Rev. Scott Summerville
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
At the beginning of Lent we turn back to the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. We go back to that moment when he was setting his course on a journey that would end at the cross. His ministry began with his baptism at the River Jordan by John the Baptizer. Immediately after his baptism he spent forty days in the wilderness enduring temptation and hunger. After passing through that ordeal he emerged onto the scene in the region of Galilee preaching a message of good news, announcing the kingdom of God, and calling upon the people to repent.
That word “repent” is a bit tricky. Sometimes we confuse the word “repent” with the word “confess.” To confess is to acknowledge before God and before our neighbor that we have fallen short in some way. We have done things that have cause injury to ourselves or others, or we have failed to act when we should have acted, and our failure to act caused injury to ourselves or others. When we confess, we are taking the painful but liberating step of laying it all out there, coming clean, and committing ourselves to change.
The word “repent” in our Gospels has a broader meaning. The word in the original Greek of the New Testament is “metanoiete” – from which we get the word metanoia. It means to turn around. So when we say someone has had a metanoia, we mean they have had some life changing experience – an experience so significant as to change the direction of her life for his life.
I heard two people recently describe experiences that I would call metanoia. One was a patient in a nursing home who has been wondering what the purpose of her life is now that she is so dependent upon other people and so restricted in what she could do. She said, “An unusual thing happened. One of the nurses who has been caring for me told me the other day that she had been thinking of giving up nursing and that she had become very discouraged and unhappy in her vocation. She told me that something strange happened to her while she was caring for me. She said she had a change of heart, and she thanked me, and she said that she is now once again wholly committed to her work as a nurse. And she said it had something to do with her being with me. I was so surprised to hear her say this. I guess I do have a purpose, even now.”
How strange and wonderful. The healer became the healed. Caregiver became care receiver. A person went from discouragement and a sense of lost vocation to a sense of clarity, purpose, and commitment.
There was a turning point – an important life change – for the nurse. There was a metanoia.
Someone else describe a metanoia recently. A middle-aged person described how they had come to a moment of profound insight about one of their parents. This parent is still living. The parent had been harsh and critical and hurtful to their children. All their lifetime, this person now middle-age has carried wounds and burdens caused by the harsh behavior of the parent. But recently they were prompted to call that parent and say, “I love you; I didn’t always think I loved you, but I do now, and I’m letting go of the pain of all the hurt you caused me.” And in this act this person found great release and relief. Another metanoia. A moment of insight and action that transformed a life and ofere3d healing to another person.
Metanoia can occur at any age and in any season of life. So when we hear the gospel message, “Repent, kingdom of heaven is at hand, believe the good news,” we should remember that repentance is not the same thing as confessing our sins.
For some people a metanoia requires confession. Some of us will never experience healing transformation until there is a reckoning with our past action.
For other people a metanoia cannot take place until they can forgive another- until they have reckoned with the injury others have caused to them. (If you missed Rev. Mary Ellen Summerville’s lenten class on forgiveness, I highly recommend it to all when she offers it again. Her teaching helped to make clear that forgiveness is a process that allows us to regain control over our lives; – we may lose a sense of control over our own lives when we are holding in unresolved anger and grievance.)
A metanoia usually involves a person confronting directly something that they have been afraid to confront – confronting something she or he has tried hard to avoid. The moment of transformation comes when we seize the power to face the things we are most afraid to face.
Sometimes the circumstances of life push us into a metanoia; a life-changing shift comes at a time when we simply had to change. What is exciting about living in times of crisis is that we may have to have a metanoia whether we want one or not.
It is a fact that in times of crisis some people will regress. They will become overwhelmed with anxiety. They will be unable to cope with stress. They will be consumed by paranoia. But while crisis drives some people into paranoia, it prompts other people to metanoia. When we give in to fear, we suffer from paranoia. When a major life challenge provokes us to grow, prompts us to explore new things, and stirs us to creative action, then a crisis can be an opportunity for growth – even an opportunity for positive transformation.
Any economist was being interviewed recently concerning the current economic crisis. The interviewer wanted to know how this economist thinks that economy will recover. The economist said, [paraphrasing to the best of my memory],
“The federal government’s intervention will be one factor in an eventual recovery, but the federal government cannot bring about the recovery; in fact no one knows just how the recovery will come about. But,” she said, – and this is where it gets interesting- “the recovery will come about because millions of individual people will come up with their own recovery plans. As they struggle to survive millions of individual people will discover new ways of employing themselves, and they will discover new ways of cooperation and sharing resources.”
Isn’t that fascinating? The economist thinks that this terrible economic situation is going to create the conditions in which millions of people are going to have metanoias – millions of people are going to discover things about themselves; they are going to have to be more creative than they were before, and they are going to have to create new social arrangements – new patterns of cooperation and sharing.
This is not the way economists normally talk. But these are not normal times.
I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish – “Whoopdeedoo! Isn’t it great to have a huge economic crisis!” I do say that it is life’s challenges that force us to change, and the gospel we proclaim challenge and invites us all to metanoia.
Most of us, unless we are pushed and challenged, will settle into ruts and be content with safety and familiarity, but the Christian thing – the path that Jesus embarks upon and invites others to follow him on – is not the path of the safe and familiar.
As you come to partake of communion today, remember the invitation Jesus gave:
Do this in remembrance of me; take this cup in remembrance of me; eat this bread in remembrance of me,” and remember those other invitations that Jesus gave:
“Repent – get turned around – open your life to transforming love,”
and, “Follow me. I do not promise you safety and security, rather, I offer you the power to face the things you are afraid; I offer you companionship and deep sharing of life; I offer you love and I offer you a purpose for your life.”
That’s the deal.
Shalom, salaam, grace and peace to you.