On Ash Wednesday this week we kicked off the season of Lent. Lent of course is a season of the church calendar that commemorates the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness with a strangely-calculated 40-day fast that culminates in Easter. It’s been celebrated for 1500 years as a time of penitence, prayer, and fasting, and probably coincides with some traditional Germanic spring fasts that are much older. But if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t really appreciate the explanation “because it’s old and we’ve done it for a long time,” you might wonder, “Why do we have long seasons of repentance in church?”
Why do we take so much time to emphasize how sinful we are? Why do we take 40 days in Lent and then 4 weeks in Advent to repent and pray? For that matter why do we confess our sins every single week? Other churches don’t make such a big deal over this. Preachers on TV tell you you should feel good about yourself. Why does the church devote so much time to telling us that we should feel bad?
I’m going to spend the next few weeks in church talking about repentance. And I’m going to try to answer those questions: Why is repentance such an important part of the Christian life? Why is it so important that we do it? And what does it say about us that we choose to remember our fears and our failings?
This week I’m going to talk about the why of confession and repentance. Why do we confess our sins each week and take special times to consider our failings in Lent? Because confession is an expression of hope. We confess because we believe in mercy. We believe in God’s mercy and grace, that if we confess our sin God will be merciful with us. If we did not hope in God’s mercy, we would not confess. Adam and Eve did not know of the Lord’s mercy, so they hid themselves. When a company makes a mistake, they do damage control and don’t admit to anything, because they know public opinion is merciless. But we open ourselves to God because we hope that in confession we can become better and in asking for forgiveness we might be relieved of our burdens.
Perhaps you know the story of David and Bathsheba. David has Bathsheba’s husband Uriah’s killed so that he can take her as his wife.
When a child from that union is born, it is terribly sick, and David is absolutely distraught. He loves Bathsheba and he loves the child, but he knows that God is punishing him for what he has done. David prays to God for mercy. And he fasts so much that his officials get worried about him. Sackcloth, ashes, the works. Every night he lies facedown on the floor of his room. When his officials try to get him, he refuses to even speak with them or eat anything.
After a week, the child dies. The officials are all terrified. None of them wants to be the bearer of bad news. If David was this bad when the child was sick, he’ll be ten times worse now that the child has died. Eventually David notices how everyone is avoiding him. He asks for the truth, and they tell him. They all cringe in anticipation of what David is going to do. But David gets up, takes a bath, combs his hair and goes down to breakfast. When they ask him what happened, he says, “While the child was alive, I still had hope that the Lord would be merciful to me and let the child live. But now that he is dead, why should I fast?”
David fasted because he hoped for the Lord’s mercy. He stopped his fast when he no longer had that hope.
To repent is a hopeful act. We repent because we believe, we hope, we trust in God’s mercy for us. We’re not shaking our fist at a cruel and angry world. We are admitting that something has gone wrong that we cannot fix alone. And we are hoping that God, who is infinitely merciful, will make us whole again. When we talk about our sin we are saying that we believe that mercy exists for us. To confess our sin is to say that we believe things can get better for us, through the help of our Lord.
Our Gospel story comes from the book of Luke, and is about a tax-collector named Zacchaeus. The Romans used a system called tax farming to collect their taxes. Instead of trying to collect the taxes themselves, they would simply put out a contract for an amount of taxes to be collected, say four thousand denarii. Someone would then buy the contract for that price. And they would go out and collect as much money in taxes as they possibly could, say six or ten thousand denarii. They’d make a profit by squeezing every dime out of the local populace. To Judeans tax collectors were worse than traitors. Not only did they work for the Romans, they made money by taking more than what was owed from people who didn’t have much to begin with. If Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor, Zacchaeus stole from the poor to give to himself. This was, without a doubt, a sin in the eyes of God. There are pages of Biblical condemnations for those who have a lot but choose to take from someone who doesn’t.
You can imagine how this might lead to an unfortunate cycle. Zacchaeus collects taxes. Everyone hates him. He holds parties and gives gifts, but that requires money, which means more taxes. Everyone hates him even more. Much has been made of Zacchaeus’s small stature, but it’s possible that Zacchaeus couldn’t get a good spot in the crowd simply because not a single person there to see Jesus was willing to step aside so that he could have a view. But of course he is the one in the crowd who needs Jesus. He’s the one stuck in a prison of his own creation.
And lo and behold, Jesus sees him. And here this great man, this righteous man, wants to come to Zacchaeus’ house. Even though he is a sinner, Jesus wants to eat with him. Jesus shows him what it is to be loved and appreciated and cared about for who he is, and not what he has. And Zacchaeus can’t get enough. The kind of love you pay for is nothing compared to love that is freely given. And that opens up a whole world for Zacchaeus. And Zacchaeus begins to hope that he might be able to live in that world, instead of the world of hypocrites that he has made for himself.
And Zacchaeus repented. He gave half his money to the poor and promised to repay 4 times what he had taken from those he had cheated. Jesus didn’t beat him up into repenting, he didn’t tell him he was going to hell if he didn’t change his ways. He loved him. He showed him something that he could hope for. And it turned Zacchaeus’s life around.
The story of Jesus is a story of hope. It is hope for the downtrodden, hope for the miserable, hope for the sinner, the lost, the empty, and the angry. And the center of that hope is the grace of God. We are loved even when we do not deserve it. We can be forgiven for the things in our past. We can be made new in Jesus Christ. We can be born again.
We confess because we believe in that hope. We believe that our slates can be wiped clean. That our sins can be forgiven. We don’t have to carry around every mistake we’ve made in our past. We don’t have to hide ourselves. We trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness to open us to a better life, lived in the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why we confess. Because like Zacchaeus, we long to be free from the cycles and patterns of brokenness that can control our lives, and in Jesus we find hope for something more.
I'm the pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pitman, NJ. I love camping, rhetorical criticism, and classic movies. I'm passionate about God's love, and the messy, beautiful ways it shows itself in our communities every day.