s the point of returning if you are only going be beaten or rejected or condemned? Who would want to return to that? Would the prodigal son have returned from the pigpen if his father was going to beat him? That’s why the prophet Ezekiel declares just verses after our reading in verse 27, “As surely as I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:27)
This is the good and gracious will of God, He would have all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He is patient, not wishing any to perish but that all would come to repentance. Anyone who refuses to turn to the Lord does so entirely against the will of Him who is turning them. Unbelief is not simply passive apathy toward God; it is active rejection of the very will of God to save you.
Ezekiel speaks of two kinds of turning - one to life, the other to death. If a wicked man turns from his wickedness and walks in the way of life, he will live, Ezekiel says: “none of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him. He has done what is just and right; he shall surely live” (Ezekiel 33:16). This is the turning to life, to the love of God, to His mercy and to His undeserved kindness.
This is the type of turning that happens when we say, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a poor miserable sinner,” when we tell the truth about ourselves and our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. This is the repentance God works in us, killing us with the conviction of the Law that says, “You are a sinner, and you deserve eternal death and damnation.” And then He turns us away from the ugly reflection in the Law’s mirror, away from our selves and all the way to the cross (T). He turns us to see Jesus face, the crucified risen Lord glorified for you. Turn and look to Him (T). He is your righteousness; He does justice to your sins. Look to Him (T) and not to yourselves. (REPENT)
This is the return to Baptism, as Luther points out. “Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.” (Luther’s L.C. XIIIA.) And the good news is: Forgiven sins don’t get in the way. They are forgiven and forgotten.
Sin doesn’t damn you; unbelief does. (Did you get that?) Refusal of forgiveness, life, and salvation damns you. For that matter, works can’t save you from your sins. Ezekiel says: “The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness, and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins.” Our works of righteousness cannot save us, no matter how incredibly righteous they might seem. No one is justified for being good.
Now listen. Be careful here because the opposite is not true either. Ezekiel speaks of a turning to death: “When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it” (Ezekiel 3:20). While it is true that our righteousness cannot save us - only Christ’s righteousness does that – it’s not true that sin cannot harm us.
St. Paul had to contend with such thinking, which seems logical, although incorrect; a conclusion that abuses the freedom of God’s grace. “Shall we sin so that grace might abound,” Paul asked that rhetorically for he continues: “Of course not, by no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” That’s like a person who can’t swim being pulled from the pool and jumping right back in. Or like the person who has been rescued from a burning building only to head back into the fire.
There’s a difference between the certainty of salvation and the security of sinning. The certainty of salvation lies totally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was put to death for your transgressions and He was raised to life for your justification. Of that you can be certain. Just as certain as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns for all of eternity. As you fix the eyes of faith in Jesus, He is the beginning and ending of your faith and you can be certain of your salvation in Him (T). You are baptized, you have God’s personal Word of testimony that Jesus atoned for your sins and embraced you in His death. Your witness is HIM (T) and not of self. By what He (T) did, not what you did. That’s why you don’t every need to fear that you are saved.
But with that said, it should never be a source of sinful security. You are dead on the account of sin, but alive to God in Jesus. You have the mind of Jesus and His will, which is set against the desires of your flesh and all that you inherited from the old Adam.
The apostle Paul used an OT example Israel for the Corinthian congregation that was in danger of living in smug, spiritual security. They figured, “It doesn’t matter what they did with their bodies. We’re spiritual people. Food for the stomach, the stomach for food. What counts is us being spiritual.” Perhaps you’ve heard people talk like that today. And Paul says, “Don’t kid yourselves, the Israelites were all baptized into Moses in the Sea; they all communed at the same table, ate the same food, and drank the same spiritual drink (who, by the way, just happened to be Christ Himself). They were all good, churchgoing type of people. They had the sacraments. Even so God was not pleased with most of them, and they perished in the wilderness. They thought it didn’t matter. One day the Israelites had a little orgy around a certain golden calf, and they were dead wrong, 23,000 dead because of wrong.
It’s an example for us, Paul reminds us: if you think you’re standing tall and riding high in the saddle, watch out. You will be tempted, you will be tried, and you will be tested. It’s the way the baptized, the way of the cross. Jesus Himself was tempted after His baptism. You can never rest secure in yourself but you can be secure in your salvation in Jesus. That phrase “once saved always saved” works only if you add the words “in Jesus.” Once saved in Jesus, always saved in Jesus. But the gift of salvation, like any other gift, is rejectable.
Some people came to Jesus with the news of a terrible atrocity. Apparently, Pilate had killed some Galilean worshipers in the temple and mingled their blood with the sacrificial blood. “They desecrated the sacrament!” What did Jesus think? He doesn’t have much to say. But He did say, you can’t use it as a measure of their goodness or badness. Bad things happen to the good and bad alike. His response instead is, “Repent, lest you likewise perish.”
Like a poker player Jesus sees their political atrocity, and raises them a construction accident. He tells them that some tower in Siloam and eighteen were killed. What about that? Again, it’s no measure of their goodness or badness, contrary to what some TV preachers might have you believe. There’s no hard connection between sin and disaster. Much of it appears to be a draw of the cards. Those eighteen were standing at the wrong place at the wrong time; Jesus offers no explanation for why these things happen. The response to disaster whether natural or manmade, the hurricanes or tornadoes, the earthquakes or terrorists, tsunamis or collapsed buildings and all the other disasters that clog the nightly news should be the same: Repent, lest you likewise perish.
Some will say this: I can sin today and still repent tomorrow. But how do you know you have a tomorrow? And how do you know the Lord will grant you repentance tomorrow? (Repentance is, after all, the work of the Holy Spirit who works “where and when He pleases). That’s security of the flesh talking not certainty of faith talking.
Jesus told a little parable about a fruitless fig tree. The landowner had run out of patience and wanted to chop it down. But the gardener pleaded its mercy. ‘Let it be. Let it alone (aphiemi). One more year of digging, feeding, and watering, and if there’s still no fruit, then cut it down.
The parable was spoken against Israel, whose time of stewardship was quickly running out. Soon the nails would be driven through Jesus’ hands and feet, soon the cry would ring out over Jerusalem, “It is finished,” soon the curtain of the temple would be torn in two from top to bottom. But for now a moment of grace had been given before the storm of judgment. REPENT. Turn to the Lord who has turned His face to Jerusalem to save her, and save all!
Dear baptized believer you are a child of God. God has changed your mind to be conformed to the mind of Jesus. He has baptized you into a death that conquers your death. He has delivered you from the Law and its sentence. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And you are in Christ Jesus by God’s work of baptism, as surely as those people who walked through the Red Sea were in Israel. Your life is one of constant turning and returning, daily turning from self and sin and turning to Christ and His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. You can never be secure in your sin, nor should you ever want to be. That would be the path of death, but you’re on the path of life, the way of the justified. You are living in a season of gracious feeding and watering to be the fruitful trees that God created you to be. Created through Jesus Christ and His cross is your salvation. A salvation you can be certain of, because all your sins are forgiven for Jesus sake and in Jesus name, amen and amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, AMEN.