On this day, the last Sunday before Lent, many Christian churches observe the Feast of the Transfiguration, or “Transfiguration Sunday,” calling to remembrance the story in the Gospels when Jesus revealed to his chosen disciples his glorious nature as a spiritual being of light.
As the story goes, “Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. … [A] bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’” [Matt. 17:1-2,5]
This week, followers of Jesus observe Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of the Lenten season of sacrifice leading up to Easter. Ash Wednesday is a holy day of prayer and fasting — and it is a time for contemplation of our human nature as both the dust of this world and the light of the Spirit into which we may grow through our spiritual discipline in walking the path of Christ. As a reminder of these truths, many Christians place ashes on their foreheads and recite the words, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Repentance is a major theme of Scripture. In the Bible, we find God continually calling his chosen people to repent of their sins, so that they may be redeemed and blessed instead of facing suffering and destruction. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, “Repent! says the Lord God; turn away from your idols, and renounce your abominations!” [Ezek. 14:6]. In the Gospel According to Mark, the very first teaching of Jesus was to announce that “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15]
Lent is a season of repentance, so as we enter into this important season of the Christian year, let us consider what it truly means to repent, that we may practice our faith with diligence and dedication. The Greek word for repentance used in the New Testament is metanoia, which literally means changing your mind. Greek pagans personified the concept of Metanoia as a goddess who accompanied Kairos, the god of Opportunity.
When Jesus called people to repent, he wanted them to be aware of the glorious opportunity we have as human beings to be transformed in the divine image — if only we will look to God instead of the false gods of the sinful ego. Let us take the chance we are given, and take it seriously, lest we remain wretched in sinful mediocrity. As the Apostle Paul counseled, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. … [B]ecome blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky” [Phil. 2:12-13,15]
In my sermons the last two weeks, I talked about our calling to become the Light of the World and the amazing Transformation that is possible. But it all begins with repentance. In the Psalms, we read of the importance of being honest with ourselves and with God about what we need to change, so that we may experience the renewing of the mind that leads to a divine character:
“Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven … whose sin the Lord does not count against them, and in whose spirit is no deceit.
When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” [Psalm 32:1-5]
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” [vss. 8-10]
It can be difficult to change our ways. When I first typed up my outline for this sermon, I accidentally misspelled “repentance” as “repetance,” like repeating, which is what we often tend to do with our sins — repeat them over and over again. “As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly,” says the proverb [Prov. 26:11].
My typo was perhaps instructive in more ways than one. Not only do people tend to repeat their sins and mistakes, but also we must repeat our acts of repentance to establish a disciplined practice of new, more positive habits, if we truly wish to overcome the bad habits of the past. The Chinese sage Lao Tzu said that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Indeed it does! We must take that first step if we ever hope to reach our intended destination — and then we must take another step, and another, and another. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get there.
So is the process of self-improvement. Changing one’s mind leads to changing one’s behavior, but old habits are hard to break. When we stumble, we must get up and keep walking. When our feet stray from the straight path, we must reorient ourselves to the path of Christ, that we might make progress again in the right direction.
Jesus assures us that “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” [John 8:12]. When we sincerely strive to walk in the way of Jesus, God is there for us to help us — and when we fail, God doesn’t give up on us. Rather, “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience … Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” [Heb. 10:22-24].
In an Islamic hadith, God says, “Take one step towards Me, I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards Me, I will run towards you.” Indeed, God is eager to help us make spiritual progress when we make any effort to walk the path of faith.
The first step of repentance can be hard. When you come to realize that you’ve done something wrong, or that your mind, your beliefs, your way of life was turned away from God’s will, you may feel ashamed and reluctant to fully admit it to yourself, and especially to others. But forgiveness is in God’s nature — and it should be in our own nature as well, for we were created in God’s image. We must challenge each other to repent, and to forgive those who have turned away from their sins and are changing their minds and their lives. That’s the only way that true progress is possible.
But at the same time, we must work to make amends when we have done wrong — and we should expect the same from those who repent and seek forgiveness. Earlier in this service we learned the story of Bartolomé de las Casas, who exemplified the true spirit of repentance; for when he came to understand that slavery was wrong, not only did he free his own slaves, but he worked tirelessly for the rest of his life to persuade others to do so, and repeatedly petitioned the government to make slavery illegal.
A modern example of the same idea is the saying that “It’s not enough to not be a racist; we should be anti-racist.” In other words, true repentance of the sin of racism is to take action against the sin, not merely acknowledging that it’s wrong. The same principle applies to any sin. For example, if we come to realize that we have a tendency to greed, we should begin the process of repentance by becoming more generous — and then we should encourage others to do likewise, and should work against the forces in society that incentivize greedful hoarding of wealth and the perpetuation of extreme poverty and inequality.
Whether on the personal or the social level, repentance inevitably involves a degree of creative destruction, for we must destroy, reform and rebuild the parts of ourselves and our world that are in conformity with the spirit of Satan rather than the Holy Spirit of God. One of the greatest tricks of the devil is to convince us that nothing needs to change — that whatever we already believe or whatever we’re already doing is right and true, even if in fact it’s terribly wrong and against God’s will.
Consider, for example, how so many people believed in the legitimacy of slavery and even fought a civil war in the United States to defend the supposed “right” to own other human beings as property. Many leaders of the Confederacy used the Bible to defend this economic and social system, their eyes blinded by greed and sinful pride, not seeing that it was contrary to God’s plan as revealed by Jesus for all people to be treated with dignity as the children of God.
Today, in America, there are those who defend attempts to overturn a democratic election — even violent insurrection — and believe the perpetrators of such heinous crimes were actually acting on behalf of God and Christ. They must repent of their sin, and the church must call them to do so. Otherwise, Christianity loses credibility in the eyes of people of sound mind and good will, and its influence to bring souls to God is destroyed.
It’s easy to ignore things that need to change. It’s easy to pretend that our sins aren’t real, or that the church isn’t filled with sinners who need to repent. Watching some of the things going on in America these days, I’m reminded of the ironic Japanese image of the Three Wise Monkeys, who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” covering their eyes, their ears, and their mouth so that they can avoid taking responsibility for dealing with sin.
But we must take responsibility. We must repent, and we must call the world to repentance! That is what Jesus calls us to do. And the Kingdom of God will never be more fully manifested on earth until we do this, repenting not once, not once in a while, but as a wholehearted and ongoing practice of faith in our higher calling.
The creative destruction that occurs when the call to repentance is taken seriously can be difficult, even painful at times, for much that God wishes to replace within and among us is burned away in the refining fires of God’s powerful transforming Light. The worldly power of peer pressure can sometimes prevent us from taking the necessary steps of repentance, especially when we’re comfortable with things as they are, or when we’re afraid of the uncertainty of change. But change we must; and the evolutionary nature of our lives, and the story of humankind, and the entire story of life itself are powerful witnesses to this truth.
Those who resist the temptation to try to keep things the way they are, despite knowing that things must change, are accounted as heroes in the annals of God’s plan. Their names are written on tablets of glory in the Heavenly Kingdom — and sometimes in the kingdom of this world as well, as it evolves to become more heavenly — for it is those who take courage and repent who are able to bring the divine plan into being.
In the 2012 movie Lincoln, about the famous American president’s quest to abolish slavery in the midst of the Civil War, perhaps the greatest hero of the story is a man who repents — a congressman from the slave state of Kentucky who gives a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives defending slavery, but then, after searching his conscience and prayerfully reconsidering his views, decides in the end to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which would abolish the abominable practice of human bondage.
In a memorable scene, Congressman George Helm Yeaman sat in silent meditation at his desk in the House chamber, and it was time for him to cast his vote. Struggling to overcome his fear to do the right thing — knowing that his Southern friends and colleagues would hate him for voting to abolish slavery — Yeaman finally summons the courage and first whispers, then shouts a resounding “Aye!” It proved to be the pivotal vote that enabled the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and set free the human captives of the sins of racism and greed.
When Yeaman cast his vote to repent of his former views — indeed to repent of the original sin of America, the sin of slavery — the Congress erupted in frenzied cheers and denunciations. Emboldened by the public repentance of one man, some other congressmen who were on the fence decided to do the right thing and vote their conscience, no matter the consequences. One man’s choice to repent set off a chain reaction of tremendous change. The old America of slave plantations was destroyed, and a new America — a better America of freedom for all people — began to emerge in its place.
That America is still emerging today. The devil never sleeps, and the battle against sin goes on, in our hearts, our minds, and the societies in which we live together. There are many sins for which we must repent, and against which we must fight as we strive to become better souls and to build a better world.
As we enter the season of Lent, let us reflect on what each one of us can do to turn away from the sins in our own lives — turning away not by ignoring sin, but by confronting the ways we need to change, and beginning or continuing a process of genuine repentance. Moreover, let us consider what we can do to help our brothers and sisters in the church, and in the world around us, be inspired toward positive change, even as we walk humbly on the path of spiritual progress ourselves. For it is when we repent that we grow closer to God, and manifest our potential to become the great souls we were all meant to be.
Watch on video (starting at 9:01):