"Just as I am" - A Lenten Sermon about Repentance

Just as I am, without one plea,
but that thy blood was shed for me,
and that thou bidd'st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come. I come.

You know that song? It's the old revival song, sung at countless Billy Graham crusades and various altar calls throughout the world. Some of you here know a bit about my past, that I grew up attending a Baptist Church in New Jersey for thirteen or so years of my life. What you don't know was that at the age of 14 I accepted that I was washed by the blood of the lamb and repented of my sins and came forward to a thousand-person choir singing "Just As I Am" at the Creation Music Festival. Creation is a Christian music festival that gathers every summer up in Pennsylvania. They like to call themselves the "Christian Woodstock". Let me tell you, it isn't nearly as wild as Woodstock was! I wasn't at Woodstock, mind you, but I've seen the movie. But on the last night of every Creation Festival, there is an altar call. "Repent, repent!" The preacher cried, "and come forward!" And so I did. Just as I am, I came forward. And I knew, in that moment, at the age of 14, my life was forever changed.

But of course it wasn't. I was fourteen. I was just in High school. I was a holy roller on fire for Jesus for about a month when I got back from Creation (I actually threw away all my rock and roll records! Crazy! I know!), but things soon settled back into their routine. Looking back, it wasn't much of a surprise. I still went to Church. So what if I repented of my sins? I didn't know what repentance was. I didn't know why I went forward at Creation. In fact, I didn't know who I was. I didn't know fully what life was about. I just went about my days, doing my thing, saying I was a Christian, and I was! I loved Jesus. But it wasn't like I turned my life around. I didn't know how to. I didn't know what it meant. I didn't know what repentance was all about. And you know, for the longest time, I mocked myself for going forward at that alter call. I mocked myself, for singing just as I am.

* * *

I think a lot of people are confused about repentance. What is repentance? What does it mean? How do I repent? Doesn't that have to do something with sin? When I was in seminary, people would tell me, "Henry, we know you have Baptist roots, but don't talk about sin so much." In our culture as a whole, we don't talk about sin all that much. We don't really have a concept of what sin is. So I guess that means we can't talk about repentance then, right? Because they go hand in hand.

In churches I've been a part of, we don't talk about sin all that much, perhaps because we consider it an outdated concept that doesn't really apply anymore. But Jesus clearly wants us to repent. He tells us so, very clearly: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." When Jesus says repent in Mark 1, it is not a quiet whisper from Jesus to a close friend; it is a booming call to anyone within earshot. In our passage for today, Jesus declares and compels, rather than explains and persuades. He speaks: Repent, and believe.

The Christian season of Lent, which began on Ash Wednesday, is a time of preparation for Good Friday and Easter. It is a four-week period when we reflect, repent and turn towards the cross of Christ upon which Jesus set us free. Lent leads us into Holy Week. Jesus is walking towards Jerusalem. We are heading towards the cross with him. Nothing can change that. Lent prepares us to stand before his cross and see our sins forgiven in and through and by his sacrifice. And to stand before the cross, Jesus seems to say to us in our passage, is to repent. But what is repentance, and what does it have to do with anything?

This week I took a poll on Facebook. I asked my friends, both Christian and non-Christian, what they thought about repentance. I was surprised by the level of thoughtful response I got. A good friend of mine, an artist atheist who lives down in New Orleans wrote,

Repentance means to humble oneself after a transgression. To abandon pride, hear grievances without defense, acknowledge your own wrongdoing and submit to the mercy of those whom you have wronged. To commit to choosing a different path, and continuing to follow that path regardless of your need and suffering.

That's what my friend Becky wrote. Pretty good, right? Another friend, a lapsed Catholic, wrote,

Ask for forgiveness of a known and accepted sin, and actively work to avoid it happening again. If the sin is against someone else, attempt to gain forgiveness from them as well.

An academic theologian friend of mine paraphrased Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Repentance is turning your heart back to God, away from yourself." A friend from college called repentance "the ability to recognize one's own thoughts." Another friend, a Presbyterian minister who was feeling a bit frustrated that her Ash Wednesday service was canceled because of the weather, wrote quite honestly, "I think our emphasis on grace often allows us to gloss over our need to confess and repent (turn away from that which turns us away from God." "To recognize and verbalize." All these are, very good, very insightful. But then one friend, a youth worker up in Manhattan, wrote only two words. "Turn around." And you know what? He's right. Repentance means to turn around. It means to turn from something towards something else. Repentance is a turning from and a turning to. It is a turning away from sin and toward God.

Before we can talk about repentance, we have to talk about sin. Here is a basic definition of sin: Sin is all that which separates us from God and how God wants us to live. It is all that stops us from truly loving God and neighbor. Sin can be a behavior, a mindset, or an action.

The good news of the Kingdom is that Jesus dies on the cross to reunite us with God so we can live as we were created by God to live. We were created by God to live in love. True love. Repentance is the human response to God's initiative and forgiveness. It involves a total restructuring of one's life toward God, towards loving him with our whole hearts, minds and souls, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. For Jesus, repentance is not a mere acceptance of a set of beliefs but rather a turning, a turning towards God in all aspects of our lives. In recognizing how he lived and died for us we can truly be transformed to live as we were created to live before sin separated us from God. Repentance is a turning. A turning from and a turning towards. Away from sin towards God. Repent.

Lent-- a season of repentance. Examine. Look. Search. Listen. Turn away and turn towards.

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt:
fightings and fears within, without,
O lamb of God, I come. I come.

In Lent we prepare ourselves to stand before the cross, just as we are. The cross constantly leads us to repent because it is the ever standing reminder of God's reign, God's truth, God's love in the world. And what is this truth? That Jesus was born, Jesus has died, and Jesus has risen from the grave so that we might live and be with God. And he will come again. The ultimate sign of the Kingdom in the life of this world is the empty cross. Repent! Why? "Because in Jesus, God makes it possible for God's people to do more than rerun the past. That is the gospel, the good news, the glad tidings toward which Jesus invites us to stop, turn, or turn again, and hold on to for dear life." "Repent!" says our Lord; "things do not have to stay the way they are now!" In fact, to follow Jesus means that things cannot stay the way they are. To follow Jesus means to repent.

We will repent. And then we will mess up. We will sin again. We will allow something to come between us and God. We will allow something to take the place of God in our life. It might be anger. It might be hate. It might be lust. It might be greed. It might be gluttony. It might be apathy. It might be pride. We will sin. And then we will repent again. Repentance is not one and done -- remember how the old song goes, "morning by morning new mercies I see!" We stumble, we fall, but he has mercy on us. He will always show mercy on us. He loves us. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote about what repentance does. It reminds us that we are loved and forgiven by God:

A person reposes in the forgiveness of sins when the thought of God no longer reminds him of the sin, but of the fact that it is forgiven, so that the past is not a recollection of how much he offended, but of how much he has been forgiven.

* * *

This is a congregation that has been in transition. There is no shame in this, nothing embarrassing about recognizing ourselves in transition. What will happen to us if we listen to Jesus' demand and repent and believe? We can dream. We can dream what God can do with us here, in this place, as individuals and as a community of God's own making.

I have a dream for this church. We can be a church where we tell our stories, and see where, when, and how God has called us to repent. We can be a place where people can lovingly share without fear of judgment what they have turned from, or what they are turning from. Or perhaps that from which they are hoping to turn. And then we can share with each other and to the world Him to whom it is we turn to. He who loves us. He who died for us. He who lives for us. He who calls us to repent and believe.

So we as individuals and as a community can repent and believe in him who guides us, leads us, loves us, and saves us, just as I am. Just as we are. Repent, and believe. Repent and see what God has done. Repent and see what God is doing. Repent and see what God will do.

I don't tease myself for singing "Just as I Am" anymore. After I graduated from college I wandered for a couple of months before I found myself in New Orleans, rebuilding houses with Habitat for Humanity that had been destroyed by hurricane Katrina. After a year doing that I signed up to be a young adult volunteer operating out of Nairobi, Kenya. I worked as a photographer. In Africa I saw some beautiful things. I saw some dark things. Yet in the midst of all that I felt called by God to go to seminary, and so when I returned to the States I entered into a Masters of Divinity program at Princeton Theological Seminary. I threw myself into my work and I never dealt with the dark things I had seen and experienced in Kenya. I fell into a deep depression. I made poor choices. When I graduated and things didn't go as I planned, I fell apart. I grew extremely angry with God. I felt that God had betrayed me. But what I didn't recognize, what I couldn't recognize at the time, was that my pride didn't let me go get help. My pride had allowed me to lie to myself that I wasn't hurting. So I grew close to my rising anger and pushed God away.

One weekend when I was visiting my parents in New Jersey we went down to Ocean Grove. Ocean Grove is a Methodist Retreat village right alongside the Jersey Shore. In the center of Ocean Grove is a giant wooden tabernacle church, built in the 19th century. It truly is a wonder to behold. Anyway, we went down to Ocean Grove, and a pastor I always liked was preaching that evening in the Tabernacle and we decided to go hear him. And he preached a sermon about repentance. He preached a sermon about the promise of God's love. And he proclaimed a good word of God's forgiveness offered to us on the cross. And he closed with a song. And I went forward.

Just as I am, thou wilt receive;
wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve,
because thy promise I believe,
O lamb of God, I come, I come.



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