St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Lent Midweek II

1 Samuel 15:10-23, 34

February 28, 2024

This day and age a lot of churches have abandoned the issue of repentance. Discussing or preaching on or teaching about repentance isn’t easy, it’s not fun, and people do not generally like to hear about this topic.

Repentance targets the hearts of sinners; it skips through all the layers and facades we build around us, the nice little lies we tell ourselves and others and it laser’s in on the deepest issues of our being – that old sinful nature which always seeks to justify itself and make itself look pretty – repentance shows our nature for what it truly is. If you look at the image on the screens or the on front of your bulletin – it’s hard to look at I know, but that’s the point. If we could paint or personify our old sinful nature, it may look something like what you see.

And the old sinful nature is not at all interested in repentance. The old sinful nature is far more interested in being what it is – a sinner in every thought, word, and deed it pukes up – and still trying to one up or beat God – to BE god.

The old sinful nature is a nature of unrepentance. It is a nature that cannot and will not ever seek God’s help or mercy.

Why would we fall into the trap of unrepentance? In our Old Testament reading today, we heard about the first king of Israel, King Saul, that God has chosen him to be holy and to be obedient to God’s commandments and laws, and to do right by the people of Israel. God commands Saul to wipe out the Amalekites, a pagan, thieving and nomadic people from the people of Esau and Amalek, Esau’s grandson, and to leave nothing and take nothing, but to destroy it all. Instead, Saul, after defeating the Amalekites, he instructs his army to pillage their lands and take their possessions, including the best of their livestock.

When the Prophet Samual approaches Saul for this sin, Saul does not repent. Instead, he says, “I didn’t do anything wrong, I followed the Lord’s command,” and rather than acknowledging his sin, he tries to justify his disobedience by making it sound like he was helping the Lord by sparing the sheep and oxen, that they might be used in the sacrifices. Then, when Samual rejects Saul’s excuse and further pushes him to repent, Saul digs in his heals and blames, not himself but his people. “They took the spoils, the sheep, the oxen, not me…I’m the victim here, I’m the good guy!”

Like Saul, we have a difficult, difficult time repenting. Not one person is an expert at ripping his heart open before the Lord and saying, “Here’s what I really look like inside.” We would much, much rather wrap our hearts up in glitter and line them with gold lace, and stick yellow smiley faces all over them so no one sees what’s really going on, especially the Lord.

And when faced with the 10 Commandments, knowing full well we do not keep them as we ought, I get it, because I myself would find it much easier to run from my pastor and from my church rather than acknowledge that I have sinned against God! And I PROMISE that most of the people who do not attend church and haven’t been attending church in quite some time, that it’s because of this issue of repentance. The refuse to acknowledge their sins and they don’t want to change.

And the commandments are clear: Do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not murder, do not gossip, do not covet, honor and obey those in authority over you, go to church (that’s a commandment, did you know that…it’s the 3rd commandment), do not swear or use God’s name sinfully, and do not worship false idols.

Unrepentance is full of excuses. Repentance simply acknowledges the sin. We could look at the sin of adultery. In the part of us that’s spiritual, we know full well what adultery is and where the line is drawn. We could look at bearing false witness, and we know when godly talk turns into gossip. We could look at the sin of not abiding in Sabbath rest and we know that skipping church week after week after week and putting our own lives and plans ahead of God’s Word and Sacrament in a habitual way is sinful.

Unrepentance is when we say, “I don’t care” or “I have a right” and keep on anyway. It is our nature to cling, to hold on to our sin and we will use every trick we know to protect our sin from the judgmental, eyes of God and His Church, or what we perceive as “judgmental.”

As a pastor, one of my jobs, and certainly one of the hardest jobs that I have, is dealing with the sins of the congregation. It’s hard, firstly because I have my own sins and temptations to contend with. I’m no different than everyone of you in that regard. But it’s also hard because, as the clever little sinner I am, I don’t necessarily like people telling ME I’m a sinner and that I need to repent. Therefore, I highly doubt you are always welcoming of me calling you a sinner and calling you to repent, or speaking on matters of God’s judgment and all that. I get it. I get why some pastors have abandoned preaching about sin and repentance. It is a message most people do not easily receive. Saul didn’t. David didn’t at first. The disciples didn’t, not all the time.

But God calls us to preach both the forgiveness of sins AND repentance. He calls us to preach the stuff that makes people want to flock to the church, and the stuff that makes people want to hate the church. They shouldn’t hate the church, they shouldn’t hate the pastor, they shouldn’t hate God for the call to repentance, but people do. The reason we have a world full of atheists isn’t because these people want hard proof that God exists. We have a world full of atheists because they do not want to repent of their sins, and they want to avoid the consequences.

A refusal to repent means no sorrow, no remorse, no intention to turn away from sin and cling to the mercies of Christ. There is no fear of God or of God’s wrath. To be unrepentant means to literally give God the middle finger.

Now here’s a question to ponder: Is God’s forgiveness dependent on repentance. Well, not really, no. God forgave us our sins before we even committed them; He forgave us “while we were still sinners.” So, if God just forgives all our sins and He did this before we were even born, why repent, what’s the purpose?

Unrepentance is a rejection of God’s forgiveness. When someone sits in my office and says, “Pastor, I don’t need forgiveness,” or “I plan to continue in my sin,” what the person is really saying is, “I don’t need nor want God’s mercy.” The person is rejecting the gift. This is what Jesus means when He says, “Whoever does not believe in me is condemned already.”

God’s forgiveness is given, offered, freely to all people without exception. But being unrepentant means His forgiveness is rejected. We can certainly forgive an unrepentant person, but that person does not receive the forgiveness we offer, either on earth or in heaven. And much of the time it is good to forgive a person even if he refuses to repent. But remember that it is not your job to make a person repent.

Even as the pastor, I cannot make you or anyone repent. There’s no magic pill or secret words. My approach, my tact, my attitude, my endless pleading to the unrepentant, if I keep showing up at the person’s house and knocking on the door, none of this will make a person repent. Only Jesus can cause a person to repent. We must instead endure, as best we can, the unrepentant person; we must be patient and we must not, ourselves, fall into unrepentance.

We wait for the Lord to do His work. And as we wait, we continue to treat the unrepentant person as we would want to be treated. No browbeating, no hovering over them or pestering them day after day, and we do not take revenge. Instead, we pray and we use the opportunities the Lord affords, if any, to help.

In the church, formally, there are things that we may have to do if the unrepentance is public. We may have to bar the person from the Lord’s Supper, we may have to bar the person from serving on boards, etc., because unrepentance also tends to breed division and chaos. Sometimes the church even has to excommunicate. But all the barring and limits we place on the unrepentant is done with the prayerful hope that the person will finally repent.

This is the special authority of the church called the “Office of the Keys.” It’s the 5th part of the Catechism. It’s the authority to proclaim forgiveness and withhold forgiveness. Now, when it comes to this specific matter, the Office of the Keys, we Americans have…well, we have some brainwashing and false teaching to deal with, each one of us.

Here’s the thing: Many Christians in the USA would never admit that they do this, but they do, all the time. They take a passage in the Scripture, say, Ephesians 2:8, “We are saved by grace through faith,” and they’ll imply, either intentionally or unintentionally, that the passage overrides other passages such as 1 Peter 3:18, “Baptism now saves you” or Romans 6, “You are buried with Christ in baptism.”

Well, this is done with the Office of the Keys. Mark 2:7 says, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” and from this, many Christians in America will say, “See, Pastor’s can’t forgive sins, because only God forgives sins” outright rejecting the Absolution where the pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins…” I know people, personally, who are so steeped in this idea that they won’t even say, “I forgive you” to a son or daughter or spouse who sins,” but “God forgives you,” because they think saying, “I forgive you” is a sin. It’s a head scratcher for sure.

But we Lutherans do not read the Scripture this way; we don’t pit passages against other passages because this is just not how we’re supposed to read the Scripture. We take every word that proceeds from our Lord’s mouth – from Genesis to Revelation – and we say, “Thus Saith the Lord.”

So, how then do we take Mark 2:7 where the pharisees are complaining against Jesus by saying, “Who can forgive sins but God alone” along with John 20 where Jesus says, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld”?

Well, actually, it’s pretty simple.

  1. Yes, only God can forgive sins.
  2. Jesus is God and He has the authority to forgive sins as He says in Mark 2:10.
  3. Jesus gives authority to His church, and we see this bestowing of authority many times in the Gospels and often it’s through the apostles. He gives authority to baptize, to teach, to cast out demons, to preach, and in John 20:22 Jesus breathes on the apostles the Holy Spirit, which is a sign of bestowing authority.
  4. Jesus bestows the authority of forgiving sins to His church. If YOU forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven in heaven; if YOU withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld in heaven.” What you bind on earth is bound in heaven; what you loose on earth is loosed in heaven.

Authority bestowed. God gives His Church, His people, His citizens authority to do and say things in His name, and He also gives specific instructions regarding how we do it. God giving His people authority should never be seen as a negative but a positive. It’s the good news of Christ who has set us free and given us the keys of the kingdom to open and close, to unlock and lock, and to use His gifts responsibly, faithfully, and humbly. This is wonderful news.

But we must understand and always keep in our minds that it is not our place to make an unbeliever into a believer or to make the unrepentant to be penitent. ONLY God can do this because He is the only one who can get into the heart of a sinner and establish His home therein.

Us trying to be attractional to the sinner or make the sinner comfortable in his sin or make our church look as if we don’t care if the person sins or not, this does not bring sinners to repentance. God brings sinners to repentance by His Word, through the preaching of the Gospel, and I mean Gospel in both a broad sense and a narrow sense. In the broad sense I mean the whole Word of God, both Law and Gospel, both threat and promise.

And in the narrow sense I mean the message of Christ and His death on the cross and His resurrection, that He gave His life for the sin of the world so that all people, even the worst of sinners, have the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. It’s not universalism, that everyone just goes to heaven. We know there is a hell, and we know people will end up there because the Scripture says it. But it’s forgiveness for all to be received through repentance and faith. Amen.

Next week we’re going to consider the feeling, the emotion of forgiveness, and maybe consider a little psychology about the issue of unforgiveness.