A life of forgiveness and repentance

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9.8-17, Mark 1.9-15
St Andrew’s Scots Kirk, Colombo, February 18 2024

Our Christian faith can be summed up in three simple sentences:

  • God is love.
  • God loves us. God loves each and every one of us without reservation.
  • What God wants most for us is that we in turn should love God and love our neighbour and in this way be fully ourselves.

In practice, of course, it is never so simple.

God’s love may be perfect. Our love is not. We are not the human beings God would like us to be. We are not the human beings we would like to be.

The letter to the Ephesians tells us that we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ […] until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

But we have growing pains.

Our love is imperfect, just as our faith and our hope are imperfect. And so, for us, growing up in every way into Christ is always by turning away from our past and turning anew to God.


Mark is the shortest of our four Gospels, because Mark has the enviable gift of writing short.

In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us three things:

  • Jesus is baptized
  • Jesus is tempted
  • Jesus proclaims good news and calls on his hearers to turn again to God and change their lives.

In our other Gospels, each of these things can make a whole reading in itself, but Mark packs them into seven Bible verses. And this helps us to see how the three things are highly connected.

Let’s tease this out.

When Jesus of Nazareth, still a young man, goes to John to be baptized, he is committing his life to the one he calls Father. He is committing his life to God.

We are called to do the same. We are called to commit our lives to God, not just once, but many times. Day by day, Sunday by Sunday, year by year, when we are young, and when we are old.

When the Holy Spirit drives him into the wilderness, there to be tempted by Satan, Jesus is trying to figure out what this commitment means.

As Matthew and Luke elaborate this story, they tell us mostly what it doesn’t mean. But in this way, they tell us what it does mean.

Jesus is called to be a servant Messiah, serving God, and serving God by serving us. When James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask him for high honours in high places, Jesus tells them off. To them and the other disciples he says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

And he tells them why: He himself came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

As with Jesus, so with James and John and the other disciples. As with Jesus, so with us.

When Jesus appears in Galilee after John is arrested, he begins his life’s work: proclaiming the good news. We too are called to proclaim the good news, but we are called first to hear it. To hear it and respond. To hear it and take it to heart.

We may have been baptized as infants or later in life. Either way, we also commit ourselves to serve God. As we go through the twists and turns of life, we too have to figure out what that means – and then get on with it.

But since, unlike Jesus, we are sinners, we always have to turn again to God. Our baptism ushers us into a life of repentance and forgiveness, a life of forgiveness and repentance.


Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. Wednesday last was the first day in Lent. Lent is a season leading up to Easter, the most important day in the Christian year, the day when the crucified Christ is raised from the dead to new and never-ending life.

In the Bible, 40 is a highly symbolic number. The rains that created Noah’s flood lasted 40 nights. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. In our Gospel, Jesus is in the wilderness for 40 days.

In the Christian year, Lent is a period of 40 days leading up to Easter. In this time, we are specially called to turn again to God, examine our lives, and change anything that needs changing, so that when Easter comes around again we may celebrate with open hearts the new life that the risen Jesus brings.

In Lent we are challenged to recognize our need for God, and to practise ways of letting go of ourselves so that we can better embrace the saving love God brings.

But here, as always, the initiative is with God.

Imagine that you do something that offends me, and I am offended. But later on, I forgive you, and we are reconciled. What happens here?

What happens is that I change my mind about you and  we become friends once more.

With God, it is the other way round.

If I do something that offends God and God forgives me, what happens is that God changes my mind. We are friends once more because God changes my mind about God and about myself. God changes me.[1]

In his famous parable, Luke says that the prodigal son comes to himself. As one writer says: To repent is to come to our senses. And he adds, this is not so much something we do as something that happens to us.[2]

What we may think of as our repenting, as our saying sorry to God, just is God forgiving us. To repent and to be forgiven are two sides of the same coin. They are one and same thing.

This may seem like the kind of obscure theoretical point that preachers sometimes like to make just to confuse us. The best way to see how it works out in practice is to turn back to the hymn by William Cowper we sang earlier (CH4 552).

Cowper, who lived in England in the 18th century, was a troubled man with a troubled life.[3] He suffered from what today we would recognize as clinical depression, and he suffered from it acutely. There were times when he was tempted to believe that God did not love him. There were times when he was tempted to take his own life.

What saved him was his faith.

Other great English-language hymn writers – Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton – give us the gospel as preached from the pulpit. They talk of grace, and so they should; because everything begins and ends in grace.

But Cowper tells us how it looks from the pew. He is, we may say, the patron saint of ordinary believers, and I am a huge fan, because I am an ordinary believer too.

Oh, for a closer walk with God,
a calm and heavenly frame,
a light to shine upon the road
that leads me to the Lamb!
Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
the world can never fill.
Return, O Holy Dove! return,
sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn,
and drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from thy throne,
and worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God,
calm and serene my frame;
so purer light shall mark the road
that leads me to the Lamb.

That’s what repentance looks like in practice: to turn back from all the false paths and destructive ways that in the course of our lives we may take, and to find God’s path, God’s way. Or rather, to be shown God’s path, God’s way – because it is the Holy Spirit, Cowper’s “holy dove”, who guides us into the paths of righteousness and without whose guiding we will always go astray.


What is true of us as Christian believers can also be true of us as a congregation. We want only to serve God, and if it weren’t for all those irritating people around us, it would be easy. We quarrel with one another. We are unhappy. We lose a sense of proportion.

We are not perfect. God needs to forgive us not once, not seven times, but seventy times seven times. This is why I say that our baptism, our being brought into Christ’s church, set us off on a lifetime of repentance and forgiveness, forgiveness and repentance.


There is a praise song I liked to sing when I was a young man. You can tell from my beard that this wasn’t yesterday. The song in part goes like this:

We are one in the Spirit,
We are one in the Lord.
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

This is our calling as Christians. This is our challenge.

As we go through the season of Lent – 40 days looking forward to Good Friday and the Easter day of resurrection and new life – the question each and every one of us needs to ask is this: Will those around me – the people next to me in the kirk session or the congregational pew, the people in my home or in the wider community of Colombo – will they recognize me as a Christian by my love?

By God’s grace, may the answer be Yes.

[1] Herbert McCabe, The New Creation (London: Sheed & Ward, 1964), 100
[2] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith (HarperOne, 2004)
[3] On Cowper, see Donald Davie’s introduction to the Oxford Book of Christian Verse (OUP, 1981), from which I plagiarize shamelessly.

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