Luke 24:26b-48; Acts 3:12-19 Difficult Messages – Repentance
Well, after an absence of almost 6 months, it kind of feels like I am giving my first sermon all over again, though on a very different topic.
I remember that first sermon well. It was on Palm Sunday, 5 years ago and I remember being so nervous. What if I messed it up? What if it wasn’t good enough? What if it was so bad I put people off coming to church? On top of that, it was being videoed for theological assessment as I was studying for my LLM role. I had so many instructions to remember.
1. Make sure it’s between 9 and 12 minutes long, no longer or your message will be lost, any shorter and you won’t have given the message properly! I remember writing it and standing in the kitchen next to the clock and timing myself. Whoa! It’s a minute over – what bit can I chop out?
2. Don’t cling onto the lectern for dear life! It’s not your comfort blanket, or your walking stick! Move around a bit. Well, I’ve tried. I’m not sure it enhances the sermon, and at Holy Cross anyway the mic is on the lectern!
3. Always look to the congregation. Don’t just read what you’ve written but make them part of it. I agree with that one but sometimes it’s difficult to find your place again once you’ve looked up. Now, where was I?
4. Always make sure you preach the Gospel message and you can’t go wrong. Umm! That’s what preaching is all about, isn’t it? Can’t go wrong – there’s plenty of things which could go wrong! Like someone could fall asleep and fall off their chair!
5. Make part of your sermon pertinent to present times and your congregation. Sometimes that is subtly done but actually, if I stuck to those rules I’d be writing 2 sermons each week as both congregations are different. But yes, I can make them pertinent to present times.
6. Always write down what you want to say, even if it’s just notes, otherwise you’ll end up repeating things or you’ll lose the thread of what you want to say.
Well, I wanted to be one of those charismatic preachers who used loads of props, who picked up a passage of Scripture and the words rolled of their tongue. They engaged with the congregation, people laughed or cried, and didn’t fall asleep! They remembered those sermons for a long time afterwards. I’m a long way off that!
Yet, in spite of all those fears and doing what I was told (note – Jane!), my 1st sermon was not a disaster. You can judge this one on the criteria I was given afterwards. Eventually you learn to preach in your own style. You forget the rules. You learn to be led by God and the Holy Spirit in preaching often some difficult messages. I’ve found it easy to preach about love, service and forgiveness, but what they don’t actually teach you is how to teach the hard messages – those of judgement and death and sin and hell and repentance. Those which I call the ‘fire and brimstone’ messages, often evangelised on Speaker’s corner at Hyde Park, or by Christian extremists – ‘repent or you’ll go to hell!’
And why are those messages not often preached? Not because your ministers don’t know how to preach them but because people don’t want to hear them. They want to hear the good bits, come out of a service feeling uplifted, make Christianity fit their lives, not the other way round. They want to hear of the loving faithful God who saves all people. Hell for them doesn’t exist. They say ‘If I live a good life, working hard and doing what I can for others, pleasing them, then that’s what life and faith are all about, God will save me.’ Living to please others. After all, that’s what being a Christian is about and there is nothing inherently wrong with the desire of being there to help out those in need. In fact, as Christians we are called to love others self-sacrificially, which would certainly include those times when it is inconvenient to us. But it’s when we do things to please people and not God there is a problem. And we have all fallen into that trap. We fall into the “performance trap”, caring more about what others think than God thinks – tragically then we are saying that God’s approval is not enough and we want more.
Then there are those people pleasers who are not Christians who say, ‘I don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ, it is enough to love everyone around me and do my best to please them because, after all, you Christians say God is love so if He doesn’t hate anyone I must be saved.’ Well, I’ve got news for you – you’re wrong! What is the point then of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection? What is the point of the cross?
If we gloss over the repentance bit we lose the whole message. True, Christ came to save all people, He gave Himself for everyone. But what many fail to teach, fail to see, is that there are conditions to find your way back to God. And the greatest of these can be found in both of our passages today: “Repent and Believe” because unless you do there is no way back to God. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But if we are true Christians, we already know this.
Old Testament scriptures tell us the wages for sin is death. Ritual washing and sacrifices were required for repentance and to bring people back to God. John the Baptist came preaching repentance and baptism into new life with God. There were so many things you had to do to draw closer to God but Christ, in giving His life for us, mad all that so much simpler – all He said was “Repent and believe in me and you shall receive eternal life.”
It’s simple, yet so hard. It’s hard to preach because so often people don’t believe they are sinners, they haven’t done anything wrong.
It’s hard because we Christians ourselves treat sin so trivially – if it’s that easy I can just say I’m sorry and that’s it, I can go on doing those things I know aren’t right, confess them again to God and ask His forgiveness, and I’m saved again. That’s living lives for ourselves, according to the flesh, not the spirit.
If we are led by the Spirit then we are children of God, adopted by Him, and we call Him Father. A Father who loves his children. That does not mean He will not punish our sins, and that’s where so many of us have it all wrong. Many of us are mothers or fathers to our own children and discipline them, just as we were disciplined by our own parents. It is through discipline we learn the ways of life, what is right and wrong. We all know the hurt we feel when our children do something we don’t approve of, but we don’t stop loving them. That’s the same with God – how many times do we break His heart when we continue to do or say things which hurt ourselves and others, which hurt God?
No truly loving father of mother abandons their children, the bond is too real, too intense, but we do guide them to do what is true and just and right. At the end of the day though, they are free to choose their own path in life.
Sadly, some leave parents and don’t return, preferring to break the bonds completely; others test the waters, almost drown but continue to test them and fall into lives which bring so much pain and hurt that forgiveness by a parent becomes difficult – but you don’t stop loving them. They have made their own choices, lived their own lives, and they know where you are if they want to turn back and be with you. Sadly, just like we do with God, some never do. There are others who hurt us but recognise the hurt their actions have caused, say they are ‘sorry’ and of course we forgive them and are joyful and thankful for healed hearts. Repentance is genuine. Forgiveness is genuine because of love. If we treat our own children like this then,
how much more does our Father in heaven treat us the same way.
He gives us free choice, yet so many of us are so concerned about ourselves and our own happiness we forget He’s there and abandon Him, to the extent many don’t believe He even exists. They don’t believe the message of the cross. And when things go wrong, like now in a pandemic, they ask, “Where now is this loving God?” And if we look back in history, to the beginning of Scripture, there is plenty of evidence of God’s people rejecting Him. As Christians, we are called to be kingdom people and penitence people. We pray it whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer –
‘Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven’, ‘forgive us our trespasses/sins’. They are part of what following Jesus is about. Jesus gave Himself for us. He ultimately announced the arrival of God’s kingdom on earth, the last sign, the last chance to avoid destruction – the last chance to avoid separation from our loving Father. Jesus taught us what the kingdom of God looks like as He healed a leper, forgave a penitent woman, celebrated parties with all the wrong people, as He went to Jerusalem that last time and pronounced judgement and destruction on the Temple, as He broke bread with His friends, as He hung on the cross, and as He appeared 3 days later to His friends in the upper room. We have to see the events of the Cross as the ultimate call to penitence, because they are the final reminder of God’s kingdom on earth. Belief in Jesus Himself is the reason why people turn from idolatry, immorality, injustice and wickedness because the cross is where all the world’s sufferings and horrors have been piled up and dealt with. Christ’s death and resurrection are the launch of God’s new creation, of His sovereign saving rule on earth – beginning with the physical body of Jesus Himself. Those events are now THE summons to repent and THE clue to what God is doing to the world. He calls us repeatedly and draws us back to Himself, that’s why repentance and forgiveness are so important – to believe anything else is to ‘belittle’ the act of Jesus on the cross. Let’s get back to the ways of the cross.
Truly repent, truly believe, and truly serve – the way Christ intended.