Friday, March 16, 2007

Sunday 11 March 2007 - Repentance and Forgiveness

This sermon was prepared for a pulpit swap with a local Anglican church. The texts are: Isaiah 55:1-13 and Luke 13:1-9


Luke 13:5 reads "...unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did." I think that you can imagine that this is not exactly the sort of Gospel reading that preacher wishes for when asked to be a guest preacher at a neighbouring church for the first time!

Our Old Testament reading for this morning is more like the kind of lesson that I wished for: "Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear and come to me; listen, so that you may live." (Isaiah 55:2b-3a)

So, had you been me, which text would you have chosen to preach on? What do you think that being a Christian disciple is all about? Is it about repentance? Is it about God's determination to bring each one of us into his kingdom? Or is it about both of these things?

Well, I guess you won't be surprised to hear that I think that Christian discipleship is about both of these things. Most importantly, to be a Christian is to accept and rejoice in God's determination to bring each of us into his Kingdom. But Christian discipleship is also about repentance. Repentance is an important tool in our partnership with God that helps us to grow in our Christian faith.

Unless you Repent

I'd like to address the Gospel reading first, because there are no two ways about it - this reading is calling for repentance and it's not a particularly comfortable reading.

First of all, I think that it's helpful to understand where this lesson is placed within the Gospel of Luke. Just before this particular passage, all sorts of people have been asking the question "When will the day of judgement come?" And Jesus has been saying "No one knows the day or the hour, so be prepared at all times." I think that in today's lesson the reader is also being warned that it is not just the end of time that we need to worry about but also about the end of our own time here on earth.

In this morning's passage, people seem to be asking Jesus whether tragic deaths are to be seen as the hand of God's judgement. There are places in the New Testament where Jesus clearly says that illness and tragedy are not signs of having been cursed by God. In this reading, however, Jesus doesn't answer the question directly but rather, he turns the question on its head.

Jesus says that the Galilean pilgrims didn't die because they were cursed by God. They died because of the wilful and evil act of Pilate. (This was a grotesque and ruthless act of mixing their own blood with that of their sacrifices in order to ensure that, under Jewish law, they would be seen as damned.) And Jesus says that the people killed by the fall of the tower of Siloam died in an unfortunate accident.

The big question that we are to focus on is not "Did these people die because they were sinners and had earned God's judgment?" The big question is rather "Did these people live their lives in an on-going attitude of repentance before they died?"

Come to the Waters

The Old Testament Reading is an altogether more encouraging passage. Prior to coming to Kidderminster, I served in a church in North London where 2/3rds of the congregation were African immigrants and 1/3rd were African-Caribbean immigrants. The choir of this church sang a Gospel song that I'd never heard before. The entire lyrics were comprised of 2 sentences and the song went like this: "All will be included in the feast of life! Good News!"

I'm not 100% sure, but I think that the lyrics for this song might have come from Isaiah 55, from this morning's Old Testament reading. If they didn't, they are nonetheless a good summary of the meaning of this passage.

This passage is an invitation to the feast of God's amazing banquet. And this is an invitation to everyone. It doesn't matter who you are. The covenant that God made with David has been extended to absolutely anyone regardless of nationality, status or any other characteristics that human beings use to define other people as being not quite acceptable to God. The good news is that all shall be included in the feast of life.

Isaiah is telling us that God's intention is that people be fed - and I think that means physically, emotionally and spiritually - and that joy and hope flourish. Here we see a God who is generous, joyful and open-handed. A God who wants every living being to enjoy life and live in peace and harmony with his creation.

Conflicting Ideas?

But how do we reconcile these two passages? In the Luke passage, there is an urgent call for individuals to repent before they perish. In the Isaiah passage, there is an open-handed invitation for anyone who desires to come and dine at God's feast. Aren't these two ideas contradictory?

Notice, though, that each of our readings contains echoes of the other.
Although the Luke passage makes an urgent call for repentance before it's too late, yet we are also given hope in the form of the parable of the fig tree which is offered one last chance to bear fruit. Although the Isaiah passage is an exuberant expression of God's open-handed offer of his Kingdom to all people, the passage also contains the instruction to "seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near."

Forgiveness and Repentance

I said earlier that to be a Christian is to accept and rejoice in God's determination to bring each of us into his Kingdom and to recognise that repentance is an important tool that helps us to grow in our partnership with God.

And I think that the order of these two statements is actually important: God's love and his forgiveness in reaching out to us come first. And our repentance comes second. Our repentance is a response to God's love and forgiveness, not vice versa.

"God forgives you. Therefore you are free to repent." God's forgiveness comes first and our repentance is a response to that.


Alan and Ray are father and son. Ray is grown up and is married with two teenage children of his own. Alan loves Ray and although they don't live very far apart, when it comes to keeping in contact with each other, Alan makes all the effort.

Then, one day, Ray asks his father to borrow a substantial sum of money. Ray's having a hard time meeting all his financial obligations. Teenage children, you know what it's like. They have to have the latest clothes and the latest computer gizmos. Not to mention the fact that Ray's oldest seems to have a hollow leg and can eat for England.

It's only a few months later when Alan learns the truth from his daughter-in-law, Ray's wife: Ray has a gambling problem, he's borrowed everything he possibly can on his credit cards, the couple can't make the payments and there is no way that Alan is going to get his money back.

Alan decides to confront Ray. Alan says: "I know about your gambling problem and your debt. I know you can't pay me back. I want you to know that I forgive you and I'm still your father and I want to help you kick your gambling habit." Ray might respond in one of two ways.

Ray can say: "Thank you. I don't deserve your forgiveness. It's such a relief to have everything out in the open. I could really use your support as I try to stop gambling." Or Ray could say: "Forgiveness! What do you mean, you forgive me! How dare you! I don't need your forgiveness and I don't need you or your pity!"

"God forgives you. Therefore you are free to repent." God's forgiveness comes first and our repentance is a response to that.

Come to the Banquet

In the book of Isaiah, the prophet calls to us: "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." Or, in the words of the Gospel song that my friends in North London sing: "All will be included in the feast of life! Good news!"

As far as God is concerned, we are all invited to his feast of life. Jew or Gentile, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. No matter who we are or what we have done, God is constantly inviting us to share in the banquet of his forgiveness. But in order to feast on God's forgiveness, we have turn in God's direction and walk toward that feast. In other words, repentance is necessary.

In a few minutes, we will share together in Holy Communion. We will come together as brothers and sisters united in the community of Christ. But we will also come to the table which Christ has prepared for us and to which he has invited us. We come in response to his invitation. It is my prayer that we will come with repentance and in the faith, hope and joy that God's forgiveness inspires.

1 comment:

Sally said...

Love the father and son story- thanks for posting this Pam.