‘Repent’, said John the Baptist in the wilderness.
‘Repent’, said Jesus at the start of his ministry.
My Dad, a sixth form chemistry teacher, once had a very puzzled student come and ask…”Mr Whilde – why have you written ‘repent’ on my work?” Now my Dad has awful handwriting…what he actually wrote on the work was ‘repeat’. The work was so awful he couldn’t be bothered to write anything else.
It’s become a family joke – but it is perhaps a good picture for how we often understand that word ‘repent’. We imagine God saying “your life is so awful I can’t be bothered with you until you change.” Saying…if you repent, then the kingdom of heaven will be open to you. Saying…look to yourself first before you are ready to come to me.
But when the equivalent passage in Matthew’s gospel came up in our Pilgrim session last week – I noticed that Jesus doesn’t just say “Repent”, or even “Repent because your life’s bad”…but “repent for the kingdom of God has come near”.
I suggested last week that Advent might be a time to examine not ourselves, but God – and the difference this makes in how we might hear Christ’s call to repent has been with me this week.
We often understand ‘repentance’ as turning around lives that are going in the wrong direction – in Advent we might think of turning from darkness to light. But do we focus first on the darkness of our lives or on the light of God?
Maybe it’s just me – but I’ve found focusing first on myself rather than on God can result in me swinging between two extremes. Looking at my own life, with only the world to compare it with…it’s easy to deceive myself. I know I don’t get up in the morning intending to do wrong. I know there are people who behave far worse than me.
If someone criticises me, I can get defensive, make excuses, persuade myself that what happened was someone else’s fault as much as mine…end up feeling not that I need to repent – but rather self-righteous.
But then, because deep down I know I’m far from perfect, I decide everything must be my fault, I wallow in guilt… feel there’s not much point in repenting as I’ll just do the same again.
That may be only me…but I do think there’s a danger that the act of repentance at the start of each Eucharist becomes just saying sorry for things we’re almost certain we’ll do again next week. If we focus first on us rather than God – we can be left where we are.
But Jesus said, “Repent – for the Kingdom of God has come near”…God, in Christ approaches us – to help us repent. What if I look first towards the light of Christ this Advent – at God first, rather than myself?
For me this difference became real through the story of the Prodigal Son.
A book I was reading suggested imagining myself as the prodigal son – living through the story. It was a powerful experience – and this is how it looked from the inside…
The Son has what seems a completely sensible idea – he should have the wealth he will inherit from his father while he is still young enough to enjoy it. Focused on the world, he has only the world to compare himself with – and sees nothing wrong with his life.
Even when the money runs out and his friends desert him – he sees himself as victim, rather than sinner. At his lowest point, reduced to eating pig food, he realises how much better off even his Father’s servants are. So, he carefully composes a speech to his Father about how he has wronged him, how he isn’t worthy to be a son anymore…and sets off home to deliver it.
Living through the story, I could feel no repentance in the son, he was just hungry! His speech is what he thinks his Father wants to hear.
But as he approaches he sees his Father waiting for him in the road with arms open to embrace. He realises the Father has been there every day…waiting. Faced with such love and forgiveness, the son can see how he needs to turn his life around and the apology, the repentance, suddenly become real.
Advent seems a good time to think of repentance as looking first at the light of Christ, as turning to that light. We still have to look at our own lives – but doing that in the light of Christ means we can’t hide our sin, our need for repentance…but also that we know we are forgiven and offered an alternative, a pattern to follow.
Christ’s light shows us how life should be; through him we know that the Father is always waiting with open arms. Although we know we will continue to fail – repentance becomes less about dwelling on our failings, on saying sorry in the knowledge we’ll probably do the same again – and more about trying each day to walk a little more in the light.
That experience with the prodigal son didn’t suddenly make repentance simple, but I think…I hope…looking first at God before I look at my own life has made me a little more forgiving, a little more loving, a little more self-aware…just a little more Christ-like.
And so I pray…heavenly Father, when your son comes he brings to light the things now hidden in darkness, and discloses the purposes of our hearts. This Advent may we look for his coming light, repent of our sins, and walk with him in newness of life. Amen.