Oops…Sorry! – Bruce Benke
I’m going to need your help in order to get started this morning, so let’s all turn to page 12 in our hymnal which you probably recognize as part of one of our Communion service liturgies. OK, let’s read the passage in bold print together: (Read). Now, I’m sure most of us here have read this passage before and are fairly familiar with it.
Having said that, I’d like you to consider to yourself an answer to the following question: What was going through your mind as you read that passage? Did you agree with the lament that the passage intended, and, if so, how did you feel? Did you consider what you read as your personal confession? Did you feel that the passage did not apply to you? Or, perhaps, do you not remember too much about what you read exactly?
I have to admit that, having read this passage many times before, my mind may have wandered and I didn’t pay too much attention to what I was reading at all, and, therefore, I felt reverent, but I didn’t engage the intent of the passage nor perhaps, feel one way or the other that particular day. On those Communion Sundays, while reading this passage, I could have been thinking about getting several gallons of gas in town to last me before I fill up on my next trip to COSTCO. Or I may have reminded myself to stop at Albertsons on the way home to pick up some last-minute items for dinner, or, still again, I wanted to remember to call the grand-kids before they go to bed, because they live three hours ahead on the east coast. But, for now, let’s assume we all fully understand the true intent of this passage, and we all consider that we have confessed together that we have failed to carry out one of Christ’s primary imperative for us as Christians – and that is “to serve one another.” In this case, we have failed Jesus by committing acts, or sins, of omission rather than, what we most commonly think of as sins committed during acts of commission.
When I was studying this passage the other night, I noticed something – right in front of me – to which I have not paid attention nor have I felt engaged in before: The title of the passage itself that we just read. And it says, “CONFESSION AND PARDON”. I thought to myself, “What does, ‘Confession and Pardon’ really mean? What are the title and the following passage asking me to do? Now as I was musing this question, I suddenly realized that God’s Holy Spirit was working on me (I’ve gradually learned that when I start to feel the way I was feeling, God was at work…). I also realized that I was reading this passage alone so there wasn’t the feeling of anonymity or protection in numbers when we read the passage in worship together. That’s when I began having one of those Christian “ah-ha” moments: It became clear to me that I was being asked to confess to a behavior that wasn’t Christian– that I got. But, after I confessed, what next? What did “PARDON” mean? Where did the “PARDON” leave me?
The more I thought about it, I realized that a confession to God serves as a lead-in to an appeal. I admitted my guilt and then I was asking God to do something about it. But what exactly was I asking God to do? That’s what bothered me. The more I thought about it, I began to see that I was asking God to do one of three things: The first was: I could ask him to excuse me from my failure to serve others. After all, I was only human, and, therefore by default, a sinner; Jesus had already taken care of my sin so at least I was admitting to my Christian bankruptcy. And I was also committing that I would confess my sin of omission again the next time I read this passage. Finally, I am appealing to God for Mercy and to give me a pass. There! I feel better now. That’s if I remembered the intent of the confession passage in the first place.
Or, secondly, I could have been asking God to forgive me. Now in this case, if I was paying attention to the passage somewhat, I could be really feeling guilty – and sorry. And because I felt sorry, would have to resist piety in order to achieve true humility. This more sincere feeling would compel me to appeal to God in a different way than asking to simply be excused. I was asking God to absorb my sin of omission, and I would try harder to serve others in the future and try not to commit this sin of omission again. After this confession, I would feel greater guilt than when asking God to excuse me because I would feel I owned the obligation to avoid committing this same sin of omission, and if I failed again, I was responsible for my own weakness. The remedy was up to me. I couldn’t use Jesus as an excuse, and I may need God’s mercy again if I failed again because I was weak, but at least I wouldn’t feel cavalier about accepting Jesus’ gift of absolution.
Now for the moment of truth: My third option to confess and appeal my sinful behavior would be to repent . I would venture to say that we all have heard this word and the call to repent in our Christian life. When I was growing up in Southern California, it was not unusual to observe post World War II traveling evangelistic big-tent Christian revivals where “fire and brimstone” would be preached calling for “repentance” from the “unwashed”. Some of these “preachers” were grifters, or con artists, that were hyping the call to fill the collection plate. But others were legitimate, most notably, Billy Graham.
I remember calls for repentance were common from many Christian pulpits in my youth, but until recently, I didn’t really know just what repentance fully meant. And I haven’t heard the call to repent at all from sermons that I have listened to or read for at least a decade or more. I can only guess that the call to repent from Christian pulpits may be considered too severe for today’s congregations or, perhaps, out of vogue; I admit I’m not sure.
So what does the third option, repentance, call for me to do? And how does it differ from my appeal for excuse or for forgiveness? Here’s the difference: An appeal to God to excuse or forgive does not ask Him for Devine intervention to transform my character nor for a commitment from me to undergo a complete “over-hall” of my soul. In short, these first two appeals do not require me to “surrender”. By “surrender”, I mean I ask Jesus to replace my will with His. My repentant appeal and Christ’s response to my plea offers the only way I can avoid repeating the confession of my same sins over and over during my time on earth while my soul remains mortal and unchanged. I believe the British Christian author and theologian, C.S. Lewis, explains best what Jesus expects me to undergo to surrender my will to His, and I quote from a metaphor Lewis presents as Christ’s imperative:
“Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work. I want you. I have not come to torment your natural self but to kill it. No half – measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desire you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you myself; my own will shall become yours.”
Repentance, then, is an integral part of Christian salvation (As a reminder, salvation rescues us from sin and its consequences.). Salvation cannot proceed without it and, yet, repentance is very hard to do. Many people don’t know how to repent. They don’t know how to surrender their wills. But that is the imperative. The more a person needs repentance, the harder it is for that person to do it.
Let me share my own metaphor: When God gave us free-will, He made us captains of our own ships. We alone are responsible for sailing the high seas of life – whatever comes our way. And that’s the way we want it! The problem is we keep running our ships aground or into other ships or objects. Oops! When that happens we need to return to port for repairs, some minor, some major, before we can sail again. It doesn’t matter how good of a crew we have, as long as we are captain, we will run into something or someone; we will screw up somehow. Christianity provides us excellent training with the best guidebook in the world to sail on our earthly seas and prepare ourselves for the never-ending voyage. However, we can work as hard as we can to learn, practice and hone all of our navigation skills to ensure a safe journey, but we will still run aground.
There’s only one answer to ensuring we sail our ship without mishap on the never-ending voyage ahead: Give up the helm! Step away from the helm! Surrender the helm to Jesus! Put Jesus in command! Giving up the helm doesn’t mean we have to leave the bridge, and we don’t have to give up our officer’s commission. But we have to be willing to accept the position of, perhaps, first officer.
If we can truly repent to enable our salvation, we will then fully understand and realize John Newton’s conversion which began in a ship wreck in 1748 and yielded in 1779 his infamous verses, “Amazing Grace”, the first lines of which sums up my entire message this morning: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Repentance, done the right way, will open our eyes to see a reality we cannot yet see on our own, and it will be by God’s Amazing Grace that we will never, again, have to say, “oops, Sorry”. Amen.