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!