The Gospel lessons we’ve had for the last couple of weeks have posed questions to us. Last week the question was “What do you want?” This week’s question is no less probing and perhaps almost disturbing: “What’s your problem?” What’s weighing you down? Why the misery? There’s lots of answers to that question, the cause of human misery, mainly because all of us are, at some point and sometimes most of the time, miserable. Educators insist that the problem is ignorance. “Psychologists insist that the core of our problem is a lack of an integrated self-understanding. The political activists tell us that the critical issue causing human misery is an inadequate distribution of wealth and power, while the social engineer locates our problem in the cultural environment….[But the real cause may sound] out-of-date to modern ears and terribly over-simplified to the sophisticated among us. It sounds simplistic, but according to Jesus, our problem, our critically central problem is sin – our alienation from God. ”1
“Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said. You may be thinking “Easy for Jesus to say, being sinless and never alienated from His Father,” and I wouldn’t blame you. So let’s look at what was going on at the time Jesus first said those words. Jesus had turned 30, a big birthday for anyone; He left home, He left His Mother to tend the house and fend for Herself, Joseph most likely having already died. He wandered out into the middle of nowhere to find His cousin John who was baptizing lots of people and making lots of other people very angry, got Himself baptized, and then He took off into the desert for almost six weeks. In the desert He was alone, frightfully so, because His only visitor was Lucifer, the devil himself, who did his absolute best to derail Him. Jesus wandered back out of the desert, exhausted, half-starved, and weak, and the first news He heard was that His cousin was thrown in jail while He was gone. And upon hearing this news, the first thing Jesus said was the very thing His cousin had been saying all along: Wake up. Admit you’re a sinner. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is way closer than you think.
When I was growing up at Trinity Church in Red Bank, the rector there at the time preached at least one big ‘repentance’ sermon each year, usually in Lent, and he would always point out that the word repent carries with it the idea of a physical turning around; he would then, all six foot – four inches and 270 pounds of him, walk over to the middle of the great choir and twirl himself around toward the altar to illustrate his point. It may not have been elegant, but he got his point across, I still remember it. And he was right about repentance: it does carry with it the idea of a turning around, even a connotation of physical change, a change, as we say, of heart.
The prophet Ezekiel, who was not always the happiest of hearts, told us what God had to say about a change of heart: “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.” Isn’t that interesting, that when we sin, or maybe more, when we keep that sin inside ourselves and wallow in sin, our hearts are turned to stone. A stony heart pumps no blood, so a stony heart keeps our bodies, our whole selves, from being truly alive. But God tells us what happens when we wake up to our sin, when we repent, when we turn back to Him, He takes away that stony heart and gives us a heart of flesh, a heart that is able to keep us truly alive, a heart that can respond to God and to His people.
I don’t have to tell you how beautiful this church is, it seems fairly obvious that this is one of prettiest churches any of us will set foot in. But have you ever wondered why this church is even here? This church is here because six generations ago a bunch of people in Bordentown heard Jesus say the words we just heard, “Repent, turn around, look out, for the Kingdom of God is near, it’s comin’ right at you.” This church is a response to those words, a beautiful response to Jesus Himself. It’s a symbol, a monument to repentance, to stony hearts taken out and living, fleshy hearts being put back in. It’s our church now, our monument, our headquarters for hearts that once knew the misery of alienation from God, but are now hearts that look for Jesus everywhere and in everyone, hearts that are ready for the Kingdom of God.May our hearts always be so, and may everyone we meet seek the God who gave them to us.
1The Rev. William Self, Cobwebs on the Confessional, 2008.