Today, my brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, let us consider repentance. Repentance is a major theme throughout the entirety of the record of Scripture.
From the fall of Adam and Eve and the expulsion out of the Garden of Eden…From Noah and the Arc and the flooding of the world…from the call of Abraham and his mission to bring the people of the world to God…From the ministries of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Isaiah- all called to preach to the Israelites- repent and return to God Almighty. And on to John the Baptist…to the voice crying out in the wilderness “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
This morning we read of the arrest of John the Baptist by King Herod. It is of no little note, that “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[i]
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ continues the mission and ministry of God Almighty…continues that which had been preached since the Cherubim took their station on the Gate of the Garden of Eden…Fiery swords in hand. Jesus calls the world to repentance through words and actions…in every word preached…in every healing touch…in every meal shared…in His passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension…Jesus calls the world to repent.
Repentance means many different things to many different people. To some of us the word repent is used as a club to beat and injure…to others, the word is antiquated not of use in the modern world. And to others still, the word repent is foreign and removed from any sort of genuine or beneficial meaning. And to others still, it is a foul and dirty word.
The mission and ministry of God has not changed since the Fall of Adam…God, through divers and sundry agents, has continually called the world to repentance. In our own time and in our own day, the mission and ministry of repentance is carried out by the Church…the people of God, living in the Spirit of God…to us who are called to holiness and righteousness.
So, since this is the mission and ministry to which we are called, let us spend some time contemplating it.
The word repentance itself, as used by Saint John the Baptist and by Our Lord, is the word me-tä-no-e’-ō. It means literally ‘to change ones mind.’ Or, ‘to change one’s mind for the better.’ In most usages, repentance ‘involves a turning with contrition from sin to God’[ii] That is to say, repentance is the process of turning from ways and things that destroy the soul and body, and to God, whose is love and goodness. So the mission of the Church is to turn the world away from things that destroy and hurt a person to God, who is Love and mercy and health and wholeness.
In just a few moments we will baptize Tristan Lilly Fontaine in Christ’s One, Holy, Apostolic and Catholic Church. Tristan will be cleansed of original or ancestral sin. She will go down into the waters and die with Christ and then arise to a new and eternal life. Tristan will be given the Holy Spirit who will live within her and give to her the things of God…eternal life…love…mercy…and peace and joy. In preparing to baptize Tristan, the church will do what it has done since the beginning of time. Tristan will go through an exorcism and examination…she will formally go through the process of repentance and amendment of life in the Liturgy of Baptism. She will formally and publically go through the process of changing one’s mind for the better.
Now since little Tristan is an infant…the parents and Godparents and the gathered church will take on much of this responsibility for her…since she is an infant, she will be offered to God and we will vow to God and to her that we see she lives fully into this repentance. To help us keep our vows…and as a refresher in this foundational ministry…let us look at the Liturgy.
If you wish, you can look in your bulletins to the point immediately following the sermon, or you may open the Book of Common Prayer and turn to page 302. The first part of the Liturgy is traditional called the Exorcism. That is not to say that little Tristan is possessed of Satan or demons…but that she is subject to the powers of death and to Satan- the prince of darkness and death.
Looking at the Exorcism itself- the priest asks:
“ Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?…Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?… Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?…”[iii]
It is of note that these things are identified, named and publically and formally renounced. And in that, these things are cast out, cast off and cease to have control over. Since the beginning of the Liturgy of Baptism, these questions…these renunciations were made facing Westward, or away from the altar and the direction our Lord is supposed to return…the questions were asked facing the world and the realm in which evil resides.
After these renunciation of Satan…the forces of evil and temptations to evil, the candidates would turn from West to East…would turn away from those things and towards Jesus Christ.
After they turn and the priest moves to the Baptismal font, the examination continues:
“Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?… Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?… Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?”[iv]
Turning towards the coming Lord, the altar and the rising Son, the candidates then publically and solemnly accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour… publically and solemnly proclaim their trust is in His grace and love and in no other. The answer to these questions conclude the exorcism. While, admittedly this lacks the wow factor of television and movies…there is no head spinning, levitating, or green slime covering the walls…this part of the liturgy is one of the most powerful and meaningful things the Church does.
This accepting Jesus should call to mind the Philippian Jailer, the Apostles Paul and Luke and one of the earliest truths and creeds of the Christian Church. The Jailer having just witnessed the power of God and understanding the failings of his philosophy…facing a certain death asks this question: “Men, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”[v]
This point in the Baptismal Liturgy also calls to mind the Holy Name itself: Jesus…’God saves’.
We turn away from death and towards Life…away from death, both spiritually and physically, and towards life and mercy and love. It is a powerful and moving moment indeed that no special effect could ever trump.
After the examination…after the person has renounced Satan and called on the name of Jesus…the person is connected to…joined to the Church intimately and eternally.
“Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?”[vi]
The Church shows itself to be one Body, with Jesus Christ as Head…united in Salvation and love and mercy and joy.
And that is repentance. Turning from death and evil…turning towards the Lord…turning towards the Goodness and mercy and love of God….turning from death to life. Repentance is turning is turning from an individual life where one is concerned only with self…to a life in Christ…to a life lived in community…to a life lived as a part of the Body of Christ. This, beloved in the Lord, is our mission…this is our calling…this is our purpose in life. We are called to proclaim that which has been proclaimed since the beginning. Repent and turn towards to Lord. Repent of evil and death and turn towards life and love and goodness.
This morning, (as we reaffirm the covenant made at our own baptisms), let us give thanks for our Salvation…let us give thanks that we have turned from death unto life…that us give thanks that we are able to repent. And let us commit ourselves to holding one another up…let us commit ourselves to the mission of the Church…let us commit ourselves to showing the world the life, love and salvation of Jesus Christ…let us commit ourselves to showing the world the blessings and mercy that are to be found in repentance.
[i] The Gospel of Saint Matthew 4.17 RSV
[iii] The Book of Common Prayer p. 302
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer p.302-303
[v] The Acts of the Apostles 16.30-31 RSV
[vi] The Book of Common Prayer p.303