IN THE NAME OF JESUS. AMEN. The text is from Matthew 4:17. Jesus said, REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND.
There’s this wonderful spiritual song called “Weeping Pilgrim.” The first few lines goes like this: “You may tell them, madam, when you see them, I’m a poor mourning pilgrim, I’m bound for the Promised Land. You may tell them, Adam, when you see them, I’m a poor mourning pilgrim; I’m bound for the Promised Land. I weep, I moan, and I move slowly on. I’m a poor mourning pilgrim; I’m bound for Canaan’s Land.” It’s a sober picture of the Christian life and a perfect description of a life of repentance: poor, mourning pilgrims, and yet bound for the Promised Land.
We were called to weeping and mourning over our sins and making no provisions for the flesh. The Lord said, “A CONTRITE HEART I WILL NOT DESPISE.” But if our idea of repentance is to measure whether our weeping and mourning has been enough, we’ll never be finished. It’s true, we ought to mourn and weep, and by God’s grace, we’ll learn to do it. But which of us has mourned enough?
By God’s grace, we will learn anew this Lent to wage war against our flesh and Satan, and to pray that God would close to us the path of misery and keep us from sin that would kill our souls. But you will also learn anew just how slowly on you move—every time you look and see in your flesh what our conscience and God’s holy Law have been telling us all along: Pride, despair, loveless words, loveless thoughts, self-justifying, lust, and laziness. Pick yours or pick ‘em all. The Law of God lays us bear.
Of course, it’s a mercy of God that we’ll never truly know how deep our sin goes or how much we’ve grieved Him. But more than that: it’s God’s mercy that He who knew no sin, came down to be born of a woman, and born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law. That is, He came down to weep and moan like us poor, lonely pilgrims to make the Promise Land possible for us.
Tonight, when it is fitting for us to consider our sin and its wages—ashes to ashes, dust to dust—we must above all look to Jesus, who takes up our cause, who takes up our flesh in the Virgin’s womb to stand in the place of all humanity. It’s not that you ought to repent, so that you can believe in God. It’s that you have to believe that you cannot repent.
That’s why God became man and wore SACKCLOTH AND ASHES. It’s because He knew you could not, not the way you should. God cried tears like a guilty man. One Mourning Pilgrim for all mourning pilgrims. God was bitterly ashamed in our place and tore His robes to bare His chest and take the blows for all humanity. God REPENTED for us, because no amount of our repenting could possibly change our sentence, and because we’ve never yet REPENTED, not even as much as we could, Jesus repented – enough for all of us.
So what now? Is repenting over? Should we just go along in the sins He REPENTED for, seeing as how He REPENTED enough? Let it not be so! God forbid. That’s death. Instead, we should and we must repent all the more. And we can. Not in our repentance—in His repentance. In His repentance, we can see more seriously than we ever have the poverty and death our sins bring; the tears and the shame of our sinfulness; our nakedness before God, our wandering, and the punishment that this day’s sins cry out for. In His repentance, we face what SIN really is and its consequences without having to go to Hell to learn it. We look to Calvary instead. As we sing: “You who think of sin so lightly will not count its evil great. Here you see sin’s nature rightly; here its cost you estimate.” We face the truth nailed up and bloody on the cross. It’s enough, and enough to make us recoil from whatever SIN in fear and disgust. He REPENTED enough for that.
But more, He REPENTED enough that now with Him, we can bear to face the truth more deeply than ever. Repenting with Him, we can bear to drop our excuses and rationalizations of why we sinned or why we didn’t repent, since Jesus REPENTED enough to cover all that.
And more, He REPENTED enough that we owe sin nothing. Whatever the sin is, we should, must, and can let it go, leave it, drop it, and be done. In fact, that’s why faith is. To believe that He REPENTED enough that we don’t just recoil from whatever sin, but turn away from it – as if it weren’t ours at all. It’s not, not anymore. REPENTANCE is to be turned around from your sin. So consider yourself contrite and dead to sin. Jesus turned from sin for us. That’s the first part.
But there’s more: Jesus REPENTED enough that we can now, not only turn away from every sin, but actually go on to turn all the way around to face Him – to face Him as He is, as He is now, alive and well and living a whole new life. And His life is ours. So we can turn to do the new things with Him, to say the new words with Him, to think the new thoughts with Him, again and again, and new again. He’s not ashamed to see us come again. He’s REPENTED enough.
Our sins make us scared to turn around, but He says, “Look at Me!” And He calls to Adam, “Where are you? Look at Me.” And He came to His disciples and He showed them His hands and His side, and said, “Look at Me and see!” He’s the One who’s commanded us to REPENT now, no matter how many times you’ve sinned.
Because this verse, Mt 4:17, is a very happy verse, from a very happy Lord and Savior. He says here, REPENT – not because you ought to or because you need to, though, of course, we do. He says, REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS AT HAND. Turn around, because THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is right here and open wide, THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN in Person and calling you by name.
He stands before us this Lenten Season and always with innocence enough and power enough and life everlasting. It’s right AT HAND. And He’s not wearing SACKCLOTH AND ASHES anymore. He’s not crying and He’s not ashamed, and His ROBES ARE FRAGRANT WITH MYRRH AND ALOES AND CASSIA as He parts them to show us His heart and take us to the place He’s prepared. Amen.