Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sermon for Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, "Changing Directions"

Sermon 8/2/09, 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Changing Directions

During undergrad, students were required to take two semesters of a language as part of our core requirements, and since I already knew I was going to go to seminary, I decided to study Ancient Greek, the language of the written New Testament of the Bible. Unfortunately, Ancient Greek bears little resemblance to Modern Greek, so after several semesters of study, I still can’t actually use my language skills to speak to another living person. But I absolutely loved learning Greek, because reading the New Testament in the Greek truly deepened my experience of reading the scriptures. Take the word repentance. We’re probably all familiar with the word – in the Bible, in the New Testament in particular, we’re called to repent. It’s what both John the Baptist and Jesus himself say they’re all about when they begin preaching. Jesus says, “repent and believe the good news.”

When you hear the word “repent,” what do you think? What are we being asked to do? Typically, repentance is understood as admitting that we’ve done wrong, that we’ve sinned, and then asking for forgiveness for our sins, and promising to try to sin no more. We might think of Jesus as a Savior particularly in that he saves us from the consequences of our sins. But while that might be a pretty typical understanding of what it means to repent, somehow, we’re still not very good, as human beings, at saying “I’m sorry,” either to one another or to God. When we do something wrong, we’re much more likely to say that we’ve made a mistake, that hey, we’re only human, rather than saying that we’re sorry, and that we’ve sinned.

That’s why we make confession a ritual, a part of our worship service almost every week – because we need to remember, to say out loud, to say it right in front of each other, that we’re sinners. That we don’t listen to God. That in fact, we do the very opposite of what God asks us sometimes. We need to admit, out loud, that more than just making mistakes, we sin, and hurt one another, and try to put distance between each other and between ourselves and God. So together, in our prayers, in our worship, and especially in our preparation to come to the communion table, we confess – not that we’re just faulty humans who can’t help ourselves. But that we’re sinners. And we have to let ourselves experience the weight of that before we can more on.

In my first congregation, I was teaching a Bible study on the Old Testament, and I was trying to get the class to describe King David based only on his negative qualities. How would they describe David based on the sins that are recorded in these chapters in 2 Samuel? Well, they just couldn’t do it. They couldn’t speak two sentences without trying to throw out some of David’s good qualities too. I was trying to teach that class that God chooses us for service not because of our goodness, but because of our willingness to follow God. But the class was sure that David must be good because he was chosen by God to be King. Even when it is not we who are doing the sinning, it seems we have a hard time sitting with our sin. But we have to own up, ‘fess up, to come to the point of repentance.

That’s where our text for today comes in. Last week, we listened in as David lusted after a married woman, committed adultery with her, and had her husband killed in battle as a cover-up. Our scene today picks up right after that, and we read that after some appropriate time of mourning, Bathsheba moves to David’s house, marries him, and bears his son. Yet, we read, “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Nathan, the prophet, comes to David and paints a scenario where a rich man takes a poor man’s lamb for his own use. David is enraged at this act of injustice and says this rich man who took what was not his deserves to die. And Nathan says, “You are the man!” Nathan goes on to confront David with his adultery and murder. And finally, our text today closes with an act of repentance, as David confesses at last: “I have sinned against the Lord.”

But, back to the beginning. You might have noticed, if you were following me closely through all this, that I never told you why I loved that Greek word for repentance. How my understanding was deepened. It’s the literal meaning of the word that I find so compelling. The word in Greek for repent is metanoia, which means literally “a change of direction of the mind.” In other words, it’s taking our life, whatever path we’re on, and doing a 180° turn. It’s turning away from sin, away from selfishness, destructiveness, and whatever else has separated us from God, and returning to God who waits for us with forgiveness and open arms. It’s not just being sorry about mistakes we’ve made, repentance is committing to whole new outlook, a whole change of mind that will take our lives in new directions. If repentance is really repentance, our life shouldn’t look the same after the fact as before it, because we’re going a totally different direction than we were before. Repentance. A change of direction of mind, heart, soul.

My mother is known by her friends and family for having a simply awful sense of direction. For years, my mother would get distressed when she was travelling on the thruway, trying to figure out whether she wanted to go towards Albany, or Buffalo, which as you know, are usually the two signs posted if you get on the thruway around here. For my mother, unless she was actually going to Albany or Buffalo, these signs were useless. She had no idea which way to go if she wanted to get from Rome to, say, Rochester, because that wasn’t one of the choices listed. Now that she’s travelled more, she’s learned to navigate a bit better, but mostly she has just memorized directions. She doesn’t actually know where she is, and it isn’t shocking for her to accidentally end up in the wrong state. But this past Christmas, my little brothers bought my mother a GPS for Christmas – that’s a global positioning system that uses satellites to figure out exactly where you are and tell you exactly when to turn in real time while you’re driving. Now, my mother isn’t very tech savvy either, so it has taken her a while to get the hang of it. But she’s getting there, and I feel so much better knowing that if she gets lost, she’s got something to help her find her way back to the right path. Because the nice thing about a GPS is that when you take a wrong turn and get off the course it has mapped out for you, it immediately readjusts, recalculates, and gives you a new way to get back on the right path. Of course, you have to turn your GPS on for this to work. And you have to give it a destination – you have to know where you want to end up. But if you do that – the GPS will eventually get you on the right path, even if it takes a lot of twists and turns to make it happen.

If “to repent” means “to change the direction of our minds” and our lives so that we’re going on God’s path, rather than our own path, we have to remember that like a GPS works, God will always, always provide us with a path to come back to God’s way for us. Whatever wrong turn we take, however far we get from the original plan, God can always help us correct course and find a way back. We just have to know that back to God is where we want to go – we have to know that into God’s waiting embrace is our destination. King David wandered farther and farther off course, as we saw between our lessons last week and this week. Each step he took away from God, there was a point where David could make a decision to repent and return to God, or keep going down the destructive path he was creating. For a long time he kept sinking deeper. But when he finally was ready to turn back, repent, and change direction, and return to God, God was ready with a way back. The last verse from today’s lesson is the first verse in David’s journey back to God’s path, and it starts with repentance, which is always coupled with God’s forgiveness.

As we celebrate communion today, we come as people who have confessed our sins, and been reconciled to God because of God’s forgiving love. As we celebrate, God is calling us together to this table. And when we come to this table, we’re coming back onto God’s path, if we’ve lost our way, turning back to God’s direction for ourselves and for our congregation. We have sinned. We have wandered away. We have been sure we could do it better on our own. But today, in the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, and found. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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