Rev. Kit Billings
March 21, 2004
I'm guessing that most of you know the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, which is about a young, rambunctious 6 yr. Old little boy named Calvin (who's name was inspired by the sixteenth century theologian John Calvin) and his spritely, sometimes cantancerous, often intelligent stuffed tiger named Hobbes. The two cartoon comic strip characters are buddies and they enjoy life as long as being naughty is a part of it. In one of his comic strips author Bill Watterson produced this fun and interesting dialogue:
CALVIN: OK, Hobbes, I've got a plan.
CALVIN: If I do ten spontaneous acts of good will a day
from now until Christmas, Santa will have to be
lenient in judging the rest of this last year!
I can claim I've turned a new leaf!
HOBBES: Ten spontaneous acts of good will a day? That's pretty many.
CALVIN: Don't remind me.
HOBBES: Well, here's your chance. Susie's coming this way.
CALVIN: (making a snowball)
Maybe I'll start tomorrow and do TWENTY a day.
Calvin reminds us that in the heat of the moment it can be ever so tempting to allow our selfish inclinations to have their way with us, and then think that simply “up-ing” our good deeds each day will win God over. In truth, things must go much more deeply than that. For as we learn through the inner sense of God's Word, we each inherit more than a beautifully deep seedbed of God's love down in our souls—there is more to us than the very blueprint of heaven inscribed upon every cell of our being. We also receive from our parents, grandparents and prior generations particular inclinations toward that which diminishes our love and compassion, and attempts to bring distance between us and our loving Creator. There are sinful inclinations in the natural degree of human beings. Or said metaphorically, our natural will and reasoning enter this world full of psychological rattlesnakes, scorpions and vermin. The desert wilderness that John the Baptist lived in every day showed him symbolically what the natural human will looks like, you might say. It's the part of us that enjoys breaking the Ten Commandments. It's the part of us that can lust after someone other than our spouse; the part that is greedy, materialistic, cowardly; the part that loves to avoid serious and important truth; the part that wants to avoid a relationship with God; the part that resists legitimate suffering, as Carl Jung used to say. All of these potential realities within your own heart and mind are why regular repentance throughout our earthly lives is likely to be needed.
The Season of Lent
We are currently in the Season of Lent, which is Christianity's focused period of repentance and self-examination. This path of deep self-reflection is so important given that it is a common pathway through which the Lord regenerates and transforms us—how He marvelously brings us out of our inherent inclination toward “self-always-first” to instead “God and love first”—love for Christ, for our fellow human being, for the good of life, and also for one's self. Repentance is a fundamental part of how the Lord saves us gradually through life, how He pries our grip off of our ancient passion to want to control others as well put one's self above God. That is, to think and feel that God is unimportant and irrelevant to my life and my salvation. To think that I can reach self-actualization without the Lord's help.
Lent is a journey designed to help us take the time to get that yearly “tune up” within this vital Christian skill called repentance. The ability to repent was meant to be something we make a regular part of our spiritual lives, and there is a difference between substantive repentance and shallow repentance. Let's talk for a bit this morning about deep repentance as a pathway into new life and new growth. This is a perfect time of the year to talk about the “fruits worthy of repentance” as John put it since Mother Nature is now coming to life again after wintertime. Indeed, the new life Christ gives us through spiritual regeneration is pictured so well in the wonderful onset of Spring. Swedenborg reminds us that we are wise to be primarily focused upon the new life in Spring and Summer, just as it is good to have our eyes focused more upon the Resurrection of the Lord at Easter rather than on His suffering and death on the cross. Spiritual temptation and the sometimes hard and painful work of repentance are the means to an end. I don't know about you, but I find it helpful to keep this perspective in mind. Clearly, with the Lord's Word as our guide-map, it's crucial to spend time in life looking carefully into repentance, because ultimately this enables our heavenly Father to do His miracles of spiritual regeneration!
So, the bottom line is, if you want the glory and goodness of God's secret, inward miracle-making within your heart, changing it from a heart of stone to one of warm, feelingful flesh!, then you must make repentance a regular part of your life journey. As the old saying goes, welcome to the club my friend!
Repentance is a term that means, in part, recognizing when we are going spiritually astray and sinning and choosing to stop one's self from going against what is good and true. To repent is to force one's self to do a spiritual “about face” and look toward the direction of the Lord and His truth. Repentance has more to it than this, however. It also involves being willing to carefully examine one's motives and intentions, so that God can lay His ax upon the roots of our evil inclinations and change and transform them. As we read in Luke 3 this morning, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.” It does us little good to simply claim one's self to be a sinner. We need to be willing to let the Lord take His divine scalpel and carefully cut out the selfish or evil affections and thoughts within us that stand in the way between us and the Kingdom of Love and Wisdom which is God's gift to us.
The holy Word and our theology teach that genuine repentance will involve looking squarely at the specific evil tendency involved in a particular wrongdoing, being willing to then feel and experience the dreadful remorse and sadness which follow. For we know that God created us to live in His love and righteousness, and live the good life displayed within the Ten Commandments—a life of holiness and love toward God, and treating each other with kindness and thoughtfulness.
But such a moment it is, that august moment of terrible realization when we realize, “Oh my God, I've been participating in `this or that' form of ugliness and spiritual filth!” This terrible, cold realization brings us to our knees, as we join with God in condemning the hellish presence of the devils infesting our lives. God's Word then shows our vital pathway of seeking help and rebirth from the Lord. We must deeply seek our Lord and Savior in prayer, calling upon His mercy, even though we know full well that God always forgives. Jesus revealed this so many times. As He said to the woman caught red-handed in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
The power to co-operate with God takes us into the next phase of new life in the Lord's Light, which involves going next beyond our spiritual “about face.” The Lord's gift of power in His grace inspires us to take new steps into God's life of all that is good and true. Honoring John's and Jesus' commands to “repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” leads us into conscious reformation, or rather, choosing to change my thinking and my actions in accordance with the divine Scriptures of whatever good religion we love to follow. As John said it so well, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Once we have thoroughly examined our wrongdoing, letting God's Light beam courageously into our intentions which created the sin in the first place, we call upon God to help and heal us. We lay ourselves open to the Lord fully and vulnerably. For we know that the desert wilderness within us must be cleansed by the holy fires of Love only God can provide. And, it happens! The miracle of regeneration happens! The Lord transforms our internal desert into fertile ground. The vermin have been cleansed out by a holy brushfire and we start to experience the effect of plowing new ground for God within us. Our desert wilderness becomes beautiful croplands. Then it's our great pleasure to begin a new life! To “go and sin no more.”
Sometimes we may be tempted to think that the self-examination involved in repentance isn't a daily or weekly kind of discipline. On the contrary, our teachings have a different view. It turns out that like any form of work, whether it be gardening or house painting or bicycle riding, the more regular we do it the easier it becomes. Lent is here to remind us of what we need to be doing perhaps every week of our lives. To do our work so that God in Christ can do His, and lay His divine ax to the root of our evil thinking and intending, which allows the Lord then to raise up our heavenly character, changing us powerfully and deeply within.
In conclusion, I'm sure you may have heard of the story of the urbanite who kept falling into a large hole in the streets he walked on his way to work. Perhaps you've noticed the large potholes in the streets of St. Louis this time of year. Well, the story goes that one Spring day this business man was walking his normal path toward work, which was the same path he always tread for many years. Then, suddenly, right in his path was this large, dangerous pothole. Given how habitual his path was going to work each day, he didn't even see the precariously large ditch on his daily route. And so, sure enough, he fell right down into it! And boy, did it hurt! Then the next day, he got up and ready and out he went. Again, given how strong his habitual path was, down he went! And his fall was great and terrible. But then he started to learn, that if he stepped through his life just that certain way, for certain he would fall down into that deep, dark hole. Well, on the third day he started his usual walk, but this time he remembered the pain and treachery of the big, dark hole that lay in his path.
And so, lo and behold, he saw the big pothole in the cement before he fell into it. He stopped in his tracks, turned his direction, and went a new way around that large, black hole in the earth. He stopped himself from falling, and looked for a better way. Then he made his new direction in keeping with the light of truth which kept him from falling again into that particular hole. He knew that other potholes would soon one day appear, and figured he now had a way of dealing with them should he fall again into the darkness.
May your own journey of repentance lead you into reforming your life in the light of God's spiritual truths. And may we all trust deeply in the Lord's power to change and regenerate our natural wills, which saves us wonderfully, one day at a time. Amen.