Last year, on the Second Sunday in Advent, the gospel proclamation was the familiar account of John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of the Lord, baptizing people in the murky waters of the River Jordan, and proclaiming, “Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” I then proceeded to preach on the importance of John the Baptist’s message and the necessity for repentance in the Christian life. The sermon was well received. Many in the congregation thanked me for a sermon well delivered. They resonated with what I was saying. “Great,” I thought, “Everyone loved my sermon!”
Well, not everyone loved it. I came home to find a seething text message on my cell phone from a less-than-happy church member. If I wanted to hear hellfire and brimstone bull—like that,” they wrote, “then I would go to the Baptist church up the street.” They continued, “Repentance implies that sin exists, and if sin does exist, then who gets to define it? You?” I was stunned. Not knowing how to respond, I decided to let it go and let his vitriol defuse with time, which it did. But this person’s comments did give me something to think about. We, as human beings, do not like to be told we have a problem with sin. We also do not like being told one of the necessary steps to confronting that problem is through repentance. Repentance, after all, implies sin exists, because sin, in fact, does exist.
As an Episcopalian, I deeply love our prayer for the confession of sin:
Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways for the glory of your name. Amen. (BCP, 320)
But this prayer of confession differentiates between “we confess that we have sinned” and “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Is there a difference between confession and repentance? In many ecclesial circles, both clergy and laity are often quick to talk about confession but somewhat reluctant to talk about repentance. The oft lack of emphasis on the necessity of repentance directly impacts the discomfort many Christians have with the idea and practice of repentance. A Christian view of forgiveness of sin must involve both confession of repentance. A person can confess their sin but not repent of it. Confession implies acknowledgment; repentance implies remorse. For example, there have been many criminals who have confessed their wrongdoings, suffered the consequences for it, but have shown no remorse for it. There is confession but no repentance. For a Christian, one can confess their sin and not repent of it, but one cannot repent of their sin without confession. To receive forgiveness of sins, mere acknowledgment of them is not enough. There must also be remorse. There must also be repentance.
The accounts of King Saul and King David illustrate the necessity of both confession and repentance. After a rocky kingship, God finally rejects Saul as king of Israel. Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind. (1 Samuel 15:28, NIV)” Acknowledging his sinfulness, King Saul responded, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD your God (15:30). Saul acknowledged his sinfulness, but he was not repentant. He was still concerned with his own appearance and honor before the elders and the people of Israel. He does not even consider the LORD to be his God. To Samuel, Saul refers to God has, “The LORD your God.”
What Samuel was to Saul, so Nathan is to David. Whether David is seeking after clarification from Yahweh or has done wrong, there Nathan would be to offer guidance or wave a bony, prophetic finger at the king. It is a sharp reminder, as if one would need it, of the unbreakable relationship between the king and the prophet. Surely enough, when David sinned with Bathsheba, Nathan was there to confront him. He didn’t do it directly but told the powerful parable of the ewe lamb. The parable allowed David to see his sin for himself. When David was confronted with his sin, he repented and earnestly sought the forgiveness of God. Because David knew how to repent, David was called “a man after God’s own heart” even in the midst of great evil.
Therefore, as we continue in the season of Advent, we are invited to examine our lives, confess our sins, and repent of those sins. Confession and repentance are crucial steps to preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ – both in the manger and at the end of time.
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