God’s U-Turn: Repentance

How many of us, in driving towards a destination, miss the turn off the road? Then realizing it, we want to turn around but at every intersection there is a NO U TURN sign. Sometimes, when driving to a place we have never been before, we just get lost. Instead of just turning around, we keep on driving thinking we’ll find an alternate route or a road that we’re familiar with. The spiritual life is similar to driving. Sometimes we take the wrong turn, we make a mistake, we fall, we sin. Sometimes we get lost in life, not knowing what path to take. Jesus has an answer or a solution when this happens. He says, “Repent!”

That’s what He said in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 4:12-17) from the Sunday after Theophany. After Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River He begins to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent means take a U-TURN immediately. In other words, turn your life around to go back towards God. The devil of course, does not want us to go back to God. So he puts up all sorts of NO U TURN signs in our life. These Satan-signs are messages he puts out either through false teachings in society or just simple thoughts he sends us to think about, what the Church Fathers call ‘logismoi.’ These messages, teachings and thoughts can vary. For example, the sign will say, “There is no way you can go back after this sin. It’s too big. It’s too bad. God will never take you back.” Or the sign might say, “You’re going to want to keep this one to yourself. It’s pretty embarrassing. Imagine what others will think when they find out.” Or the sign might say, “Destination this way. Keep going you’re on the right path.”

Fr. Anthony Coniaris, in his book, “Message of the Sunday Gospels vol.1” (p.107) gives us several examples of people who made tremendous U-TURNS in their life. The first is Saul, a persecutor of Christians in the first century, who probably directed or at least encouraged executions and murders. When he was traveling on the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to him and asked him, “Why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul made the U-TURN and became Paul the Apostle who wrote thirteen epistles in the New Testament.

The second person is Peter the fisherman whom Jesus invited to follow Him. Peter was one of the closest disciples to Christ but when Jesus was arrested, he denied Him three times. Peter made the U-TURN, weeping bitterly for his betrayal and then become a most powerful Apostle like St. Paul.

The third person is Zaccheaus the dishonest tax collector (publican). When Jesus saw him and came to his home, Zaccheaus made the U-TURN and repented saying, “I will give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it four-fold” (Luke 19:8).

The fourth person is the thief on the cross, crucified next to Jesus. While his fellow thief reviled Christ, this thief made the U-TURN right before his own death saying, “Jesus, remember me in your kingdom. And Jesus said to him, ‘Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

The fifth person is King David who lusted after Uriah, the wife of another man. Not only did he have an affair with her but he essentially killed her husband by ordering the soldier into the forefront of a fierce battle. When David’s friend Jonathan pointed out his sin to him, he made the U-TURN, repented and became one of the greatest kings of Israel but more importantly became a prophet, writing the 150 Psalms including the Psalm 50/51, the Psalm of Repentance.

It is no coincidence that the Gospel containing Jesus’ exhortation to repent on the Sunday after Theophany comes on virtually the first Sunday of the New Year every year. In fact, there are no coincidences in the kingdom of heaven—only providence. With all our new year’s resolutions to change things in our life, do any of them have to do with God’s U-TURN signs that He places in our lives?

The great Christian writer of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We all want progress. Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you an nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the person who turns back the soonest is the most progressive.” How many of us are on the wrong path but because we are progressing on it (i.e. getting promoted, getting paid more, getting accolades, getting awards, etc.), we think we are on the right path?

Another problem with our life is our attitude about sin. We might be the rich young ruler who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (Mark 10:17-27). Jesus told him to follow the Ten Commandments. The rich man said that he had followed them. Jesus replied, “One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (v.21). In other words, as Fr. Coniaris says, “we can keep the commandments, attend Divine Liturgy, say prayers, light candles, make the sign of the cross, yet there may be one door in our life that is still closed to Jesus.” One thing can keep us from eternal life. We must ask ourselves, “what is that one thing in my life?” For many of us that one thing is money and finances, the thing we do not allow Jesus to help us make a U-TURN towards tithing.

One more example of a great U-TURN is the prodigal son, who realized is life was a mess and made the U-TURN of repentance, going back to his father, who is an image/typos of God the Father. Notice with all our examples of persons who made U-TURNS, it was not just about feeling sorry about their sins. They took action. U-TURN means turning completely around. It does not mean a slight painless adjustment in the course of our life. God does not usually say, “Turn towards Me” but rather, “Return to Me.”

Of many instances of this in the Old Testament I quote from three prophets who speak for God.

9but if you return to Me, and keep My commandments and do them, though some of you were cast out to the farthest part of the heavens, yet I will gather them from there, and bring them to the place which I have chosen as a dwelling for My name.' (Nehemiah 1:9)

22I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, And like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you." (Isaiah 44:22)

3Therefore say to them, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts: "Return to Me," says the LORD of hosts, "and I will return to you," says the LORD of hosts. (Zechariah 1:3)

In conclusion today, how important is repentance in the realm of all things pertaining to God? St. John Climacus/Ladder, a monk from the sixth century wrote, “We shall not be condemned at the end of our lives because we did not perform miracles; nor because we failed to theologize…nor because we have failed to have a divine vision…but because of one reason only: that we did not repent continuously.”

Again, Fr. Coniaris exhorts us: “Make the U-TURN of repentance in your life. Turn back from self to God, from hatred to love, from hell to heaven, from death to life. Turn from self-service and self-concern to God-service and God-concern. Turn from your pride, smugness, complacenancy, self-appointed goodness; Turn to a total dependence on God, on His grace and power.” Amen!