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L. R. TarsitanoóSaint Andrew's Church, Savannah
Ash WednesdayóMarch 8, 2000

"Turn ye even to me, saith the LORD, with all your heart, and with fasting, 

and with weeping, and with mourning: And rend your heart, and not your garments,

and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger,

and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil" 

(Joel 2:12-13).

It may seem very strange to us, indeed, when the Prophet Joel writes that the Lord God Almighty "repents him of the evil." Such a statement might even tempt the careless reader to think that "God sins," so that God has something to repent in the same way that we do, making him not very different from every sinful human being who has ever lived upon this earth. 

Such a thought might be comforting to some people, especially of the sort who do not like repenting very much or who are given to saying about their own sins, "everybody does it." The "little problem" they would be ignoring, however, is that they have just invented a "God" who is nothing like the God who reveals himself in the Bible and nothing like the Father in heaven that Jesus Christ taught us to believe in and to pray to. What we need to do, then, on this Ash Wednesday, as Jesus Christís Church assembles to sanctify a time of solemn fasting, prayer, and repentance, is to look for the true and much more wonderful message that these words contain. 

We should begin by recognizing that "morality" is not an abstract "code of conduct." Morality is the way that God lives, both within the communion of the Blessed Trinity and in his dealings with his creatures. God is "goodness" and "justice" and "mercy" in and of himself. Whatever he does or says is good, just, and merciful because it proceeds from Who he is. This is the message that God gave Moses when he told him from the burning bush, "I Am Who I Am." 

Thus, the Ten Commandments that God later gave to Moses and the moral teachings of the rest of the Bible, including especially the words and commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ, Godís Son made flesh, are not inventions, even of the divine imagination. They are the application of Godís life to our life, and invitation from God to man to live as God has lived, and will live, eternally. 

Nor should we forget the fact of Godís eternity. God created time and space, but he is not limited to them. God exists apart from time and space, without a beginning and without an end. God enters into time solely for our welfare, and not for his own. We must describe Godís actions as taking place in the past, present, or future, but these time frames are a matter of indifference to God, except as they concern his love for us. "I Am Who I Am" doesnít have to bother with "I Am Who I Was" or "I Am Who I Will Be," since these are mere repetitions of the same truth. 

When we are speaking of God apart from the mighty acts of goodness that he has taken and is taking in human history, our verb tenses (which are all about time) will drive us out of our minds if we are not careful. It is perfectly good enough, then, for our present purposes, to understand that Joel is not telling us that "God repents in time" or that he acts one way today, changes his mind, and acts another way tomorrow. We should also remember that God, who is goodness, never does anything that he regrets because nothing he does is regrettable. 

So what does Godís "repentance" mean? It means his calling back of a judgment that he has rendered in time and space, not because he has changed, and not because his eternal purposes and decrees have changed, but because the human beings to whom he delivered the revelation of his will and judgments have changed. 

An analogy may help. One of our children is bouncing a ball against the side of the house. We tell him to stop at once, or we are going to punish him, and so he stops. Unless we are insane, we do not punish a child who has obeyed. Such punishment, under the changed circumstance of his obedience, would be unjust. Furthermore, such punishment would have the opposite effect of what we intended. Our purposes were twofold. We wanted peace and order in our household, and we wanted our child to learn how to behave properly. Thus, we havenít changed our minds when we withhold the punishment that we had promised to the disobedient child from the child who actually obeys. And neither does God when he withdraws a decree of punishment from either a person or a people who turn from disobedience to obeying and serving him. 

Of course, more is at stake when we speak of our Father in heaven, rather than of our human parents on earth. The punishment that God decrees upon the disobedient is truly "evil," not because God ever does evil to punish us, but because our punishment is to experience all or part of the evil of our own disobedience without Godís protection from it. 

Since God is goodness, and justice, and mercy, and life, to be separated from God is to be separated from goodness, justice, mercy, and life. Nothing could be worse or more horrible, since if this separation is made permanent, it is called "hell." I do not doubt, to use our limited earthly language, that hell is a place of eternal torment. I do not doubt the flames and the devouring worms that our Lord spoke of when describing it. But what really frightens me is that these things are only the "outward and visible signs" of hell, the way that water is the outward sign of Baptism. The flames and the worms are only a hint of what it means to be separated from God for eternity, of what it means to spend our lives in this world or in the world to come apart from his protection. 

When God "repents the evil," he responds to our feeblest efforts to obey him, if they are at least a part of an honest struggle against our own sinfulness to turn again to him. God does not change, but we change. His solemn decrees either draw us back to him in obedience, to live with him forever; or they are his just recognition that we have chosen to die forever with the devil in hell. 

Precisely because God is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness (just as the Prophet Joel tells us), God also calls out to us and says, "Turn ye even unto me, with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning." What Joel describes here is "human repentance," a miraculous invitation from God to become like him in the only way that we can: by submitting to the power of his grace, by turning away from everything in our life that is disobedient, sinful, and false, and by turning to the one and only Living God. 

By his invitation to repentance, God gives us the opportunity to imitate him as loving children. He allows us to recall and to repudiate the sentence of death that we have imposed upon ourselves by sinning, and to replace it with a life of grace. By his Sonís death and resurrection, he gives us the supernatural power to take on his holy commandments, not as strokes of the lash, but as the blueprint for our reconstruction and rehabilitation in his own image and likeness. 

Heaven is Godís choice; hell is ours. God is perfectly, utterly sincere in his eternal desire that we should live, and all he asks is our own sincerity in asking for our imperfections and sins to be taken away. We "rend our hearts, and not our garments" because whatever outward signs of repentance we may show the world, what matters to God is that we repent of the evil in our hearts, asking him through prayer and self-discipline to fill our hearts with nothing but himself. 

But if we are too proud to repent or ashamed to be seen repenting by a sinful world, the sentence of Godís justice will be carried out. There is no doubt about that. Neither is there any doubt that Jesus Christ has borne the entire price of sin on behalf of every person who turns to God and repents. Repenting in Lent, or any other time, does not save us. God does that. But true repentance is always the acceptance of Godís invitation, by Godís grace, to live and to never die. 

Please note:  These sermons are offered for your meditation. If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please credit St. Andrewís Church and Dr. Tarsitano.