There are many different definitions of repentance. The one I find most helpful is that repentance is “the act of regretting the evil or bad things one had done in the past and as a result to change one’s behaviour or conduct.” In the language of contemporary business management, repentance involves “change management.” Spiritually, three kinds of change are required: first, changing one’s self; second, changing one’s relationship with others; and third, possibly, the impact of personal repentance as a model for changing the culture in which we live. Lent offers us the possibility of moving ahead in all three kinds of change.
King David had a lot of reasons to repent. He came dangerously close to making a complete mess of his life and of his kingdom. As the Oxford Companion to the Bible points out: “David’s life has a public as well as a private dimension . . .[and] kingship turns out to be no talisman.” I had to look up the word—“talisman”—“something supposed to have magic powers to protect its owner from evil.” Certainly, kingship did not in itself protect David from evil. In the public dimension, at the end of the Second Book of Samuel, after the deaths of David and Solomon and a long line of kings, some of whom were incompetent and idol-worshiping, the longer story ends with the house of Yahweh in ruins, the kingdom in disarray. What happened to the people of Israel, to their worship and to the quality of their lives depended to a considerable extent on the integrity and vision of their kings, or the lack of integrity and vision in both the public and private lives of each king.
In the private dimension, one of King David’s sins is well known. He had stolen the beautiful Bathsheba from her husband, Uriah; and then arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle, so that Bathsheba could become one of his wives. Like surrounding cultures in Canaan, 1,000 years before Christ, Israelite culture accepted polygamy, with men having more than one wife, and at times, women having more than one husband. However, in the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 12, the prophet Nathan pointed out to David that he had sinned and done evil in the eyes of the Lord; and David acknowledged his guilt.
Why did David repent so quickly over his behaviour with Bathsheba and Uriah? Perhaps it was because Nathan’s words reached the heart of David. Guided by the Lord, Nathan, on his own initiative, came to the palace and told King David a story: “There were two men in one city,” said Nathan, “one rich and one poor. And the rich man had very many flocks and herds, and the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he preserved and reared it, and it grew up with him and with his sons together; it used to eat from his bread and drink from his cup and sleep in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. And there came a traveller to the rich man, and he refrained from taking anything from his flocks and from his herds to prepare for the stranger since he had come to him as a wayfarer [that is, a traveller on foot], and he took the ewe lamb of the poor man and prepared it for the man who came to him.”
The Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 12 records David’s response: “And David was greatly inflamed with anger at the man. And David said to Nathan, ‘The Lord lives, for the man who did this deserves to die. He must make restitution for the lamb sevenfold, because he did this thing and had no compassion.’ Nathan then said to David, ‘You are the man who did this!’” And Nathan then set out to David how the Lord had blessed him by delivering David from Saul and anointing David as king of all Israel, and that the Lord was prepared to add to David “many more things like these.” David understood that he was indeed like the rich man who had behaved badly; and David said simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
David’s repentance has been recorded more fully in Psalm 50 (51) that begins: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy, according to the abundance of Thy compassion, blot out my transgression.” That Psalm, ascribed to David, after Nathan’s visit, is supported by the story of David’s life in the books of First and Second Chronicles. As the Oxford Companion to the Bible reflects, “it is in ordering and implementing the great praise due to God that David finds life.” Thus Nathan’s confrontation with David led to Psalm 50 that is still recited inaudibly today by every deacon and priest in the Orthodox Church as they cense the temple and the people, that is, as they cense the church and its icons and the congregation. The incense that fills the church and touches each of us is a sign of prayer, of prayer rising up to God. We can each say with David in Psalm 50, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” With every Divine Liturgy, we affirm the reality of the repentance that Nathan encouraged from David.
David saw the truth in Nathan’s message that because the Lord had blessed him so profusely, there was no need to seek more than what the Lord had already given to him. Nathan’s story of 3,000 years ago applies not only to David, but to each of us, because the Lord has given us many things and is prepared to give us many more. Yet perhaps at times we reach out too quickly and take what we want without asking if this action is approved by the Lord. Here at St Aidan’s Antiochian Orthodox Church we have each been blessed this Lent with the opportunity to draw closer to Christ, to examine our lives and see the blessings that we have already been given. Yes, we do need to confess our sins and seek forgiveness from God and from others. However, this Lent rather than be consumed by our sins, let us seek out our blessings. This act of becoming aware of our blessings can be for us, as it was for David, a path to repentance. Let us say privately to God, in our own words, something like: “Lord, I have sinned in the past; and I am not even fully aware of how I am sinning in the present, but I now see that you are blessing me. Thank you, Lord, for that blessing extended to me in my own life and through the worship and censing of this Orthodox church and its congregation.” That prayer, however we adapt it, is essentially a cry to the Lord: “Lord, may I become one with you and the blessing you are now giving to me.”
If we can experience this blessing that the Lord freely gives to each of us, we will be changed. We will be at peace with ourselves, whatever our limitations, because personal limitations are not personal sins. In our acceptance of ourselves and of the blessings of the Lord, we are changed. We no longer have to judge others and to seek to control relationships so that we gain something we feel we need from those relationships. This Lent our need is to not to judge and control others, but to rest in peace with Christ and thereby experience the blessings that God extends to all of us. If we can experience those blessings, we will be changed; and those around us will see that change in our behaviour, in our attitude toward ourselves and toward them. That is how our culture can change, too, because so many of us become confident that God is blessing us as Orthodox Christians, others reach out and seek that blessing, too.
To conclude, we can change. At this time, we do not know precisely how we will change and what impact that change will have on ourselves, on others or on contemporary society. We do know that we begin to change by repenting of our past sins, known or unknown to us. In a very deep sense, each of us can listen to and hear the relevance to our lives not only of Nathan’s story to David, but of the Lord’s words to Moses as set out in the Septuagint translation of the book of Numbers , Chapter 6, Verses 22 to 27. In the second year after the Hebrews had left Egypt, roughly in 1,500 BC, in the wilderness, while living in the desert, Moses told Aaron that the Lord wanted to bless His people. Aaron then blessed all the Hebrews; and that blessing extends to us, whatever deserts we may be experiencing in our own lives. The words of that blessing have echoed through the centuries and remain fresh with each new day: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and show mercy to you; may the Lord lift up His face upon you and give you peace.” Amen.