Return, not repent

I frequently drive by this train trestle on my way to centering prayer. I finally decided to take the time to stop and photograph it. This required that I drive past it and park at the entrance to a neighborhood and walk back.  There is no shoulder to the bridge I stood on so I had to be very mindful of traffic, and pray they would notice me.  I had not planned to do this so I wasn’t wearing bright clothing.  Army green is a neutral in my world.

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I admire the effort required to write this, and I love the colors and font. The word on it – repent – is problematic. The English word “Repent” has such weight. The original Hebrew word is “tshuvah”, which means “to return”. It isn’t about “paying for your sins” but turning away from them and walking towards life. Every moment of every day we have a choice – to choose life or choose death. And every time we make an unhealthy choice, we get the opportunity once again to turn around and get going in the right direction again. It isn’t about penance at all.

Consider when the Psalmist says in Psalm 103:12 –

“As far as the east is from the west / So far has He removed our transgressions from us.”

– that the distance from east and west is simply a matter of direction, instead of distance.  If you are walking east, all you have to do to walk west is turn around.

God doesn’t care how far you are along the path of life – just as long as you are walking along it.  God cares which direction you are pointed.

When you notice that you’ve gotten turned around and are headed in the wrong direction (this is part of being human and happens to all of us) then all you have to do is turn back around towards Light and Life and the Lord.

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Parable of the lost coin

“What woman doesn’t light a lamp and thoroughly search the house from top to bottom if she loses a single silver coin out of the ten she has? She will call together her female friends and neighbors when she finds it, saying ‘Let’s celebrate, because I’ve found my lost coin!’ Truly, the angels before God are just as joyful when one sinner repents.”

LK 15:8-10

Unconditional God

Jacob, not yet Israel, said to God in Genesis 28:20-21:

20 Then Jacob made a vow: “If God will be with me and watch over me on this journey, if He provides me with food to eat and clothing to wear, 21 and if I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God. 22 This stone that I have set up as a marker will be God’s house, and I will give to You a tenth of all that You give me.”

He’s just had his amazing dream in the desert, and set up a small rock as a reminder that this is where God spoke with him.

Note all the conditions he gives. If you do this, then I’ll do this. He’s making demands of God.

Moses said to the family of Israel in Deuteronomy 30:1-6:

“When all these things happen to you—the blessings and curses I have set before you—and you come to your senses while you are in all the nations where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 and you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and all your soul by doing everything I am giving you today, 3 then He will restore your fortunes, have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 Even if your exiles are at the ends of the earth, He will gather you and bring you back from there. 5 The LORD your God will bring you into the land your fathers possessed, and you will take possession of it. He will cause you to prosper and multiply you more than He did your fathers. 6 The LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the hearts of your descendants, and you will love Him with all your heart and all your soul so that you will live.

This is the other way around. If you, as a people, do these things, then God will do these things for you.

In the first section, God has to do the work first. In the second, the people have to do the work.

It isn’t unconditional in these stories, but it is interesting to see that the focus has changed. Instead of us demanding more from God, they are demanding more from themselves. It is more mature, but it is still conditional. It is if-then. Not that God loves you anyway, but that love is dependent on another’s actions – even if that other is God.

What chutzpah to demand anything of God! And how sad to think that God won’t love you regardless.

But then Jesus says in Luke 15:11-2 (the story of the prodigal son)

11 He also said: “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate I have coming to me.’ So he distributed the assets to them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered together all he had and traveled to a distant country, where he squandered his estate in foolish living. 14 After he had spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he had nothing. 15 Then he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from the carob pods the pigs were eating, but no one would give him any. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, and here I am dying of hunger! 18 I’ll get up, go to my father, and say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. 19 I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired hands.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father. But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. 21 The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father told his slaves, ‘Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.23 Then bring the fattened calf and slaughter it, and let’s celebrate with feast, 24 because this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ So they began to celebrate.

The father had never given up on him. All he had to do was return, and the father ran to him. Note verse 20 – “…while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him.”

This is how our Heavenly Father is. We have to return and all is forgiven.

Likewise, we are to forgive others in the same way. Peter asked Jesus in Matthew 18:21-22 – how often must we forgive someone? And Jesus said that as many times as they ask for forgiveness, you must forgive them.

God gives us unconditional love. We are to share this love with the world. In the same way that we are forgiven, we are to forgive.

This is Heaven on Earth.

(All Bible translations are HCSB)

An unresponsive generation.

“What shall I compare this generation to? It is like a bunch of children sitting around saying to each other ‘We played a happy tune but you didn’t dance to it. We sang a sad tune but you didn’t grieve!’ For John doesn’t make merry or celebrate by eating or drinking, and they say he’s possessed. On the other hand, the Son of Man enjoys drinking and feasting and they accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard, and of hanging around with people who can’t be redeemed! Yet the fruit of wisdom justifies it.”

MT 11:16-19, LK 7:31-35

He then began to denounce the towns where he had performed the most miracles, because they didn’t turn away from their sinful behavior.

“It is terrible to be you, Chorazin! It is sad to be you, Bethsaida! For if Tyre and Sidon had seen the miracles that you saw, they would have repented long ago, wearing sackcloth and ashes! Mark my words – it will be easier on those cities on the Day of Judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you ever see the kingdom of heaven? No, you will go down among the dead. Even the wicked town of Sodom would have been saved if it had seen the miracles you saw. That town will get off lightly on the Day of Judgment in comparison to you.”

Then speaking only to his disciples, he said “Whoever hears your message hears my message. Whoever rejects what you have to say rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the One who sent me.”

MT 11:20-24, LK 10:13-16