Friday, November 25, 2005


Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord... Acts 3:19 (NIV)

Repentance is a term some of us have difficulty coming to terms with. There’s a tendency to think of it either as a synonym for guilt-trip, a wallowing in the past, endlessly replaying in our minds the things we’ve done wrong, unable ever to forgive ourselves, or else an unhealthy scrupulousness, figuratively or literally (medieval penitents with knotted cords and hair shirts?) beating oneself up, often over things no normal person would take any notice of...

We associate repentance with long faces, miserable expressions, a hollow, churchy voice. We unconsciously imagine those given to much repentance to be either hypocrites or sick – quite possibly both! In the age we’ve all grown up in, or into(!), we’ve unconsciously taken on board Frank Sinatra’s lyrics (well, actually Paul Anka wrote them, but it’s Ol’ Blue Eyes we remember) where nearly at the end of the song he sings, just before the break, “For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!” To kneel, to admit that we’re wrong, makes us less than a man, somehow – or a woman, I guess... makes us, in fact, pathetic.

Of course, suffering can in itself be redemptive, but search the Scriptures as I may, I can’t find any examples of deliberately self-inflicted suffering being redemptive. Paul, James and Peter may teach that one should rejoice in one’s sufferings, but only because they produce good things, and only in sufferings, persecution for example, inflicted from outside...

And yet in Peter’s second recorded sermon, where he stood up and addressed the people in Solomon’s Colonnade, after he and John had healed the beggar crippled from birth, he said, “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord...” “Times of refreshing...” Doesn’t sound too miserable, does it? Doesn’t sound much like hair shirts...

So what is this word, anyway? The Greek is interesting – sorry for all this Greek stuff, but really, this is a whole new way of understanding the word, a way of undercutting all our prejudices and assumptions, a way of seeing what Peter would have meant, and what his listeners would have understood. The word is metanoeo – literally, to think differently afterwards. After what? After our sinful life. Not just after individual sins – naughty thoughts or actions – but after living for ourselves and not for God, that whole way of life that began in the Garden when the serpent said to Eve, “You will be like God...”

As such, repentance is something God calls us into, by his Holy Spirit – directly, through Scripture, or through the words of another Christian, as Nathan called David to repent after his affair with Bathsheba and it s tragic consequences. It comes by God’s mercy, and it is an operation of grace. The call to repentance is, ultimately, what Jesus calls us to, what he’s getting at when he says, in Matthew 9:13, “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)

Repentance is not just saying sorry for some sin or another, still less trying to make amends for that sin by causing oneself emotional or physical pain. Repentance is a way of life. Not a way of life that involves going around in a hair shirt, looking miserable enough to curdle milk, but a way of life characterised by our sins being wiped out, not brooded over, and by those enticing “times of refreshing”!

Repentance is freedom.

Repentance is lightness of heart.

Repentance is joy and clarity and sanity.

Repentance is turning to God in the freshness of the morning.

Repentance is early morning dew on spring grass, larch flowers in the misty woodland.

It is our sad, sweaty, self-obsessed sin-lives that are the miserable thing, scratching in the mud for worms when all the glory of the morning sky is spread out above us. That’s pathetic, if you like.

Repentance is lifting our gaze from that mud, and looking instead into the clearest light of dawn, where “...for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” (Malachi 4:2 NIV)

H’mm, perhaps I shouldn’t get so carried away, but after the last fortnight or so – which has been one of those pastoral high spots we all hope won’t come too often, if at all – I need something to remind me of what this craziness is all about!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Tomorrow is Remembrance Sunday, when we meet to remember before God all those who gave their lives in war that we might know peace.

We remember especially the dead of the two Word Wars – but we must never forget those who died in countless smaller conflicts, some of which are all but forgotten by any but those who served, or who lost relatives: Aden, Radfan, Suez, The Falklands, Northern Ireland, Omar Dhofar, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, two Gulf Wars... the list goes on...

“Blessed are the poor in spirit...” (Matthew 5 - the Beatitudes)

But who are the poor in spirit?

If you know your OT you will know how often God’s people, people after God’s own heart, are called “the poor”: “Yet I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and my deliverer; O my God, do not delay.” (Psalm 40:17 NIV) – “The poor and needy search for water, but there is none; their tongues are parched with thirst. But I the Lord will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” ( Isaiah 41:17 NIV) In Hebrew they are the anawim, the ones with nothing...

Clearly God is talking about the economically poor here – and that’s not inappropriate: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5 NIV) God plainly has a soft spot for the hard up, and we’d better not forget that when we pull up in our new car alongside some tatty old heap, and are tempted to give them one of those Clarkson looks...

But not just the economically poor... there are those like the poor in Isaiah 61 (the Hebrew is 'anaw – the same root as anawim – that Jesus famously came to preach the good news to, and the ones in Rev 3:8, whom God knows have little strength, but who have kept his word, and have not denied his name.

We have to know we are poor, that “before God we are void of everything” (JFB). If we don’t, our hands can’t be open to the riches Jesus wants to pour into them – if we do, then we are in the fitting state for receiving all spiritual supplies... like the people Jesus met who were at the ends of their tethers – Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46ff), the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3ff), the tax collector who became a Gospel writer...

So the poor in spirit are those who know they have nothing ultimately worth having, nothing they can “take with them when they go” as the saying goes. And it is the economically poor who are so often open to know that – those of us who are more comfortably off all too often cover over our emptiness with good food, good wine and good times, not to mention “cool stuff”! (I have a weakness for cool stuff myself – usually it’s either musical or electronic – ideally, both!)

But what about those who have lost what made life worth living for due to the cruel hand of war? The just-married lads who walk on a landmine (you know the main explosive force, and the spread of shrapnel, is directly upwards?), those blinded, with no hands, the mysterious Gulf War syndrome sufferers, who have to live with not being believed, on top of their debilitating condition? The wives without husbands, sisters without brothers, fathers without sons... Some live out lives of unrelenting bitterness and anger, some lose their minds, some lapse into despair... but some realise themselves as Biblically poor, the ones who have given all they had, lost all they’d longed for, laid down their lives for their friends...

When we sign up, or are called up, to serve our country in wartime, we lose the freedom to decide our own lifestyle. We are no longer “masters of our fate, captains of our souls...” to misquote William E Henley. We are men or women under authority, frail in the face of fate we cannot master... and our only strength lies in our ability to do our duty, to obey other captains entirely... we are suddenly anawim... and God is with us, if only we will know it.

So today let us remember all the poor, all the anawim – yes, especially those who gave their lives in war that we might know peace – but also all those who have nothing, those Jesus said he had come for, when he unrolled the scroll to Isaiah 61 and read:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendour.

Isaiah 61:1-3 (NIV)

Don’t let us ever forget the poor, whether poor in economic fact or poor in spirit – or both – and never ever let us forget that they, not the fortunate successful, are the ones God will call his “oaks of righteousness”. God knows their deeds. He has placed before them a door that no-one can shut (Rev. 3:8). It is through them he will display his splendour – it was on Jesus at his poorest, as he hung on the Cross, that God’s glory fell – and still falls today.