Sermon: Going All In On Repentance

The servants clean and polish everything—again and again. Lord Grantham and his family rearrange their schedules and discuss what they need to be doing to be gracious hosts to their earthly King. 

How much more do we need to be doing to welcome our heavenly King?

John the Baptizer tells the people to prepare for their King by doing this thing called “repenting”. On the most basic level, we teach children to repent by feeling sorry for the bad things they’ve done and to work on not doing them again. If a five-year-old gets caught stealing a candy bar, the child must pay for the candy bar, tell the manager that he’s sorry for what he’s done, and he must promise never to do it again.

That’s basic level repentance and it works, because most kids never steal another candy bar.

I’ve had many parents tell me the primary reason they come to church is so their kids can learn the difference between right and wrong and learn how to choose right over wrong. The parents are right to want their children to learn this lesson and learn it well. There is no good future without it. That is why we teach the Ten Commandments and the fundamentals of first level repentance to our kids in church.

But if this is all John the Baptist means by repentance, then there would be no need for the revelation Jesus brings. All you’d need are the Ten Commandments and the direction and willpower to obey them.

  In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus takes us to a deeper level of repentance. He teaches us not even to fantasize about breaking a commandment. In addition to not committing adultery, Jesus says we must stop looking at people with lust in our hearts. Not killing is good, but we also must stop nursing anger toward those we’re mad at.

Jesus knows willpower alone isn’t enough, because lust, greed, and anger show up unbidden from the unconscious and undermine our wills.

So, when kids become teenagers the Church teaches them how to look within, into their psyches, their souls. They must learn to see their inner mess and to claim it as their own, instead of projecting their dark side onto others. When you hear someone verbally abusing others, you can be pretty sure that person is projecting their mess, instead of facing it.

As Jesus says, “why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:3

On this level repentance means taking responsibility for one’s inner life by turning to God for help instead of projecting it onto others.

But there’s another level of repentance Jesus calls us to: He is God’s Word unveiling New Reality, called the Kingdom of God or, as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven. We think Heaven is on the far side of Pluto, but John announces it is here and now, though our physical eyes can’t see it. Even an electron microscope can’t see it, so we need to develop spiritual, sight if we wish to see and participate in the Kingdom of Heaven.

This kind of repentance requires radical transformation, a new birth, as Jesus tells Nicodemus, that only God can do in us.  

Repentance is more than changing our external behavior and it is more than facing our inner mess. Repentance is also entering into a new reality, whereby we are given a new way of being human inside heaven on earth.

In this regard I want to point out a spiritual technology that can help us on the journey.

Spiritual writers like Richard Rohr and Ken Wilber call it “include and transcend.”

When the child becomes a teen, she doesn’t throw away what she learned about following the law and repentance. No, she includes this learning and then transcends it when she learns to take responsibility for her own inner darkness.

Likewise, when we receive the gift of New Birth and the Kingdom of Heaven, we don’t  throw away obedience to the law and the psychological skills learned earlier in life: instead, we include and transcend.

So how do we move to this third level so we can see the kingdom of Heaven and participate in it? John calls his listeners to baptism. Which isn’t just a polite ceremony involving a few drops of water on a baby, but rather involves drowning the old self, so we can receive a new self from God.

And what is that old self that has to die: it is this: our old self is mortal mind that believes we are separate from God—that we are living outside God’s love and protection. What dies is our convinced belief that God is not with us or for us.

Baptism in water is a once in a lifetime ritual that symbolizes our willingness every day to give up mortal mind and its illusion of separateness. We go out under the water of baptism for the same reason an astronomer goes into the dark: to better see the stars.  

At the end of his sermon, John gets on the Pharisees and Sadducees because he thinks they are just going through the motions. They are acting like parents who get their children baptized but never bring them back to church.  For them baptism is magic, and not the waters of death and resurrection. They are doing it for show and not for transformation.

John goes on to say the way to know if we are growing in this Life of Spirit, is to see if we are bearing good fruit. Do we see growth, not just in pious feeling, but in acts of generosity, service, and acceptance?  

If nothing is changing on the outside, they can be sure nothing is changing on the inside.

Turns out King George and Queen Mary were good folks to Downton Abbey.

When we welcome King Jesus into our lives, we find ourselves in a different world, a different reality. King Jesus gives us the grace to obey the Law and confess when we fall short. King Jesus walks with us into every room to face and heal the dark side of our psyche.

True repentance is also the willingness to die to the belief that we are separate from God and to come alive to the knowledge of who we really are: welcomed children in the King’s Castle, where our sin, fear, and death are burned up by the Spirit’s Love.