Sunday, February 21, 2021

Prayer and Repentance

February 21, 2021
St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

2 Chronicles 6:36-40; Mark 1:9-15[1]

When I was a kid, we didn’t give anything up for Lent. Now, maybe some people in our church did, but we didn’t make a big deal about it. We celebrated Lent; we had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper and played some silly games. We didn’t do the ashes on Wednesday, however. I remember saying, naively, to a friend, “You’ve got some dirt on your forehead.”

I do remember being asked by a friend or two, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Was I a bad Christian because, at first, I didn’t understand the question? “Um, nothing?” I felt like I was missing out on something, something important.

What is Lent really about, anyway? “The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.”[2] Prayer serves to direct our attention to God. Penitence is “the condition of being sorrowful and remorseful for sins one has committed.”[3] Almsgiving is charity, giving to those in need and thus showing love for our neighbor. And self-denial is the giving-something-up which is meant to redirect our thoughts and energy from bodily or earthly things to spiritual or divine things. Lent was originally the time when candidates prepared for baptism, which took place during the Easter vigil, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday morning. It was an intense period of fasting and prayer.

As we know from the story of Noah, and as we heard in Solomon’s prayer, God knows that people will be people. We will sin, for “there is no one who does not sin.”[4] We will do wrong. People are weak-willed and short-sighted, and we mess things up. However, God also loves us, and “if [we] repent with all [our] heart and soul,”[5] God will hear our prayer and forgive us. So, what is Lent really about? It’s about coming to our senses. It’s about realizing that we have done wrong, that we have sinned, and repenting. Lent is about focusing on getting right with God.

We celebrate Lent because we need help keeping our focus on God. It’s okay if we stumble, if we fail, if we fall short. We’re not perfect; no one is. God knows that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Lent gives us a chance to try to be better. We should try, because when we do, we store up treasures in heaven, and that treasure can’t be taken from us. When we repent, we hear more clearly the good news, and we get closer to the kingdom of God.

There is something powerful in the act of repentance, really feeling sorry for the wrongs we have done and actively trying to make it right, that can make a difference in the way we live our lives. If we take it seriously, if we take prayer and repentance seriously, maybe something in us can change for good. Maybe something in the world around us can change for good.

We’re familiar with the act of self-denial, even if we don’t practice it as part of a Lenten observance. We diet for our health or to fit into the swimsuit this summer. Some of us even fast, going without food, or sweets, or indulgences for a time.

We’re also familiar with alms-giving. We write our checks weekly to the church for the offering. We donate to the Heifer Project, or One Great Hour of Sharing, to the Lions or the Rotary, and maybe the Salvation Army. We might even volunteer our time to help in a food pantry or soup kitchen.

Another way to look at alms-giving is to think of it as other-sustaining. We know the phrase “love your neighbor.” To love often means to sustain the life of the one who is loved. It’s something we already do, but we can take this moment, these forty days of Lent, to give our other-sustaining efforts a new intensity.

We share our bread with the hungry, and the M.O.R.E. Food Pantry patrons are grateful. We help shelter women who have been abused with our donations to Turning Point. Our rummage sale provided clothing and household items to many in need. But these things just treat the symptoms, they don’t cure the disease. We can do more. We can do more to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, and to satisfy the needs of the afflicted.

This Lenten season let us really try to be constant in prayer, to seek God in every moment, to be prepared to answer when we hear the call. This Lenten season, let us repent; not merely feeling sorry for the wrong things we have said and done, but really making an effort to correct our mistakes. This Lenten season, let us be generous with our money, with our time, and with our love. This Lenten season, let us deny ourselves what we don’t need, and sustain others with all that we can. This Lenten season, may we be heralds and harbingers of the coming kingdom of God.

There is good news to be shared. God loves us, and even if we sin against God we can be forgiven. God hears our prayers and keeps the promises. God maintains our cause as we seek to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. When we walk in the steps of Jesus, we have a firm foundation. Let us go in peace to love and serve the world.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[3] Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).

[4] 2 Chronicles 6:36.

[5] 2 Chronicles 6:38.

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