“The First Word” – Mark 1:1-4; 14-15; Acts 2:37-38

Do you remember the Groucho Marx TV show from the 1950’s – “You Bet Your Life”? One of its “bits” was the “secret word.” If a contestant said that week’s “secret word” a mangy stuffed duck named “Julius” (Groucho Marx’s real first name) would drop down from the rafters with that word that printed on a card in its bill, and the contestants would split a hundred-dollar prize. It was always great fun when it happened.

Well, I don’t have a hundred dollars to award as a prize here this morning, but I do have a secret word. Three Scriptures were read just a moment ago, two from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, and one from the beginning of the book of Acts, and there’s a secret word that holds them altogether. Anybody? The word’s “repent.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance (Mark 1:4). “The first time Jesus appears, in the first Gospel, the first instruction he gives is ‘Repent’” (1:15).  And on the day of Pentecost, right after the Gospel had been preached in the power of the Holy Spirit for the very first time, and people cried out, “What should we do?” the very first thing that Peter told them to do was to “Repent” (Acts 2:38).

“Repentance” has been called the Bible’s “most consistent message” (Frederica Mathewes-Green), and that’s probably not what we want to hear because “repentance” is not a particularly comfortable word for most of us. It’s a word that has been used as club by some of us, on some of us.  We’ve been shamed and scorned by people who have hammered on us to “repent” because they haven’t approved of something that we’ve said, or thought, or felt, or done, or are. For others of us, the word “Repent” is just a plain embarrassment.

My dad worked in downtown LA when I was a kid growing up and I can still remember looking out the back windows of the family sedan at the crazies and the cranks on the downtown street corners with their “Turn or Burn” placards whenever we went down there to pick him up after work. I always associated the word “repent” with “them” and was frankly a little startled the Sunday morning I heard the word “repent” said during a reading of the appointed Scriptures at the proper little Episcopal church to which my family belonged when I was growing up.  I didn’t think that it was a word meant for people like “us.” I thought it was a word for meant for people like “them.” And that’s the problem we have with the word “repent.” We don’t have a very good grasp on its meaning.

The word “repent” connotes emotion to us, feeling the full weight of shame and guilt, and breaking down under its pressure. I’ve sat in evangelistic meetings and listened to the hell-fire and brimstone preacher hammering away at us sinners. It’s a terribly uncomfortable place to be, and it’s that discomfort that we tend to associate with the word “repent.”  

It’s the word we use to describe how we try to address our sense of moral and spiritual failure. It’s the word we use to describe how we attempt to relieve ourselves of the bad feelings that we have about who we are and what we’ve done. It’s the word we use to describe how we try to escape the consequences of all the bad choices that we’ve made throughout our lives.  

We tend to think of repentance as a burst of raw emotion, as an uncontrollable upheaval of self-abasement and tears.  But the word for “repentance” in the New Testament doesn’t refer to emotion at all!  The New Testament word for repentance means a transformation of the mind. It’s what Paul was talking about when he told the Romans to – “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (12:1). In a popular and important Christian book from the second century repentance was described as ‘great understanding,’ as something that involves a serious ‘rethinking ’ of your life” (Frederica Mathewes-Green).

In one of the most famous stories that Jesus told, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), Jesus said that when the younger son had taken his inheritance, gone to the far country, squandered it in riotous living, and  wound up in a pigsty, that he finally “came to himself,” that is, “to his senses.” And that’s what repentance is. It means to stop, to get your bearings, and then to move out in a new and different direction.  John Stackhouse likes to explain it by telling a story.

“Let’s imagine that we are going on a trip. Suppose we intend to drive from San Francisco, in northern California, to San Diego, in the far south. I insist on driving, since I’ve actually visited San Francisco once or twice and I never, ever get lost. You graciously concede the wheel, and off we go. The miles and hours go by. You begin to feel uneasy, however, when we pass what looks for all the world like a sign welcoming us to state of Oregon. I insist that ‘Oregon’ must be a region of California, and that Los Angeles surely must be coming up soon. As we drive through Portland, however, you are convinced that I am heading in exactly the wrong direction. And as the Washington state line comes up, you become rather insistent on the point. In fact, you want very much to convert me to your opinion. What is it, exactly, that you want when you want me to convert?

First, you want me to recognize my error. I can’t take any further steps until I have agreed that I am, in fact, heading north instead of south. But let’s suppose I do that – ‘Yes, by golly, this sure looks a lot more like Pacific rain forest than Californian coastland!’ – and yet I don’t care. ‘Hey, Washington is a beautiful place, too.’ Surely true repentance is what you seek from me. Merely recognizing my mistake is not enough. I must regret that mistake. ‘I’m heading in the wrong direction, and I’m sorry.’ Then I must take further action. I must abandon the path I’m on (taking the next exit ramp); turning the car around by crossing over to the other side on the bridge; and get a new start (by getting on the entrance ramp in the opposite direction).

But suppose I do all this. Are you now satisfied? Have I fully repented? No. Not until I drive us all the way to San Diego, which was the objective of the exercise. It’s good that I’m properly reoriented. In fact, that’s the essential move that has to be made if I’m first heading in the wrong direction. But turning around is not enough. Getting to the goal is all or nothing, and I’m not there until I’m there. This is why saints and scholars, priests and preachers throughout the long history of Christianity have always spoken of repentance as having multiple stages: (1) recognition and regret, (2) a new start, (3) making progress and getting closer to the goal, and (4) finally arriving at the destination.” (Humble Apologetics)

The first mistake we make when it comes to repentance is to understand it as being about feelings rather than about thinking. The second mistake we make when it comes to repentance is thinking that it’s a one and done experience, something that only required of us at the very beginning of the life of discipleship rather as something that’s an on-going process, the very shape of the Christian life.

Years ago, I was part of a regional renewal team doing a weekend event at our church down in Port Arthur. My host for the weekend was an avid sailor, and so one evening after the services, he me took me out for a night sail on the bay. After clearing the marina, he turned piloting the boat over to me for a while, and what I learned almost immediately that sailing a boat is nothing like driving a car.

Sailboats don’t move in a straight line between point A and point B like a car going down the street. The wind and the waves are constantly pulling the boat this way and that. It was all over the place. When the boat owner realized that I really didn’t have a clue about what I was doing, he told me to pick a light on the opposite shore and to use it as my reference point, and then with the tiller in my hand in told me to zig and zag across an imaginary line to that destination on the far shore. When I did, we started making some real progress.

To be sure, repentance is “the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way for it to begin” (Mathewes-Green). There is a threshold that must be crossed in order for the spiritual life to be launched. “The Christian life, the life of grace, begins for each of us at some point” (Griffin). It begins with “the discovery, made gradually or suddenly, that God is real and that this real God knows and loves us personally.” This initial encounter with the saving power and purpose of God is so decisive and defining for us that it becomes the event that “shapes everything that follows.” It sets a direction for the rest of our days. But understand, it’s not the journey, it’s just the first step.

Once the threshold of initial repentance has been crossed, then the lifetime of continuing repentance begins. This is the nudging of the tiller on the sailboat back and forth in your hand, constantly adjusting to keep it on track and moving forward.  As Robert Raines, a prominent American Methodist minister from the last generation used to say, there is not automatic pilot function in the Christian life. He explained –

“The automatic pilot in modern airplanes is fascinating device. Once the airplane is aloft

and directed toward its destination, the automatic pilot is put into action, the controls set, and the human pilot can sit back and relax while the airplane continues perfectly on course, guaranteed to keep on beam.”

Pastor Raines observed –

“Many church people have what may be called an ‘automatic-pilot’ concept of the Christian life. We think that once our sights are lifted, and we are aloft and directed toward Christ, on the Christian way, then we can set the controls to automatic pilot and float into the heavenly city. Being members of the church just about guarantees that we will stay on the beam (so we suppose); we can sit back and relax, taking it easy, assuming that we will be carried safely to our destination. There’s only flaw in the automatic-pilot theory of the Christian life – it doesn’t work! (And) the reason is, there is nothing automatic about the Christian life. One decides for or against Christ every day of hos life in all his decision-making.  It is a crucial decision to have turned  one’s life toward Christ and committed oneself to Him; but that is when the real struggle begins.”

The Christian Life has a beginning in that initial decision of faith to step across the threshold of repentance and move out in a new direction. But if that Christian Life is to continue, then repentance is going to have to become a daily habit, a constant practice, a holy habit.

In this church, our spiritual lives are ordered by the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every week “at the Table of the Lord we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” Paul told the Corinthians that what keeps frequent communion from degenerating into an empty ritual is how we come to it. “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord,” Paul told the Corinthians in his first letter, “So examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (I Corinthians 11:27-28). The encounter with the Living Christ that the Lord’s Supper promises is available to us each time we come to the Lord’s Table requires us to come to it with prepared hearts.  And repentance is the spiritual discipline of that preparation.

Somewhere I’ve read that the British Navy once had a command they called “Still.” Whenever the “Still” command was issued, everyone on board a ship was expected to stop wherever they were and whatever they were doing in order to get their bearings, to think about where they were supposed to be and what they were supposed to be doing, and to take whatever steps were necessary to get them to where they were supposed to be so that they could get on with what it was that they were supposed to be doing.

The Lord’s Supper is our weekly “Still” command. Each week before we break the bread and share the cup, we are asked to stop and think about who we are, and what it is that we’re supposed to be doing, and where it is that we’re supposedly going, and to make whatever adjustments might be needed to keep us on track.  

“Repent,” it’s the first and constant word of the Gospel.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s