The Reason for Repentance (Ash Wednesday Homily)

Below is the reflection I shared on Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent, and why tearful repentance is far more freeing than our culture's soul-crushing commitment to optimism.

Text: Joel 2:12-17, 28-32

As the church marks time with its rhythm of seasons and holy days, we are today entering the season of Lent. This is a season of repentance and sorrow, of darkness and grief. It is a season where we are invited to meditate on our mortality and our sin.

In our world, I think many of us are tempted to wonder, “Why on earth would you set aside time for that?” Lent in many ways runs in the opposite direction of our world.

All of us, whether we like to admit it or not, have these swirling pools of darkness in our hearts. We feel guilty for things we have done. We feel ashamed of secrets, of our past, of certain desires we entertain. We feel heavy and fearful at the knowledge that we are all mortal, that people die and we will too.

Our world’s response, especially today, is to encourage us to not acknowledge those dark realities. Our culture’s solution is a commitment to absolute positivity. Look in the mirror every morning and tell yourself, “You are good. You are beautiful. You are strong.” When doubt nags at the back of your mind, when you lie awake at night knowing the truth, talk it down with sunshine and self-confidence. Think positive. Be optimistic. “Girl, or boy, you got this, just go for it and don’t apologize for anything.”

Positivity is our world’s solution for the darkness. It isn’t a very good solution – we’ll talk about that in a minute – but for now, just notice how it is the complete opposite of the posture of Scripture when it addresses our sin and failures.

Just consider what the prophet Joel calls Israel to in these verses. Starting in 12: “Even now,” declares the Lord,
   “return to me with all your heart,
   with fasting and weeping and mourning.” (Joel 2:12) “Return to the Lord” is a call for repentance, and the signs of it are fasting and weeping and mourning. Fasting – giving up good things like food as a sign of our grief and a physical reminder of our need for God. Weeping and mourning – that is the language of public grief. Not just sadness, but publicly displaying our agony and grief.

Continuing in verse 13: “Rend your heart
   and not your garments.” (Joel 2:13a) Display grief publicly, but also apply that to your heart. In ancient Israel you would show your grief by tearing open your shirt. A strange display for sure. However, Joel stresses that the fasting and weeping of verse 12 are not just to be done outwardly but are to be internalized. We should tear open our hearts as we feel repentance for sin and sadness at the world’s condition.

What’s more, we are to do this together as the church: “Blow the trumpet in Zion,
declare a holy fast,
call a sacred assembly.” (Joel 2:15)

Call together the assembly of the people for a fast of repentance to the Lord. In the verses that follow, he doubles down on this call: everyone must be pulled into this public sorrow. Take nursing babies from their mothers’ breast. Drag the newlywed bride and groom out from their wedding night. Let everyone publicly and from the heart show their sorrow.

Again, in our world, that sounds crazy. Why on earth would we do this?

The surprising answer is simply this: that posture of repentance, of openly grieving our sins and admitting and confronting the darkness – that is actually a far more life-giving way to live. It offers far more life and hope.

For that to make sense, let’s discuss the answer to that question: Why does Scripture call us to repentance? There are really two reasons.

We Repent to Be Forgiven
First, and most importantly, we repent to be forgiven. We repent in order to be forgiven. That is the reason Joel gives for this seemingly-excessive process. Israel is under the Lord’s judgment, exiled from the promised land and seemingly having lost their place of relationship with the Lord. They are called to fasting and repentance. Why? In verse 13: “Return to the Lord your God,
   for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
   and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
   and leave behind a blessing.” (Joel 2:13b-14a)

The hope in Israel’s repentance rests first on the character of God. Using words that first appear in Exodus to explain who God is, we are told that He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love.” We come to God and repent of our sins knowing that He is a God who loves us. For us now, as Christians, it goes even further – we know that this God has Himself displayed His love by coming to us in Jesus Christ to work salvation for our sins. What Joel frames as “who knows?” we now know to be the truth – God will indeed forgive us.

Consider this same truth, from the first letter of John: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9) We should not claim to be without sin – which, of necessity, means we are acknowledging that we are sinful. However, as we confess and own those sins, we receive the promise that God will forgive us for those sins. That is, in a real sense, why we confess them.

Every Sunday we come together and confess our sins. We should all, privately, confess them as well. Now, that confession needs to be genuine – confession is not the “I’m sorry you feel that way” you get sometimes from human beings. But when we genuinely confess, we are promised forgiveness.

That’s why, every time we do it together as a church, we follow that with an assurance of pardon. We declare the truth from Scripture that, as we confess, our sins are covered. Forgiven. 100% paid for. We don’t bear their guilt any longer. When we hear those words after repentance, it should be like breathing in. We should go [breath in] “Ahhh.” Life. Righteousness.
This is also the first part of why repentance is better than worldly positivity. When you just try to be optimistic and upbeat, when you try to avoid confronting the darkness – it is still there. We do still do things that should make us feel guilty and shameful. We might convince ourselves not to feel the guilt and shame, but their source still festers in our souls.

Part of the beauty of repentance is that it is a way of actually dealing with our sin. We get it out in the open before ourselves and before God. If it is a sin against another person, we are also called to confess it to them – there is a publicness to repentance. Regardless, our general public posture should also be one that admits our sin. We get it out in the open, and then we cover it with the blood of Jesus. We recognize that He has paid for it.

After that, we are free to actually let it go. Now, the devil might still tempt us to entertain it, and in that case we do need to dismiss it from our minds and choose not to dwell on it. However, that choosing not to dwell on it isn’t grounded on some ability I have to convince myself that I am righteous but rather is grounded on the objective work of Jesus. God has forgiven me – my sins are forgiven.

We Repent to Be Transformed
So we repent to be forgiven. That is the core reason, but not the only one. Biblically, we also repent to be transformed. We repent in order to be transformed.

We read a second piece of Joel 2, from a little later in the chapter. It rests on the first part. What comes between is a promise of forgiveness and the removal of Israel’s exile and God’s judgment. Israel gets forgiven. However, there is more in store for them.

First in verse 28: “And afterward,
   I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
   your old men will dream dreams,
   your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
   I will pour out my Spirit in those days.” (Joel 2:28-29)

God promises to pour out His Holy Spirit on all of Israel. Here in the Old Testament, while the Holy Spirit is very much at work, there are only rare individuals who are described as “full of the Spirit.” Joel anticipates a work of God whereby this is true of everyone. Male and female, young and old, even the servants within God’s people will have this powerful presence of God within them.

And the result of this salvation will be a great salvation among all people of the earth. Verse 32: “And everyone who calls
   on the name of the Lord will be saved;
for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem
   there will be deliverance,
as the Lord has said,
   even among the survivors
   whom the Lord calls.” (Joel 2:32)

Notice in that the promise not just of forgiveness but of deliverance. Freedom will be wrought for Israel, freedom from her sins and their consequences. God does not just promise to forgive Israel but to restore her.

Repentance and grief in Scripture always come in the hope of restoration. That is true in a final sense – we can mourn and confess because we know that in the end Jesus wins and death and sin will be destroyed. However, it is also true in this life. While we will always struggle with the darkness, God is at work in us to begin to drive it back by His light.

However, once again, the only way we can begin to experience this transformation is on the far side of repentance.

If our culture’s commitment to positivity keeps us from experiencing forgiveness, even worse is the way it keeps us from being truly changed. What we want is to have our faults explained away We pay a lot of money to scientists and therapists and self-help authors to tell us why we are messed up and why it isn’t our fault. Yet the cost of their comfort is our slavery. We might be able to blame our sins and hurts on our parents and culture and upbringing and genes, but without repentance, we will never find the freedom to turn from them.

It is common for Christians to put grace and obedience in opposition. If God forgives our sins, why do we need to stop doing them? Yet the truth is that grace and obedience are two sides of the same coin. Grace enables us to seek obedience – we can confront our sins only because they are paid for by Jesus. Grace also drives us to seek obedience – if Christ has so paid for our sins, that is also the price of our allegiance. We do not appreciate what He has done for us if we do not appreciate what it calls us to do for Him.

All of which brings us to this evening of Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent. This is the season for us to especially be mindful of our repentance. To publicly own our grief. That is why we offer the chance to apply ashes to your forehead if you find that helpful – because in Scripture that is a way Israel used to show this public mourning.

What is crucial to realize is why we are doing this. Lent is not some opportunity for religious self-hatred, a sort of beating yourself up that proves you are really pious. Lent is not a time to fast or repent because it earns you God’s favor.

What Lent does is remind us, in the face of the soul-crushing positivity of our culture, of two truths. One: that we are needy creatures. We can look in the mirror and tell ourselves the truth: “You are not a good person. Parts of you are ugly. In truth, you are frail.” That is true, but we can tell that truth because of the second: we are people forgiven and being transformed by God. We must also tell that reflection in the mirror, “You are forgiven. You are loved. God’s strength is at work in You.”

May we enter into this season with that as our hope.