1 John 1:8-2:2; Luke 15:1-10
First Sunday of Lent
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Last week we began a series looking at the liturgy – the words we say as part of our services in church – just stepping back to ask, why do we say these words. If you missed it, you can catch up by re-watching or reading the sermon on our website. This week, we are going to take a look at that part of the service we call the Confession.
Its an appropriate theme as we begin the season of Lent. Lent is not a word or a season that you will find mentioned in the Bible, and yet from earliest times it was a period that was marked by the early church. It had three main elements: preparation, fasting and penitence or confession. Preparation, because this was the time of year when people studied and prayed in preparation for their baptism on Easter Sunday; fasting, because that was part of the Jewish and early Christian culture prior to a major festival; and penitence, because those who were being readmitted to receiving communion on Easter Day after having been excluded because of serious sin, embarked on a period of penitence beforehand. These three things – preparation, fasting and penitence – over time merged together and got applied to all Christians. And they became associated with Jesus’ time of preparation in the wilderness – hence the 40 days of Lent. (And if you’ve ever counted and wondered, it is in fact 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but we don’t count the six Sundays that fall in between.)
So Lent is a time of preparation and penitence and confession. A time to acknowledge before God our failings, our shortcomings, our sins, and seek his forgiveness. It is therefore a less celebratory period of the church’s year, a time to look in the mirror and admit that we fall short of our own standards and our hopes, let alone God’s.
But although Lent, and indeed Advent, have a particular focus on confession, it is by no means exclusive to those times of year. As you will have noticed, every service at every time of the year includes a period of confession. Why?
Well, because the act of repentance, the act of acknowledging our sin and asking for God’s forgiveness is such a core aspect of the Christian faith. John the Baptist called his listeners to “repent and be baptised”; Jesus called his disciples to “repent and follow me”. It is not a one-off act but a way of life, a continual turning towards God and away from the things that distract us and prevent us from following him in our lives. And so writers like John, who we heard in our reading, and James, wrote to the new church communities telling them to “confess their sins”. Doing it every week in church sets a pattern for our daily lives, so that we neither become arrogant or complacent about the state of our lives (after all, as John puts it so clearly “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”), nor do we miss the life-giving, abundant gift of God’s forgiveness.
There are three other reasons why confession is such an important part of our worship. Firstly, and this is why we do it early on in our service, there is a sense in which we are clearing away the debris of our lives, so that we can offer God worship that is uncluttered. Or as the Psalmist puts it, “who may come into the presence of God? Those with clean hands and a pure heart.” God’s presence is holy: it is right that we come before him having made an effort to be clean.
Secondly, confession reminds us that coming into God’s presence can not be taken for granted or lightly. Throughout the whole of Old Testament history, worship, encountering the presence of God, was full of the utmost trepidation and fear. The name of God could not be spoken. Only the high priest could enter the holy of holies, and only then once a year. Any sacrifice had to be perfect and unblemished. Contrast that with the early Christians who freely and easily worshipped God in one another’s homes, who sang joyful hymns, who addressed God intimately as “Abba”, Father, and who no longer needed to make animal sacrifices of any kind. What enables such a change. It is the sacrifice of God’s Son, Jesus, for each one of us. God’s grace is free to us, because it cost him everything, Confession reminds us of that.
And thirdly, confession is an integral part of our worship because it brings God joy. Our Gospel reading reminds us of that most wonderful of truths: the joy, the celebration in heaven over the sinner who repents. When we come before God, acknowledging we have let God down, asking for his help and forgiveness, he absolutely delights to be able to respond.
So given all of this, lets now look a little more closely at the words we say during this part of the service. Every week, there are three parts: an invitation to confession, the confession itself, and the absolution (the declaration of God’s forgiveness).
The invitation to confession is more than just a “can I invite you, ask you, to confess your sins”. It is almost always proceeded by a statement about God that gives us confidence to do so. So today, picking up the Lent theme, we are reminded that for forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil, that he knows what it is to be tempted, he can identify with our struggles. After Easter, we will be reminded that Christ died to sin once and for all and now lives to God – he has dealt with our sin. In another service we are reminded: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son Jesus Christ to save us from our sins”. It is a good model for us. Whenever we know our need of God’s forgiveness, we should start by reminding ourselves of the character of God: his great love, his mercy, his sacrifice.
The confession part of the prayer, which is what we all say in some form, has a number of parts to it. We start by making a statement of our sinfulness, by recognising that we have fallen short of God’s standards. We acknowledge that sin can creep into every aspect of our lives, our thoughts, our words and our deeds; and that it can take different levels of intent – so last month as part of our confession we acknowledged that we sinned “through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault”. In other words, there are times when we know exactly what we are doing in doing wrong; at other times, it is because we are too weak to resist; and then there are other times when we just aren’t giving enough attention to the good that needs to be done. All are ways in which we fall short.
Sometimes our confessions keep at the broadest of levels. There are other times, such as our liturgies during Lent and Easter, when the words of confession touch on more specific areas, which may help to address our blind spots, those things that we don’t often think about. So today we asked forgiveness for “ignoring God’s will in our lives” and for “living as if we were ashamed to belong to your Son”. And later in the year, we will confess that “we have wilfully misused your gifts of creation” and “we have seen the ill-treatment of others and have not gone to their aid”.
Usually, having acknowledged our failings there is an expression of sorrow, sadness, contrition. It i right that we should be sorry for the impact our sin has had on others and on God. Genuine repentance involves genuine remorse for the pain, the hurt, we have caused.
And then we finish our confession with a plea for God’s forgiveness, that in his mercy he would forgive us all that is past, that he would save us and help us, or, in the words of Psalm 51, he would “wash away our wrongdoing and cleanse us from our sin; that he would renew a right spirit within us and restore us to the joy of your salvation.” And sometimes, just the words “Lord, have mercy” are enough. In Lent we say this in the form of the Kyrie Eleison (which is Greek for “Lord have mercy”) – a prayer of confession that has been used in the church for centuries – its repetition giving us opportunity to truly reflect on and give heart to the words.
And then in response to our confession come the words of absolution, the declaration of God’s forgiveness. Like with the invitation, it starts with a statement about God – that he forgives all who truly repent, that he is the God of love, the Father of all mercies, of all healing and forgiveness, who sent his son into the world to save sinners. Its on the basis of who God is and what he has done that we can then receive that simple assurance that he forgives us. It is not dependent on our feelings. It is not dependent on whether we feel worthy or not. It is dependent purely on God: “If we confess our sins,” John tells us, “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” What a gift beyond measure. To be freed from guilt; to be forgiven our sins; to be accepted by God. No wonder, that most of the year round, those words that declare God’s forgiveness should lead straight into that wonderful hymn of praise, the Gloria, that we thought about last month.
So may God help us to humbly come before him, acknowledging and repenting of our sins, that we may know the extraordinary gift of his forgiveness.