“What Does It Mean To Repent?”
Jonah 3:1-10; Mark 1:14-20
January 25, 2015
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio, TX
Larry E. Davis
What does it mean to “repent?”
Some of you may remember those old time revival meetings, where there might be dramatic emotional displays and excitement. I remember as a youngster accompanying my Grandpa Pullin to revivals and tent meetings around south Texas. He was an uneducated man, a simple carpenter, he couldn’t read music but he could lead congregational singing and the preachers loved him for this. This was my introduction to the old-time ideal of the “sawdust trail.” A lot of that preaching I remember included threats of hell-fire and damnation, “repent or else,” was a common theme. And the people seemed to eat it up. “Believe the bad news, and repent.” And sometimes when we think of repentance, we do think of regret, remorse, sorrow. One of the Hebrew words for “repent” literally means to “sigh,” or “groan.” And so repentance may be accompanied by all kinds of emotion, tears, joy. But is that what repentance really means?
Imagine with me Jonah on the streets of Nineveh. Here was this strange foreigner chanting his very short, threatening message in a strange tongue over and over again all over the city hour after hour, for three days. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown!” This must have had a powerful impact. The rumors must have been flying. “Have you heard that crazy street preacher from who knows where? Someone who knows his language says he is saying our city is going to be destroyed in forty days! Does he know something we don’t know? What if it’s true? Is there an army on the way here to overwhelm us?” Believe the bad news and repent! Is this repentance?
One dimension of repentance does involve turning away from something. The king of Nineveh urged his people to “turn away from the evil way and from violence.” The response was universal and deep. The people (literally) “believed in God.” They feared their destruction was immanent, they trusted the word of the crazy prophet to be true. Their repentance appears to be genuine and overwhelming: there was sackcloth and ashes to be seen everywhere, from highest, beginning with the king, to lowliest servant. Can you imagine cattle in sackcloth and ashes? There was a total fast declared, even to include not feeding the cattle! This was a classic total ritual of repentance in ancient terms.
Surely God’s spirit was at work here, long before our not-so-intrepid prophet showed up. God had compassion on the masses of people of Nineveh. God wanted to spare these people from the destruction to come. And so they indeed repented, turned away from their evil ways. They hoped that the promised destruction would not come if they repented. “Who knows,” the king said, “God may repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?” In fact the destruction did not come: God did indeed “repent” from the destructive plan he had for them. God’s Spirit, working among the people long before Jonah’s arrival, along with Jonah’s message, had the affect God intended for these people. They repented, and the destruction did not come.
In our other text for this morning, we see Jesus in Galilee with an equally short and pointed message. But this message is not a threat but an announcement and an invitation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent, and believe the gospel.” The coming of Jesus is a crucial moment, God has stepped into history in a decisive way, the planet is invaded. The time of John the prophet is ended, the time of Jesus, the fulfillment of promises has begun. There has come a turning point: it’s decision time. The message of Jesus calls on us to “repent,” and “believe the good news.” But again, what does this repentance really mean? How do we truly repent?
Maybe we can see what this might mean in Jesus’ call to his first disciples. He reaches out to these fishermen and says, “Follow me, I will show you how to fish for people.” Their response appears on the surface to have been impulsive. They “turned away” from their lives as fishermen. Simon [Peter] and Andrew: “immediately left their nets and followed.” When Jesus calls the brothers James and John, they too left their nets, their father, and the family business.
But just like with the people in Nineveh, surely the Spirit of God had been already at work within these men, too. Despite the grinding Roman oppression and self-destructive spiritual decay the Jewish people were experiencing, despite the despair of God’s promises ever being fulfilled for his chosen people, these fishermen must have had a deep-seated hope. Did they already know Jesus? I imagine them having late-night fireside conversations with Jesus on the seashore, experiencing his passion and witnessing his love of his people. Had they been yearning for the work of God inside them and among their people? I believe God was at work here, long before the day of the call. And this is, just as surely, one clue to the meaning and reality of “repentance,” God’s Spirit inside us, wooing, prodding, calling, teaching, leading.
There was a spark of life within them, waiting for a fresh breath from God’s Spirit to quicken it to life. That fresh breath was in the message and deeds of this compelling young rabbi who stood on the shore and called to them. “The kingdom of God is at hand!” Change is not only coming, it is already here! This is the focus of the Gospel of Mark: “Look at Jesus, hear his words, see the mighty works he does. See the presence and power of God making real changes in you and in people’s lives.” This would call them to turn away from their old lives, to leave their nets.
So then we see that the second, and truer, dimension of repentance, apart from turning away from an old life is a positive change, an embracing of new life. Peter and Andrew and James and John didn’t just give up their day jobs. They embarked on a new and exciting adventure. They were compelled to do something different, to respond to the yearnings of the Spirit within, and follow this Jesus person who called them to a new life.
And there is still another important clue to repentance here for us. There is a reality underneath these texts that is implied but never explicitly mentioned, and that is hope. There is a vital connection between repentance and hope. The people of Nineveh had hope, so they repented. These fishermen had hope against all apparent odds. Perhaps they couldn’t articulate it, but it was there.
Repentance always implies the hope that there is the possibility of a new and better way of thinking, feeling, living, being. For Christians, that possibility is found in relationship with Christ, with the Holy Spirit working within us. Without that hope there is no point to repentance. And this is the good news that Jesus brings. Repentance is not just a determination to follow the rules better, to return to the law, rather it is a response to a person, it is a relationship with the person of Jesus Christ who came to be one of us, who lives among us through the Spirit of God, and shows us what God is really like, shows us how much God loves us and how determined God is to draw us more fully into a this relationship, to a more mature realization of our own God-created possibilities, and to a more loving, redemptive relationship with all those around us and with our world. There is real possibility and hope for this miracle of transformation in the person of Jesus Christ.
And this also means that, unlike what the old tent revival preachers seemed to be saying, this kind of transformation is not just a one-time trip down the sawdust trail. It is a life-long process, a constant openness to God’s challenging, transforming presence, a spirit of repentance, if you will, that never claims to have “arrived,” always remains aware of the need for embracing new possibilities, always hopeful that real growth, real change, real learning of God’s ways in our hearts and minds is possible. And also, by the way, it can help us see that this is a possibility for others around us. They, too, are living in the presence of God’s call to “repent and believe the good news.” Just as we receive God’s call for repentance in our own lives as a sign of God’s grace, maybe we can live in awareness of the grace of God in other people’s lives, no matter how “different” we think they may be from us. Maybe we can find ways to minister God’s grace to them, and allow them to minister God’s grace to us.
So if you have ever felt a yearning for real, Spirit-driven, redemptive change in your own spirit and life, then you know the meaning of repentance. Repentance happens when we imagine ourselves, with Peter, Andrew, James, and John, being drawn to the possibility that God’s kingdom just might really be here and now for me. When we come to know that it is possible for me to grow into what God wants me to be, to be a redemptive influence on others in my world, to live out of hope and not fear, love and not selfishness.
This realization brings deep, radical, change to our whole spiritual nature. It is profound, all-pervasive. Sackcloth and ashes can’t compete with genuine change. The prophets knew this. Hosea practically shouts it: “I desire steadfast love, not sacrifice; knowledge of God, not burnt offerings, says the Lord.” (6:6).
Jesus puts it in different terms in another sermon: repentance, he says, brings changes that can help us be poor in spirit, be ones who mourn, who genuinely feel the losses within us and of those around us, ones who are not proud but meek, ones who genuinely hunger and thirst for righteousness, ones who treat others with mercy, ones who are pure in heart, and ones who want to be a peacemakers (Matt. 5). Do you recognize those words?
And I believe that, just like I believe God’s Spirit was in Nineveh, and just like I believe God’s Spirit was with the disciples in Galilee, God is already here among us and within us working to create the yearning for change, the willingness to respond in repentance to the wooing of God’s Spirit, ready to embrace a new life, a new adventure with Jesus Christ. And because God is already here, within us, drawing us into his life, there is always real hope.
The kingdom of God is at hand! Repent and believe the good news! It’s decision time. Let us pray.