Repentance. It is a very misunderstood word. For most people, it conjures up cartoonish ideas of doomsday prophets and puritanical, religious fanatics. Such false notions about repentance stem from mistaken and superficial interpretations. In other words, they just don’t know what it means to repent.
Repentance is not, as many people think, a change of habits. It does not mean to “clean up your act.”
Neither is it a reform of the flesh. There is no producing a “diamond from an old chunk of coal” in repentance.
It is not a mere change of thinking prior to some decision for Christ; nor is it any decision for Christ! It is not some religious opinion leading to a momentous “yes” for Jesus.
It is none of these things, though most people would probably define repentance along these lines. What is the reason for so much misunderstanding about repentance? It’s because it is not in our nature to repent. Repentance is something God works in us.
Repentance is, in fact, a miraculous change of the heart. And not just a revamped heart; it means getting a totally new heart. It means having the old one taken out and a new one put in. Not by open heart surgery, but by an open soul miracle! Repentance is a gracious act of God in which He seeks out the lost sinner and creates a new heart within him by His Word and Spirit. Jesus illustrates this in the two parables from our Gospel lesson, which show us the true nature of repentance in three ways.
First of all, they illustrate God’s longing search for those who are “lost.” Repentance begins and ends with God’s great desire to find the lonely, lost soul!
Secondly, they illustrate the sinner’s totally lost condition. Not only is he lost in the darkness of sin, he is also blind to his lost condition. Lost and blind, he is completely incapable of returning to God, and remains that way until he is found!
Thirdly, they illustrate that repentance requires Jesus, with His Church, to search for the “lost” until he is found. The first parable pictures Jesus, our Good Shepherd, searching for the lost. The second one pictures the woman—which is a symbol for Christ’s Bride, the Church—searching for the lost.
In both parables, Jesus compares the joy of finding the one sheep or the single coin as the same as that which is over a sinner that repents. Repentance, He says, is that blessed miracle of being found by God, of receiving a new heart from Him, and being restored to His fold.
So when Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them, we see the parable of the lost sheep fulfilled. Christ came to earth to seek and save that which was lost. His entrance into this world preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins is His search for the lost sinner. And when He was raised up on the cross for our sins, He showed just how far He would go to seek and to save us!
Furthermore, when He focuses the search to the single, lost sheep, He shows His intense love and concern for each and every one of us! Not one lost soul is forsaken by the Lord of Glory, but He searches out each and every one in order to bring them all to repentance, faith, and life in Him.
Now, this mission of seeking the lost Jesus also conferred upon His Apostles. Thus, through their Apostolic Office and Teaching, the Church also searches for lost sinners. As penitent and forgiven sinners who have been found and saved, and who now are gathered around Christ’s holy table, we are rightly called His Bride. So I agree with those Bible commentators who see the woman in Jesus’ parable of the lost coin as referring to the Church. And by way of analogy, the lamp she lights is the Gospel, the evangelical Ministry of Word and Sacrament by which repentance for the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake is still proclaimed. Her “sweeping the house” symbolizes her tireless efforts of going into all the world searching and finding all who would repent and believe!
Our Lord says that over the lost sinner who is found and who repents there is much rejoicing in heaven! Here Jesus silences the bitter mutterings of the Pharisees, including the modern day types who still insist that salvation is earned by outward works that look like godliness, but really are without true faith in God. They are so wrapped up in their own blind self-righteousness they cannot see the joyous event happening right before their very eyes: poor and miserable sinners—such as us—being brought back to God!
This humble work of seeking and bringing the lost sinner back to God is, indeed, the Glory of the Lord Jesus Christ! He was pleased to humble Himself, to take on our flesh, to be nailed to the cross in our stead, and to be raised from the grave to justify us. He did this so that we could sit at Table with Him, feasting not only on His life-giving word, but also on His very Body and Blood, which was given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Today Jesus still receives sinners and eats with them. We are living proof of that.
And when that happens, let us rejoice with Him and with all the heavenly choirs. It is no coincidence that our communion liturgy bids us “with angels and archangels, and all the hosts of heaven [to] laud and magnify [God’s] glorious name,” because that invitation fulfills over and over the Lord’s word in these parables. Rejoice, for that which was lost has been found!