“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news”. Mark 1:15
At a service I recently attended, the congregation were singing the hymn, “We turn to Christ anew”, and there was one of those moments when you realize that people are really not paying attention to the words. The first verse of the hymn says, “We turn to Christ anew who hear his call today, his way to walk, his will pursue, his word obey”. If it hadn’t been a formal gathering, there might have been the temptation to say, “stop, stop, stop” and to have asked if any of us really took the words seriously. There are five verbs in that verse, each of them about following Jesus, but when we sing them, do we hear what we are saying?
Over four evenings, we are going to begin by looking at “turn”, and then “hear” and “walk and pursue”, before concluding with “obey”.
What do we mean when we say, “we turn to Christ anew”? A friend who belongs to an evangelical church says one of the weaknesses in his church is that there is preaching every Sunday on making a commitment to Christ, but very little on growing in that commitment. He believes there needs to be more emphasis on renewing commitment. If it is a weakness in his church, it is every bit as much a weakness in our own.
In the Church of Ireland, we tend to think that if we are baptized and confirmed and attend church on a Sunday, then we have done all that is necessary. How many church members feel the need to turn to Christ, to renew our commitment, on a regular basis?
To turn to God, not just once, but in an ongoing way. is the Biblical way, it is essential to our relationship with God. In the Old Testament, one of the three Hebrew words for repentance is “shuv” meaning “to return”. Repentance is not just a form of words, it is something that prompts people us to change our behaviour, to turn from our own ways and to go God’s ways.
When we looked at the book of Judges, we saw a pattern of history repeated through the following centuries. People repeatedly turned their backs on God and on his Law, which led to them suffering judgment, which then prompted them to repent of their wrongdoing, which brings forgiveness from God. This pattern continues through the time of the kings — a cycle of sin, downfall, repentance, and restoration.
Time and again people fail God and time and again he forgives them when they turn to him. It is not just about individuals, it is the whole people who fail and who need to repent: God promises that the whole nation will be changed. In the Second Book of Chronicles Chapter 7 Verse 14, God says, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
When we read the prophets, the need to turn is a common theme, it was a turning that was about feeling sorrow and changing one’s life and not just about taking part in prayers.
The prophet Joel understood how readily people would repent in their words, but not in their hearts. “Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing”, says the Lord in Joel Chapter 2 Verses 12-13. In Joel’s time, tearing one’s clothes was seen as an outward sign of penitence, yet the rending of garments was no more a sign of a changed person in his time than reciting words is in our time. Joel looked for a profound inner change. Turning to God was something required not just of individuals, but of communities and even of whole countries.
In the New Testament, we see Jesus beginning his public ministry with his baptism by John. Jewish people who used baptism as a sign of washing away their past and beginning anew; it was a sign of repentance, of a desire to get rid of the impurities of one’s former life and begin anew. The people who went to the Jordan to be baptized by John went for a baptism of penitence.
Baptism was not something undertaken once and for all, but rather was one that might be repeated if the penitent person felt it was necessary, but even that baptism was sought by those who didn’t really want to turn to God. John the Baptist expressed anger at those who come seeking baptism, but had not changed in their hearts or their lives. In Saint Matthew Chapter 3 Verses 7-8, John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees that turning should bring visible change, that it should be clear in their lives, he says to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”.
The word John the Baptist uses there for “repentance” is the Greek word μετάνοια (metanoia) is a word used by Jesus himself in Saint Mark Chapter 1 Verse 15. Jesus declares, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Literally, “metanoia” means “after one’s mind”; having thought, or said, or done something wrong, one thinks back on it and says “sorry”.
Saint Paul writes of the power of such repentance in the Second Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 7 Verse 10, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret”. Paul’s words suggest that penitence progresses in stages: there is the godly grief, the feeling of sorrow, the hurt caused by thinking about what one has done wrong; which leads to the repentance, the turning away from the former ways and the returning to God; which lead to salvation, an assurance that sins have been given and that one has re-established a right relationship with God. Such repentance brings “no regret”, says Paul.
Turning to God was at the heart of the history of Israel, and, had we learned from Saint Paul, we would have understood that turning to Christ needs to be at the heart of the life of any nation. Unless there is an expression of sorrow and a genuine change, there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there is no reconciliation, and without reconciliation, resentment and bitterness are allowed to fester; the clear conscience and the mood of no regret of which Paul writes cannot be found. If there had been a real acceptance of Paul’s words in the politics of our nation, then the pictures we see on the television news might have been very different.
The greatest difficulty with penitence is that it is always easy to see the need of someone else for it, but not so easy to see our own need. It is a difficulty Jesus identifies in Saint Matthew Chapter 7 Verse 3, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?”
We are called to rend our hearts, to turn around, to head in a new direction. “Return to me with all your heart” is God’s call through the prophet Joel. Returning to him with all our hearts means seriously looking at what divides us from God, and what divides us from others, and being wholeheartedly determined to remove whatever it is that blocks the way.
We turn to Christ anew – and anew – and anew – because that is what is needed.