by Christopher Hall
The figure cloaked in black looms over the kneeling parishioners. The quiet breaks with words recalling—and promising—death: “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” Somber hymns in minor keys mark this day and the next 40 to come.
The season of Lent begins this way in many of the parishes of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and we Lutherans seem to love it. The black vestments of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the quiet, meditative Lenten services, murmured conversations about what we “gave up” for Lent and why.
Lenten practices like these sometimes confuse visitors and friends. They ask questions like, “Why do you Lutherans sing sad music? Isn’t worship always supposed to be joyful? It seems like you love to make yourselves feel bad!”
Our answers usually run like this: “Lent is a time of repentance for our sins. We’re being somber because we are supposed to be sad over our sins.”
It’s true. Lent is a season reflection, of confession, of repentance. It is a somber season of sorrow over our sins.
In Psalm 32, David wrote of the weight of his unconfessed sins: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (Ps. 32:3 ESV). Our sins tear us away from a relationship with the Creator of life—our true Life itself, and that should bring sober reflection.
But must it be so somber? Should we approach this season and hope to feel terrible about our sins? Are Ash Wednesday and the weeks following time to cry and feel sorry for ourselves? Is this the picture of faithful repentance?
The story of Nicodemus’ journey to faith has a different look. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council that had authority over every Jew in the world. The 70 members recognized Jesus as something special, even from the beginning. It was early in Jesus’ ministry when Nicodemus waited until it was dark and went knocking on Jesus’ door. “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2 ESV).
Nicodemus knew there was something special about Jesus. Most of the Pharisees had nothing to do with Jesus; they were more concerned with destroying him. But Nicodemus was courageous and determined enough to go to Jesus. He wanted to do something about the knowledge of the truth.
But he wasn’t that courageous. He wasn’t brave enough to tell his peers on the Sanhedrin to stop being hypocrites. He wasn’t even brave enough to talk to Jesus in public. He was scared of others and so kept his faith hidden, slipping away to meet Jesus and then going back home. He had interests to protect: his job, his wealth, his reputation.
What God worked in Nicodemus’ life did not end there, however. Later, John reports of an argument between some officers and the Sanhedrin. Some wanted Jesus arrested, but others were hesitant. Finally, Nicodemus found the courage to speak. “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?”
They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (John 7:43-52 ESV).
After that close call, Nicodemus apparently kept his mouth shut. Even during the illegal meeting of the Sanhedrin on that dark morning of Good Friday, no word of Nicodemus is recorded. Perhaps they didn’t inform him of the meeting, suspecting he sympathized with our Lord. Perhaps he didn’t have the courage to say anything.
But after the crucifixion of Jesus, Nicodemus began to act. He and Joseph of Arimathea went public. When Joseph boldly went to Pilate asking for the body, Nicodemus brought a fortune in burial spices to honor the body of the Lord.
This is a beautiful picture of repentance. Repentance is not so much a feeling of sadness, regret over past sins, or feelings of guilt. Repentance means action, not only changing your mind and your will but also your direction in life—your actions. Nicodemus did just this, changing from secret inquirer, to guarded defender, and finally to disciple. He revealed his change of heart in providing for the body of his Lord. It was when Nicodemus witnessed the crucifixion that his hesitancy became repentance and faith.
Repentance for us on this side of the resurrection is the same. For we who believe in the death and resurrection of our Lord, repentance is also a change in mind and behavior.
Repentance is a change that brings joy.
Repentance is a joy because it is a gift.
As we see with Nicodemus, God brings sinners to repentance. When we acknowledge our sin before God, we can be sure that God has not abandoned us, even if we had abandoned Him. He brought His word of Law into our lives and softened our hearts to receive it. No matter the depth of our sin, it is comforting to know that God is still at work in us.
Repentance is a joy because repentance is never alone. Daily repentance means daily forgiveness—our Lord Jesus having mercy on sinners. God and the angels in heaven rejoice over our repentance (Luke 15:10)! We may rejoice as well, for in confessing our sins we are freed from them by the Word of absolution. Confessing our sins to God is a joyful privilege because He is the God who forgives those sins.
Repentance is a joy for it marks a new beginning in our lives, a turn from sinful death to the Life of Christ. It is a chance for a new beginning, and we do not need to look far to see that we long for improvement in our lives: makeover shows on television; the do-it-yourself industry; and scores of magazines devote themselves to renovating your life in various ways.
Faithful repentance is the opportunity to make over our souls. One of our Advent hymns expresses this joyful change perfectly:
O people, rise and labor
Prepare yourselves today;
Prepare to greet the Savior,
Who takes your sins away.
To us by grace alone
The truth and light were given;
The promised Lord from heaven
To all the world is shone.”
Lutheran Service Book #354