Jeremiah 3:11-18; Mark 1:14-20
January 17, 2021
— Repenting in the Face of Newness
Perhaps if I had invested more time in my sermon for today, I could have created one of those double placards that I could have worn over my clothes reading that we need to repent for the end is coming soon. I could have worn that and wandered up and down the aisles here and out onto the streets of Farmville. Repent, for God is coming; repent for the end is nigh; repent, because your mother says so – something, anything to get people to take notice and take seriously that God wants our attention.
Street corner preachers seem to have gone largely by the wayside, but there is a fellow I have noticed out at Walmart from time to time in that front parking lot. He seems to be preaching something, and to be honest, I have been curious enough to stop by there one day and see what’s going on. Maybe he is just praying for people as they drive by. I do hope it is more than “repent, from higher prices.”
That tradition of walking around warning people and calling attention to what God is doing has a long history, though. According to Mark’s Gospel, that is exactly what Jesus seems to be doing – without placards and without Walmart. But most interestingly, however, without John. Did you notice that? After John the baptizer is arrested by King Herod, that’s when Jesus pops up on the countryside. Jesus has been baptized as we saw last week. He has also gone through the temptation which I skipped over. Maybe it was simply a matter of coincidence or maybe it was by design – either way, Jesus makes his first real debut once John and his preaching seem to be done. I feel like maybe Jesus recognized that John’s job was done, and that was his cue to step up and out onto the scene. Jesus is very aware of timing in the events of his life and seems to take great pains to time his actions carefully throughout the gospels. John diminishes and Jesus ascends in the public eye. This way they will also not be confused as the same person by the general public, perhaps.
Once Jesus begins his preaching, he picks up where John left off. John proclaimed a baptism for repentance; Jesus outright calls people to repent. That is what I want to talk about today. His message is very specific: the time is fulfilled; the kingdom of God is near; do this thing called REPENT; and then believe/trust/have faith in the good news or gospel. If we take what Mark is saying seriously, before we can move from the fact that God’s kingdom is right here to believing in the power of the good news, we have to repent. Even if we can find the kingdom before us, we cannot truly trust in God’s saving work without repenting first.
I wonder if hearing talk about repenting makes Presbyterians a little nervous. Maybe that brings to mind confrontational preaching or an uncomfortable focus on personal sin. But repenting is a great idea and the word repent should be our friend. Every Sunday, we have a Prayer of Confession. What is that if not a moment for repentance? It is essential to our worship as part of the Presbyterian branch of the Reformed tradition. We believe that there is so much about us that is wrong. In fact, everything about us is tainted by this wrong-ness. Everything we are is corrupted by sin. We think, act, speak, and feel as sinful people. Of course, there is good in us, lots of goodness, but any goodness is a gift from God. That’s why it is our ardent hope and prayer that we become new creatures by God’s grace through Jesus Christ. To understand this work in our lives by the Holy Spirit, we repent of our old ways and cling to new ways in our Lord with the Spirit’s help.
“Repent” is a fascinating word. It can mean to have a change of mind, but it is so much more than changing your mind about something. I change my mind about things all the time. Who does not make changes about what they think about things? This is much deeper than that. Have you ever seriously believed something for a while, and then, it turned out to be completely wrong? I am not talking Santa Claus here. Maybe you held deep beliefs about someone or a group of people that influenced how you thought about them, and then one day you discovered that you had it all wrong. Maybe you thought something about yourself, and one day you realized your notions were incorrect. I can remember working with a homeless ministry in Atlanta a number of years ago, and one evening we went to serve dinner at one of the satellite kitchens that was in an old church. Much better than giving food, however, was sitting and eating and talking to the men who were there in this shelter. It is so easy to stereotype homeless people as dumb or incapable of rational thought, but what I found was genuinely nice, kind, and smart people – some certainly smarter than myself. Sure, there were people not so nice or kind, but homelessness is not some disease or deformity that makes someone less than human. Smart, accomplished, good people can end up being homeless. In this time of pandemic fueled economic failure, we can well expect there will be a rise in homelessness. I repented of my notions that somehow I was better than the homeless people. I never named my prejudice that way, but I found my heart convicted of those thoughts – and I had a change of heart. I repented.
That is what Jesus is calling us to do – to have a change of heart. He is not talking about some shallow or superficial kind of way, though. He means deep and real change. Change the way you see the world; change the way you relate to God; change the way you love yourself and your neighbor. There are always things about us that need to change. Don’t wait to repent, however, because you will have a hard time believing in the gospel if your faith is built on falsehood.
Repenting means confronting the truth. In Jeremiah, we see one example among many where God is calling the people to get themselves back into good and right living. Both the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah, had abandoned God and chased after other ideas, other faiths, other practices. They were living a lie. A few chapters later in Jeremiah, it talks about the Jewish people literally sacrificing their children to pagan gods. The northern kingdom, Israel, was a little further ahead of the southern Kingdom, Judah, in its rebellious and idolatrous ways, but both kingdoms were desperately in need of repentance. They both needed to wake up and see that they needed real change. God even gave them the way forward if they would come back. Their Holy and Almighty God promised help by giving them shepherds who would care for them, a future in the Holy City, and a reunited nation. But I will tell you this, it is very hard to admit the truth that we are wrong. It is so hard to admit our brokenness until we are forced to. Neither Israel nor Judah could do it. That future was never realized until Jesus brought the truth by actually being the truth hundreds of years later.
So how do our hearts need to repent today? Here we are in a new year with new opportunities. While so much still feels old and stuck in 2020, it is a new year and time for many to think about making changes. Perhaps you have made some resolutions for this new year. It is also possible, though, that you have lived into so many new years that it is hard to see the point. You are going to do the same thing, anyway. Why bother to try to change?
But I cannot imagine that anyone wants to give up on growing in the Lord. Is God done with any of us? Has any of us been perfected in Christ now? Are any of us finished in our walk of faith or completed in the path of perfection? Of course not. We all know that none of us is finished. Whether you are five or ninety-five, we are still growing in faith and need to find those places where the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent and change.
In fact, faith in the good news waits for those who humble themselves and repent. I repeat, faith in God’s good help waits for those who are ready to admit they need God’s help. If you do NOT need God’s help, you apparently do NOT need faith in it. After all, you can still believe in God without believing that God is going to help you or has your needs in God’s heart. You can believe in God without believing you need God. That sounds strange, but I think a lot of people have some notion like this: God is for messed up people, sinful people, broken people, people who need help.
In this new year, I am ready to admit that I need a lot of help. I cannot do any of this stuff called life by myself. I need help being a better husband, a better father, a better son, a better brother, a better pastor, and a better friend. Sometimes my idea of God’s help is too small, so I try to handle things on my own. In this difficult, isolating time, I have become more selfish than I should be, too.
The answer is to repent. I give myself to God’s mercy. I give myself to God’s help. I give myself to God’s faith. I give myself to God’s love. And I invite anyone who wants to join me in repentance to pray….
Almighty God, comfort your wayward and hurting children. Comfort us in your strong grace. Comfort us in your enduring, persisting loving-kindness. Comfort us as we confess our need and hold our brokenness in our hearts. We offer ourselves to you for something better. Change us. Heal us. Make us more and more your people in Christ, in whom we pray. Amen.