The Grace of Repentance

Repentance, not our resume, is the basis of faith.

Anthony Robinson / 12.9.22

Some years ago the poet, Robert Bly, wrote a book about men that he titled Iron John. Just as men were being asked to more sensitive and soft around the edges, Bly wrote of the undomesticated “hairy man.” John the Baptist was his kind of guy.  But he may not be our kind of guy, particularly now, as we enter what we some call, “the happiest time of the year.” What’s with John and his message of “repentance” just now? Believe me, many preachers — me included — have asked that same question.

Just a few precious days before Christmas, we’re ready for eggnog lattes and cookies while John comes crunching locusts with a dab of wild honey. We’re pulling out the clothes that sparkle and shine, John’s raiment is a coat of matted camel’s hair with eau d’camel. We’re ready to gather in the soft light of the manger, he calls us to detour into the sparse, howling wilderness.

Is there a place for John in this time of Advent?

Garrison Keillor, the bard of Lake Wobegone, once wrote, “I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my time. Most of them made me want to get up and walk out. They were psychological, self-help. Nothing hard. At some point, in some way, the preacher has to direct a congregation to the cross of Christ, to God’s persistent effort to get our attention.” John gives us “something hard.” Something direct and unyielding.

I wonder if “counter-intuitively” (as we might say today) that was why people went out to see John in the wilderness? And come they did. In droves, they came out from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness where John was knee-deep in the muddy Jordan River crying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Can repentance be good news? Can it be a word of grace? Repentance, we often think, means saying “I’m sorry.” Or maybe we’ve been told it means feeling really, really bad about ourselves. Biblically it means doing a U-turn, a 180. “Turn around” John says. Repent. Stop, for heaven’s sake, taking yourself so doggone seriously. The heavens are telling the glory of God. As the Advent carol has it, “People, Look East.”

If John had only thundered, “Repent,” it might have effected some short term resolve, sort of like making New Year’s resolutions. Clean up your act, try harder, lose weight, be a nicer person. But it would just as quickly have faded away.

It would have been what Desmond Tutu called, “a religion of virtue.” Do this, do that, be better, go faster, strive harder. If you are truly virtuous, then God will love you. Another word for this conditionality is law. The law, whether it is religious or secular, cannot save you.

The world often turns Christmas into more law. Full of should’s and must’s. Remember the song,

You better watch out, you better not cry
You better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town …

Adults hear the same message. If you get the perfect gift, then you will be loved.” That’s law, not grace.

There are two fundamental orientations that are at war with one another in our world and in our hearts. One is law, what you must do in order to get God to take your side, to show you are on God’s side. The second is grace. By grace God says, “I have taken your side and I will never leave it. Really! I love you, (though not in a sentimental way. In a way that is costly). Trust this and live.”

As stern as were John’s word and presence, his call to repentance is not a demand to “clean up your act,” and “be all you can be,” it was an invitation to turn to the God who has already turned to you. It is an invitation to confess not just our failures, but our need for God and for God’s mercy. It is an invitation to say what is perhaps one of the very hardest things to say — especially for us men. “I need help.” “I can’t do this anymore.” “I can’t do this by myself, on my own. I need you, Lord.”

Because John didn’t only say “repent,” he said something more. “For the Kingdom of God is at hand,” and “There is One coming who is greater than I. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit — God’s living and redeeming presence — and with fire. The fire of grace, which does judge but not to destroy, but to refine. God’s judgment burns away the chaff that clings to our souls and makes us new.

A hard word can be a healing word. There can be grace in repentance. Some in the wilderness, heard a harsh word of condemnation — “You brood of vipers.” Why? Because they felt they were above reproach. They had no need of repentance. They were children of Abraham, they said. And so these good people thought themselves better than others. Or as some might say today, “We are life-long members of this church — who do you think you are? We have the correct view on all important matters, and by the way, we are gluten-free and recycle all our plastic.”

“You brood of vipers,” said John. “Do not tell me you have Abraham for your father. God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.”

Repentance, not our resume, is the basis of faith. “I need you, Lord.” Or as they say in AA, “There is a God, (insert your name here), and it’s not you.” What a relief! There really is a “bridge over troubled waters.” It wasn’t the religious professionals who went out to John, but the illiterate crowds with no resume to speak of. Grace always seems to find those at the bottom.

***

In 1990 I became the twentieth Senior Minister of Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle. It is what we in the trade call “a tall steeple church.” Translation: large membership, prestigious, full of movers and shakers. And it was a congregation that did do a lot of good in the world and in the City of Seattle in particular.

As Lent rolled around in my first year there I suggested we do something that the church did not ordinarily do, in fact had never done — that is, have an Ash Wednesday service.

The Worship Board wasn’t sure. “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” said one board member skeptically. “Well, no,” I said, “it’s a Christian thing.” At some point, a Board member had a suggestion. “Listen, that wonderful tenor in our choir, the African-American man, Dr. Browne, has just released a new album of African-American spirituals.”

“Let’s ask him to do a concert.” “You can have your Ash Wednesday service, but keep it short, and then we’ll have Dr. Browne give a concert of spirituals.” So that was the plan.

Ash Wednesday morning we opened the Seattle Times to find the front page of the Arts and Entertainment section was devoted, in it’s entirety — full page — to Dr. Browne, and highlighting his free concert that evening at the Plymouth Church.

When I approached the pulpit that evening for the Ash Wednesday service it wasn’t what I expected, which was that we might have 30 stalwarts of the congregation there to support the new minister. Instead, the sanctuary held ten times that many, at least 300 people, most of whom I had never laid eyes on in my life.

I panicked. Oh Lord, I thought, what will people who’ve come to hear a concert make of Ash Wednesday with it’s never-ending confession of our manifold sins and the bizarre business of ashes in the sign of the cross smeared on foreheads? I delivered my homily, sweating literally and figuratively. Then the two associate ministers and I prepared for the anointing with ashes. We came down from the chancel to the floor of the nave where people sat staring at us.

We invited those who wished to receive the imposition of ashes, signifying mortality and penitence, to come forward. I really thought that all 300 would just sit there and look stonily ahead. As if we’d pulled some kind of bait-and-switch. “Concert? No, ashes!”

Imagine my surprise, my astonishment, when all three hundred, or so it seemed, surged forward. Not only did they come. They came, at least some, trembling. Others with tears in their eyes. Something was happening. There was longing on their faces, in their eyes.

We had decided beforehand that rather than saying “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, remember that you are mortal,” as we made the sign of the cross with ashes on people’s foreheads, we would use the alternative words, “Turn away from your sins and believe the good news of the Gospel.” Pretty much what John said, not just repent, but a promise … “Believe, trust, the good news.”

Meanwhile, members of the church’s Music Committee manned the now closed doors of the Sanctuary, holding back those who had come only for the following concert. There, as I later heard, this exchange occurred. “What’s going on in there?” called out a person in the waiting crowd, a note of suspicion in his voice. Our man at the door said, “Ash Wednesday … something to do with ashes, our new minister is into religious effects.” I would have called them “the rituals and sacraments of the church, but hey …”

Later that week, on Friday evening, Linda and I went out for dinner in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, an edgier part of town, lots of leather and chains and hair in all sorts of colors and cuts. We were walking on Broadway. The sidewalk was packed with people.

Suddenly, a young woman planted herself squarely in front of me. “You’re the minister at that church downtown, right?” Swear to God, if Linda hadn’t been with me, I would have lied. “Nope, sorry, you must be mistaken. Have a nice night.” But, as Linda was with me, I said, “Uh, yeah …”

The young woman with tattoos spiraling up both arms and a stud in her nose said to my surprise, “I was at your church the other night. That thing you did with ashes. Great. And the words you said, perfect. I’m coming back. See you Sunday.”

Reflecting back on those accidental coincidences of grace, it’s a wonder how strange God really is. He’s a God who is able to raise up children of Abraham from stones, able to take my stony heart and use me to preach the Gospel. John preached repentance for a kingdom that is a hand, a kingdom of grace that does not destroy, but refines and heals the proud and the desperate alike.


Anthony Robinson is a pastor, theologian, and author of Transforming Congregational Culture and What’s Theology Got To Do With It: Convictions, Vitality and the Church.

subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter

COMMENTS


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *