Man (and Woman) in the Mirror: God’s Call to Repentance
Our Wednesday evening focus for the next number of weeks will be on God’s call to us in our Lenten journey, and in our life journey. God is calling! God calls through water and word, God calls through bread and wine, God calls through the voices around us, God even calls through the everyday stuff of life. As part of that everyday stuff, each week we will be looking at a different song—nothing that is explicitly Christian, but songs that you very well could have heard on the radio at some point in the last 40 years or so, and songs that speak very clearly to us different aspects of God’s call. In the coming weeks, we will be considering our experiences of God’s call to reconciliation, God’s call to unity, God’s call to justice, and God’s call to reformation. Tonight, though, God’s call to us is the call of repentance.
Repentance is a term we hear thrown around quite a bit. Maybe we think of people holding up signs in the city or at sporting events: “Repent, for the end is near!” Often, many of us think of repentance as being sorry for something. The Biblical meaning is actually different. The Greek word in the New Testament that’s translated as “repentance” is metanoia, which literally means “to change your mind.” That’s where we come to the song that today is serving as the lens through which we see God’s call to repentance for us: Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. It’s a phenomenal exploration of both the meaning of repentance and God’s purpose for repentance. In fact, there’s a sentence that he repeats over and over each time through the chorus, almost like a mantra: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change.”
What is it that’s changing? Another way to think about repentance is as a turning—we turn away from something, and if we’re doing that, it means we are turning toward something else. So what is it that we’re turning from, and what are we turning toward?
The easy answer we’re presented with so often is that we’re turning away from our sins. We turn away from those things that we do or that we left undone that we know are wrong, and turn toward new, better ways of living our lives. We try to stop lying, or stealing, or cheating, or whatever those things are that we all know about ourselves—and we resolve to do better. In the end, though, doesn’t that end up feeling like some sort of self-help list, or like our New Years resolutions that even though for the last 20 years we’ve forgotten what they even were by February, THIS year was going to be different and THIS time we really meant business and here we are almost at March and what was it I was going to do again?
What makes that ultimately so unsatisfying is that we’re dealing with surface-level stuff. We’re dealing with sins, with a lower-case s, stuff that we think we can control, things that we convince ourselves that if we just try hard enough, we’ll be able to do better.
Real repentance means tackling not only our sins, not only those actions or inactions where we know we should have done something differently. It means going way beyond that. It means taking a long, hard, honest look at ourselves and recognizing that we are bound, we are held captive, by the power of sin. Those things we call sins are not the real problem—rather, they are the symptoms of the real problem—Sin with a capital S.
Sin is another term we hear thrown around quite a bit, and I think often in unhelpful ways. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote about this a couple of weeks ago in her thoughts on Ash Wednesday. There’s one side of the church that would rather not have us talk about sin at all. That side of the conversation tends to equate talking about our sinfulness with having low self-esteem. “Why can’t the church be more positive? Why can’t we just discuss our identity as beloved, created children of God? Why do you have to make us feel bad about ourselves?” The other end of the spectrum equates sin with immorality. That’s where we get back to those immoral acts…so if we just avoid those bad things and make the decision to live a good life, we can be a good Christian.
The problem with both sides is that they boil sin down into something that’s in our hands. Something that we can control. And the cold hard truth, the reality of our situation, of our lives, is that I cannot free myself from my bondage to myself. (1) For Luther, that was the very definition of sin—my being curved in on myself. Michael Jackson even talked about it in our song today. Near the beginning, he sings, “I’ve been a victim of a selfish kind of love.” That self-love, that conviction that if I’m not the center of the universe I at least should be, is the most basic, the most fundamental breaking of the first commandment, and we all do it. The first commandment says “You shall have no other gods before me.” We put our trust, our hope, our sense of importance and preservation and priority in ourselves. We make false gods of ourselves. And when we look at ourselves in the mirror, when we allow ourselves to really see who we are, when we are at our most honest and vulnerable, we know it’s the truth.
God’s call to repentance is not a call to us to just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and straighten up and fly right. It is God’s doing, out of sheer grace, as a sheer gift. It is not us turning ourselves around, but it is God taking hold of us and forcing our gaze outward. Repentance that comes from God turns us away from ourselves, and turns us toward our neighbor. And in turning toward our neighbor, we’re turning toward God. We do not have the power to overcome our self-interest, but it is God who changes us. And it is that kind of repentance, that kind of change, the change that comes from God by the power of the Holy Spirit, that is truly transformative.
That’s how the writer of the book of James can talk about being a doer of the word, and not merely a hearer. The purpose of repentance is not for our own self-improvement, the purpose is not to get us right with God or climb up some ladder to heaven. We’re already right with God. That happened on the cross. That happened in the empty tomb. God has already said I love you so much that I am willing to take on the powers of sin and death and all that hold you in their grip.
The purpose of repentance, the purpose of this transformation, the purpose of God’s orienting our gaze outward is precisely because that’s who we were created to be. We were created to live in relationship. We were created to give of ourselves for the good of the other. When that happens, that’s when we’re living in the promise of God’s kingdom, that’s when we’re experiencing that foretaste of the feast to come.
And so we do not just look in the mirror and forget who we are, as the writer of James says. But we are called by God to repentance by what that writer names as the law of liberty. Quite simply, through Christ, we no longer have to worry about needing to live for ourselves. We have been freed to live by a new law—the law of grace, the law of love…doing the gospel, living the gospel, not just hearing it and forgetting. Religion that is pure and undefiled, the writer of James reminds us, doesn’t involve locking yourself away so that you won’t be tainted by the world. It doesn’t mean retreating from the messiness of life. That’s just another way of being curved in on ourselves. Pure, undefiled religion means getting your hands dirty. It means acting on behalf of the vulnerable, of the outcast. It means remaining unstained by the world because you’re right smack dab in the middle of the world as a part of the world.
Your repentance is not ultimately achieved by you, it’s achieved by God. And your repentance is not ultimately about you, it’s about your neighbor.
So yes, it does start with us. It starts with the man, with the woman, with the boy or the girl we see in the mirror. That person we see is a person transformed by God, called by God. You are called out of your bondage to yourself, and into the freedom of being who you were created to be, in community and in relationship with others, living and loving not for yourself, but for the sake of your neighbor. And that can be risky stuff. It can mean giving up comfort for the sake of service. It means asking how our decisions affect the well-being of others, rather than how they just affect us. Repentance affects our personal security. It affects our financial decisions. It affects how we choose to spend our time and energy. Real change through the power of the Holy Spirit means we’re no longer the ones in control. But it also means living into the exciting, abundant, life-giving life that God wants for us.
And when individuals are gripped by this outwardly-turned power of God, that affects groups. That affects the church. What does this call to repentance look like for Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, for this community of faith? In what ways are we experiencing metanoia, the changing of our minds and of our ways by God? Where is our orientation, the way we see and interact with the world, being redirected outward?
Maybe the doomsday signs are right in a way: Repent, for the end is near! With the repentance, with the turning, with the change that comes as a gift from God, the end IS near…the end of our self-centeredness. The end of our having to have it all together. The end of it having to be about us. And the beginning of new life in the Kingdom of God.
Matt SchurOur Saviour's Lutheran Church