Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9
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During the season of Lent we rightly focus on repentance and the call for us to confess our sins and such. It is a season of prayer and fasting, a season where we can assess our lives of faith and discipleship, determine where we are lacking and areas where we need to grow – on Ash Wednesday we are encouraged to observe a holy lent, by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving and meditating on the word of God.
Repentance often gets a pretty bad rap in our world today, and the reality is the church is partly at fault: the loudest examples of calls to repentance are often the preachers that preach fire and brimstone – turn or burn. All too often the loudest voices and the caricatures of repentance are those which emphasize fear of eternal damnation.
If you’ve ever walked by Yonge and Dundas Square or even on some summer nights at our own corner of Kennedy and Eglinton you’ve likely heard some preacher calling for those passing by to repent of their sins if they don’t want to experience eternal damnation.
At the root of these calls to repentance is fear. The message is clearly designed to convey a sense of urgency. Repent, if you don’t want to experience eternal torment; repent if you don’t want to feel the searing flames of hell; repent if you don’t want to experience life in the darkness for eternity. There is an urgency about the unrepentant sinner’s state but also an urgency on the timing of God’s ultimate return, the warning is always imminent.
In our Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus seems to uncharacteristically (at least for how we want to think of him) use this sort of tactic as well – he rebukes the self-righteousness of the crowd who think they are better than the people who died at Pilate’s hands tells them ‘unless you repent, you will perish as they did!’
There is an immediate urgency, repent so that you might not experience the same fate as them. A little harsh, but perhaps what his hearers who were so wrapped up in their own self-righteousness needed to hear to snap them to attention and into the lives that Jesus was calling them too.
Fortunately, for us this isn’t the only or even the most pervasive understanding of repentance in our Scriptures. Vincent Donavan, the great Catholic Missionary to the Masai people of Tanzania (whose book Christianity Rediscovered we will read in the parish later this year) suggests that
‘If you study the apostolic approach [to sharing the Gospel] very closely, you will see that something is missing. Sin is missing. There is no mention of original sin or any kind of sin. Sin will come later, after Christ, after getting to know Christ, in relation to Christ, but sin portrayed by the first preachers of the Christian Gospel is forgiven sin, something entirely different. After all, isn’t that the only kind of sin there is in the world, forgiven sin?… The job of a missionary, after all, is not to teach sin, but rather the forgiveness of sin.’ ~ Christianity Rediscovered, by Vincent Donavan (pg. 47)
Repentance comes after grace. Repentance comes after we have come to know we are forgiven, after we have received the mercy and love of God – not before.
It is only when God’s grace is extended to us that we can even acknowledge our sin, our sin which has been forgiven by God in the person and work of Jesus. This is the predominant type of repentance we see throughout our scriptures. Repent and live, rather than repent or die. This is the second kind of repentance that we get a glimpse of in our reading from Isaiah this morning.
The prophecy in our passage from Isaiah was directed to the people of Israel who had been in exile for almost 70, they had experienced the consequences of their sin and disobedience, they had experienced the judgement of God – and so these words would have seemed a dream.
‘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. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? 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. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.” ~ Isaiah 55:1-3
The primary word in Isaiah’s call to repentance is ‘Come’ – which he repeats 5 times. He doesn’t call Israel to turn away, to reverse course, rather God in the prophet’s words is inviting the people, inviting them into a life that is completely different than the one they know.
The images that Isaiah uses to point to God, are of our basic human needs – food and drink. Isaiah tells us that God is like your most basic human need, he is our water, he is our bread. Jesus had a thing or two to say about that – he does tell us he is the living water and bread of heaven!
But God isn’t just the enough to subsist on, he doesn’t extend a life of just enough – he is described by Isaiah as the most luscious banquet, of milk and wine not just water, of rich food not merely the bread we need to survive.
And where could you get food and water at no cost? Certainly not in the world we know and live in. Where else could you get the richest milk, the richest wine and the richest food for no money? Only in God’s Kingdom.
God’s invitation to repent comes with the promise of abundant life, it comes with the promise of life which is full of God’s love and mercy, full of his grace and full of his very life.
Repent and live.
Even here though there is an urgency. An urgency not based on fear of punishment, but an urgency so that we don’t miss out on the abundant and eternal life that God has prepared for us in Jesus.
Isaiah tells his listeners to “Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.” ~ Isaiah 55:6-7
Theologian Stan Mast writes “A God-ward focus doesn’t make this call to repentance any less urgent or serious. It is still a life and death matter. Verse 6 underlines the importance of this turn with those mysterious words, “while he may found” and “while he is near.” Does that imply that there may be a time (soon?) when the Lord will not be available, when he withdraws his offer of grace, when it is too late to repent?”
There is no easy answer to that question, but the reality it shouldn’t matter. Repentance is a life and death matter now – whether it is Jesus’ shocking rebuke to repent or die, or Isaiah’s more soothing call to repent and live – we are faced with the choice to orient our lives to God now or not.
Repentance means turning our thinking, our actions, our whole selves towards God and towards the life he has promised us and won for us in Jesus: by his incarnation, by his death and by his resurrection.
If we choose not to repent, then we live a life, in the here and now, marked by the death and decay of sin, we live a life marked by the brokenness and darkness of the world – because we choose not to accept the forgiveness of God, we choose to go our own way because we know better.
But if we choose to repent, then we live life, in the here and now, that is shaped by the very life of God; if we repent then we have life marked by healing and liberating power of the Holy Spirit; if we repent, we have a life filled with the love and grace of God now and forever – because we choose to live into the forgiveness of God, we choose God’s way over our own way.
There are times in our life where we need to hear God’s sharp rebuke of our sinfulness: those times where we believe we are more righteous than everyone else, those times when we condemn others and judge them less worthy of God’s love and grace. That’s when you or I need to hear Jesus say to us ‘Unless you repent, you will perish!’
But there are also times in our lives when we have been broken and worn down by the consequences of our sin and the sin of the world that we need to hear God’s invitation to come to Him and leave our sinfulness behind: those times when your mistakes have destroyed your self-esteem, those times when our unloving has hurt the people closest to us and left us all alone. That’s when you or I need to hear God say to us repent and live; come and eat the bread of forgiveness; come and drink the wine of new life.
This Lent let us reclaim repentance for what it is – God’s call for us to turn back to him, to turn back to the life that he has prepared for us. To embrace the forgiveness, mercy and grace of God wherever we find ourselves.
It is after all a matter of life and death.
Let us choose life.
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