TEXT: Mark 1:14-17; Luke 15:1-7
Have you ever had such a change of heart that it really turns you around? My life was headed in THIS direction, but now it’s headed in THAT direction. I suppose that kind of change of direction can happen in a number of ways. Sometimes people that have a brush with death or severe illness, but survive will experience this. Sometimes you learn the truth about something and it can be life-changing. When that turnaround re-orients you towards God it we call it REPENTANCE. And that’s the key word we are looking at today. In the New Testament Greek it is metanoia as a noun, some 20+ times; or metanoeo as a verb, some 30+ times. It means repent or to repent. But even that English word needs a little unpacking for us. It describes a significant change of heart, mind, and way. It’s not just saying the right words, it’s being and doing differently.
Today we’ll look at a couple of aspects of repentance. First, we’ll look at the meaning of it in scripture. Then we’ll look at God’s perspective on it: it brings God joy when people repent! And then we’ll look at how Jesus spoke about it and how it fits into a life of faith in Christ.
TURN BACK TO THE LORD (OT and Mark 1)
Remember that most of the Old Testament was framed in terms of God’s faithfulness to the covenant promises He made with Abraham. God’s people were also expected to be faithful, but it was not in terms of salvation, but that they might experience the blessings of obedience. However they spent a lot of time NOT being obedient to God’s Law. God sent prophets to call the people back to faithfulness and so many times the prophet’s messages had to do with REPENTANCE, with TURNING BACK to God.
I’m not sure whether it was by virtue of needing to repent often or that their culture was expressive in this way, but one of the common ways to demonstrate repentance in the Old Testament was to rip one’s robe and to cover one’s self in ashes, as if to portray, “I am undone by this; this (disobedience) will be the death of me.” This kind of ritual periodically showed up in individual responses to God as well as in the worshiping life of Israel.
Here’s an example from Job 42:6, after Job experiences the majesty and power of God and takes back his accusations against God: “I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes.” Now he may not have taken time to put on the ashes, but it is a reference to a known ritual from Old Testament times, so much so that sometimes people would just use the words to indicate sincerity of repentance.
As may not be surprising, words can be used and the heart unchanged. Even dramatic rituals aren’t proof of internal change. The prophet Joel (speaking God’s words) cuts through all that: “Return to the Lord with all your heart… rend your heart and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13) We heard this in our Call to Worship today. The words and even the ritual aren’t magic. They are meant to represent the change of heart and change of ways. So Joel flips it around and speaks of rending one’s heart, like we might describe being ‘heart-broken’ over something. Joel is calling for a change of mind, heart, and way… for true repentance.
In the same vein as the Old Testament prophets like Joel, John the Baptist was on the scene in the New Testament and was using language of repentance to call people back to God. John believed that the Kingdom of God was coming soon, along with the Messiah. And he would have known! He was the cousin of Jesus and well-acquainted with the circumstances and promises around Jesus’ birth. His ministry and message were ones of preparation for all that Jesus would bring. So John’s core message was, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) John also offered an outward sign of inward change: he baptized as a symbol of repentance and proclaimed good news of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. (cf. Luke 3:18) So it was a two-fold message of repentance: repent because the Kingdom is near and that you might be forgiven and set right with God.
I want to take a moment to look at God’s perspective on human repentance.
GOD’S JOY (Luke 15)
We read in Luke 15 that religious leaders in Jesus’ day were grumbling because Jesus was welcoming and even eating meals with “tax collectors and sinners.” Their grumbling prompted Jesus to tell three parable-stories about God’s desire to recover those who are ‘lost’. The first of these stories is that of the lost sheep, which we read as one of our scripture readings. In this parable Jesus specifically references repentance.
In this parable of the lost sheep one sheep out of a flock of one hundred has gone missing. In a clear comparison to the tax collectors and sinners, Jesus asks what person would not go after the missing sheep? Jesus goes a step further, perhaps in contrast to their grumbling, to note the mindset of the shepherd: “When he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’” (Luke 15:6) It’s clear: God cares about lost humans and rejoices when they are found! And Jesus interprets his parable to note that!
In the parable it sounds like people are lost and God goes to find them. And I think that is true. That describes God’s love, persistence, mercy, and grace. But when Jesus steps out of the story, he uses the word ‘repent’ and ‘repentance’. God’s joy is tied to our repentance! So what part is our repentance and what part is God’s divine action of searching and finding?
I don’t think it boils down to a formula and it’s not a zero-sum game. Rather it’s ‘yes’; it’s both! God is searching and finding and our repentance is connected to being found and experiencing God’s rescue. Details like that are not usually found within parables or metaphors, but in this case I think there is a further comparison to be drawn. I can imagine a sheep wandering off because it is distracted, or has found a successive trail of tasty food; the next thing you know it’s lost or even tangled in thorns. In that case the sheep no longer wants to be lost, and it certainly doesn’t want to be trapped in thorns (sin?); it may start to bleat and cry out. That seems like one form of repentance to me, crying out to God for help and wanting desperately to head back towards God. But we also need God’s rescue. We can’t self-rescue from the big stuff, certainly not the spiritual stuff. And the Psalms do have examples of “crying out to the Lord” and asking God to “hear my cry.”
The main thing I want you to hear – and Jesus wanted the religious folks to hear – is God’s joy over people repenting and turning back to Him. People (including us) may anticipate the hammer falling if we’ve sinned and try to come back to God. But the reality is that nothing pleases God more and “all heaven rejoices.” In a note to self and church people, I’d hope that we more resemble the community of Heaven than the Pharisees when we look upon those who may be lost or turning to God!
REPENT, BELIEVE, FOLLOW (Mark 1)
Jesus picked up right where John left off. In fact, Mark tells us that as soon as John had been arrested, Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news (gospel), saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the good news/gospel.” (Mark 1:15) And immediately next, he started calling disciples to follow him and become “fishers of men.”
Did you catch the three imperatives there? In response to the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus said to REPENT, BELIEVE, AND FOLLOW.
Repentance is still the need for imperfect and disobedient human beings. God’s grace, forgiveness, and joy over those who are lost being found is still the good news. And Jesus still issues the invitation to follow him and be a part of what God is doing in the world. So what does that look like? Let’s take each in turn…
REPENT: God is the perfect one, the holy one, the faithful one. And God loves us. And God desires for us to know Him and be in relationship with him. So being imperfect, disobedient, sinful, and lost are not reasons to avoid a holy God; they are reasons to cry for help and turn back to God, knowing that God delights to welcome us home. Doesn’t that reframe repentance? As a child we may have feared ‘fessing up because of the punishment. But God is not waiting to punish us, but to restore us and celebrate our return. This is what repentance is in the Bible, Old Testament and New. This is God’s heart, even as it was that of Jesus who spent his time around the so-called ‘sinners.’
BELIEVE: Last week we talked at length about what constituted the “good news.” However you don’t have to pass a test on what it is. Rather it goes hand in hand with turning back. But it is more than the change of heart and mind that are repentance. Faith or belief is trusting God at His Word that he loves and forgives you through Jesus Christ. I say that it goes hand in hand with repentance because I think if we truly grasp the good news of God’s gracious love, it compels us to turn back. But we may also turn back for some other reason (like desperation?) and believe because of the magnitude of the forgiveness we experience.
FOLLOW: Jesus also calls us to follow him. You may have heard it said that God loves us too much to leave us where he finds us. God’s forgiveness may wipe the slate clean, but God doesn’t just then leave us, blank slate in hand, to find our way. Through Jesus God says, “Come be a part of what I’m doing.” The shepherd didn’t just pull the lost sheep out of the bushes, but brought the lost sheep back into the herd and into the loving care of the Shepherd. One of my favorite questions is to ask “What is God doing and how can I be a part?” That’s the follow-question. What is my Shepherd, my Lord, my God doing in the world, because that’s where I want to be. Maybe that’s plugging into something at church because we certainly want to be a church that asks that same question. Maybe it’s plugging into the community or into your relationships for the sake of Christ, seeking to serve, bless, or care for others in the name of Christ. Maybe it’s something you’ve known you should be a part of or maybe it’s something you can’t even envision apart from God. To it all, Jesus says, “Come, follow me!” And note it’s not just “Come follow” but “Come follow me AND I WILL MAKE…” God will direct, equip, and use you if you turn to, believe, and follow Him.
May it be so for me; may it be so for you; may it be so for us together. Amen!
Some Music Used
- God of Wonders
- Come, Ye Sinners
- Change My Heart, O God
- Praise is Rising (Baloche)
- Shine into Our Night (Sczebel)
- Reckless Love (Culver/Asbury/Jackson)
- When I Survey the Wondrous Cross