Sermon September 30, 2012


“How to Repent in 127 Hours


September 30, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Joanne M. Swenson

Introduction to the Scripture

The scripture today is pretty graphic: boulders crushing down on bodies, the hacking off hands and feet, the struggle to be free from bondage. For me, this scripture begs comparison to the movie, 127 Hours. 127 Hours is the true story of a young man, Aron Ralston, who, while hiking alone in the Utah wilderness, gets trapped in a hidden canyon when  a huge boulder comes crashing down on him, jamming his arm against the canyon wall. His ordeal ends after 127 hours, when he stumbles out of the canyon, having cut off his arm.

Now, were this a modern megachurch, we’d lower the lights, and power up the giant projection screen, and show that scene, where Aron Ralston, with his bent and rusty Leatherman knife, does the deed. But we’re worshipping in a New England meetinghouse from 1843, so let’s power up, instead, our imaginations. And let’s begin with the scripture lesson, an ancient and graphic call to escape the bondage of sin.

Mark 9: 42 – 49

42“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49“For everyone will be salted with fire.

Jesus words here are ghastly. One commentator remarks that nowhere else in the gospels does Jesus use such violent, raw images.

But we would be misled if we stopped at these gruesome images of hacking off hands and feet, pulling out eyeballs, and simply dismissed this story as extreme. We would be misled if we shrugged off this passage as hyperbole, without any application to our lives: “Oh that Jesus – he sure knows how to preach!” Any time we dismiss or dilute the Bible’s extreme images, we’re probably not waiting on and praying about the passage — waiting on and praying to God. As that wonderful scripture from Isaiah says, “My word will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire.”[i] If we simply stop at the gore and the ghastliness of this passage, God’s word will be empty here. We’ll miss an important lesson about how to change our lives – how to repent. This passage is about changing our lives. And this passage is about what can motivate us to change. For whose sake will we get our lives right?

Will you pray with me about this?

Lord, we pray that Your Word will not return to You empty, but will accomplish what you desire, in our hearts, calling us to repentance and motivating us for the right reason. Amen.


Jesus and his listeners would be deeply familiar with the world of ancient Jewish sacrifice. We can’t begin to grapple with what Jesus is commanding, unless we put it in that context of Jewish sacrifice.

Jesus is using language here from the sin sacrifice of Leviticus. Jesus speaks of cutting, of fire and salt, and of sinful flesh. He says, “Cut it out,” three times and he mentions fire three times. He says, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” These are the key components of the sin offering described in the Old Testament book of Leviticus.[ii] In Leviticus, when one sins, one brings an animal to be sacrificed, such as a sheep or a dove, and this living animal is cut in its killing – its neck is slit. Then it’s salted, and placed into the fire. The person who brings the animal transmits his own sin to the animal’s slashed, salted, and fired flesh.

The parallels between the sin offering and Jesus’s words are striking. Jesus is actually asking his listeners to consider their hands and feet and eyes as sacred sacrifice, given over to God, to take away one’s sin. His Jewish audience would recognize this instantly.

What does this mean for us? What can we learn from this ritualization of repentance?

Jesus is NOT calling his listeners to hack off their offending body parts in a spasm of self-revulsion. Jesus is NOT calling us to extemporaneously and violently mutilate and spurn that which causes us to sin.

No, Jesus is calling us to thoughtfully sacrifice the sources of sin and stumbling in our lives, to reflectively, ritually remove them.

Have you ever known a smoker who, in a fit of self-disgust, flings their cigarettes into the trash can, and pronounces, “No more! That’s it, I’m done.” And then, about an hour later, they’re fishing those cigarettes back out of the trash. (I am not a smoker, but I’ve fished some things out of the trash – chocolate cake – with frosting!) That’s repentance by revulsion. It’s not true repentance. It’s regret, it’s remorse, but not repentance. As 2 Corinthians 7 says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” Worldly sorrow — self-punishing revulsion, self-consuming remorse, self-involved regret — doesn’t work. It starts with the self, in a spasm of self-hatred. But, it ends with the self, returning to the old self, protecting the old self, digging in, retreating to the stumbling and sinful ways of the self.

Soren Kierkegaard had something to say about the failure of self-revulsion to lead to true repentance. In his classic work on repentance, “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing,” Kierkegaard wrote: “(Impetuous) repentance is false and is never to be sought after. For it may (be). . . only (a) momentary feeling. . .  This kind of repentance is selfish, . . .sensually powerful for (a) moment, excited in expression, impatient. . . (exaggerated) — and, just on this account, is not real repentance. Sudden repentance would drink down all the bitterness of sorrow in a single (swallow), and then hurry on.”[iii]

No, Jesus is calling us to repent NOT in a spasm of disgust and then hurry on. He’s calling us to take the time and thought to make a heart-felt sacrifice of our sin: to “salt,” as it were, our sins. My Grandma Leontina used to make salt-cured pickles. From the time she harvested the cucumbers to the day we could pull a salty pickle from the jar, took eight weeks. Salting takes time. It takes time to prepare our lives to put away our sin.

And it takes a plan, a ritual to put away our sin. Maybe it’s a prayer you write out, that you daily review, maybe it’s a contract you compose with your spouse or a friend; a retreat for a weekend, or rehab for a month. Consider it our modern version of the Levitical sin offering: a lengthy ritual that removes our sin, a thought-out plan for cutting it off. That’s what that sin offering in Leviticus did, and that’s what we need to do: with time and preparation, repent.

A second point — more subtle but as important. This is tied up in Jesus’s call to protect the Little Child, the “little ones” of verse 42. For whom will we repent? For whose sake will we get our lives right? The Little Ones, the children in our lives. What is more powerful than that? The children we see here today, little Jack, being baptized, our kindergarteners, being dedicated, the children of church school and YG. Our adult children who’ve come home, back to New Canaan. We see parents and grandparents repent and change because of these children and grandchildren. hey want to be role-models for their children, not a disappointment. They don’t want to repeat the mistakes of their own parents. They don’t want to pass on to their stumbling blocks to their children. The Little Ones, exalted by Christ , can be our motivation.

Skip once told me that people in New Canaan would do anything for their children – anything, their children’s lives were so important to them. What sin will you give up, then, for the sake of your children? What stumbling block will we put away, so that our children can thrive?

Aron Ralston, that trapped hiker, embodies these two features of repentance – a thoughtfully planned sacrifice; and motivation for the sake of a child.

First, Aron planned his amputation carefully. Initially, Aron angrily hacked away at his trapped right arm. But by the fourth day, he realized his knife was too dull to cut through bones. He resigned himself to dying. But, waking on the sixth day, he had an epiphany: he could break his bones – split them – using the force of his body weight, and then cut off his arm. But before he began, he prepared for the coming gush of blood. He fashioned tourniquets from his backpack and straps. Then, he threw his body down, again and again, against his trapped arm, until he heard his bones pop. Sixty minutes later, he had sawed off his arm, and bandaged the stump. It was an hour of anguish and euphoria. Aron could have died, if he had not carefully planned this cutting.

Second, Aron was motivated by a child. In the middle of his fifth night and last night, Aron received a vision that motivated him, that gave him courage. That vision was of a little boy. Aron was a single man, carefree, certainly not thinking about marriage and family. Nonetheless, he had this vision of a child. This is what he said about it, in an interview: “I see myself in this out-of-body experience playing with (this little boy) with (my) handless right arm. I see myself scoop him up and there’s this look in his eyes, ‘Daddy, can we play now?’ That look tells me this is my son, this is in the future.”[iv]

Daddy, can we play now? There is a child in our future– for all of us. It could be our own children, or our church’s children (this child we baptized today), the children in our town. For the sake of the child, can we cut off that which is causing us to sin? Of course we can!

A third and final point: In Leviticus, the sacrificed animal, even though it now carries the sin of the person, is considered holy. It is so holy, that whatever it touches becomes holy. Only the high priest and his family can hold it. And – think about this – they actually eat the sin offering, the sin-filled sacrificed animal.

John and I became accustomed to hearing personal testimonies in Portland churches. Maybe I shouldn’t say, “accustomed,” because we were always astonished at what we heard. For example, an esteemed, local Bible study leader described his descent into alcoholism and homelessness, living out of his car, losing his career, and, for a time, losing his family. Rock-bottom! How does someone turn a sin-filled, personal story into a testimony of holiness? The answer lies in the Levitical sin offering: that sheep or dove, while bearing sin, also becomes holy. In genuine repentance, our sin becomes holy! Our sin is where we first heard the Lord, calling us to repent. The experience of sin is changed into an experience of holiness – the holiness of God. And testimony is not so much a story of sin, but a story of holiness, where our sin meets God’s holiness. That’s why one testimony can do the work of a dozen sermons.

Did you know that Aron Ralston returned to the canyon and retrieved his arm? It took 13 men, a winch and a hydraulic jack to lift the boulder that was still pinning his arm. And when the arm was finally released, Aron took it and cremated it – an act of sanctification. That arm nearly cost him his life! You would think he would never want to see it again, especially in that putrid state! But he did, he returned and honored it.

So, too, our sins and stumbling. In the coming weeks, we’re going to hear testimonies from some of our members, about their own trying times and dark moments, and how, in those places of trial and impasse, God became powerfully present to them.

Aron Ralston planned the removal of his arm, and honored that object of struggle and bondage. Most important, he was motivated by a child, his future son. We must do the same: plan our repentance and honor that place, that place of sin, where God speaks powerfully to us. And this is crucial – our motivation: for whose sake will we cut off the sin in our life? For the sake of our children, let’s repent.


[i] Isaiah 55: 11

[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (Harper & Row, 1948), p. 44

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