What Does It Mean To Repent? (by Larry Davis)

“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.

Belly Prayer


“Belly Prayer”
Jonah 2:1-10
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 18, 2015
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)



An extension of Jonah’s prayer:

Dear God,

It’s me again, and this time it’s a belly prayer. I know I have a lot of heady prayers—the kind where I try to think things through and find new insight. Then there’s the face prayers—these have always been popular among those who pray. It’s the kind of prayer where I put on a pious face. I think righteous thoughts and ask for admirable requests, sorta in hopes God will notice this deep spirituality I have that exceeds those around me, but mostly I pray face prayers to convince myself that I am okay—just look how pure my words! I sometimes have finger prayers—where I’m trying very hard to get a grasp onto something and find what it is in this life I can hold onto. And then there are knees prayers where I am bent down, beggin’.

But today is a belly prayer. This is as raw as it gets, when one prays from the gut. Here the real me is revealed: warts, mistakes, fears, and all. I feel stripped of all else and so I bring my empty hands and my naked heart. It’s all I’ve got, and I hope you’ll take me. I know you’ll take me, which is why I pray. Read more →

Jonah, My True Story


A Sermon for Covenant
“Jonah, My True Story”
Jonah 1:1-17
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 11, 2015
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)

The general consensus among scholars is that Jonah is a story. Just a story, but not a historically true one. More like a faith fairy tale than a real place on the timeline.

However, I don’t really see how its historicity is relevant. Either way, the story tells us things that are true. If you’ve ever been Jonah, you’ll recognize the story’s accuracy. Without ever physically leaving the land and setting sail, I have been Jonah more than once and have shared his story. Why don’t we just take a ride together and see if this story has ever been true for you?  Read more →

The Epiphany That Shattered Walls


“The Epiphany That Shattered Walls”
Matthew 2:1-12
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
January 4, 2015
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”

They came asking, seeking, searching, following both the signs in the sky and the tug in their hearts.

The powers that be were threatened by this Mystery they sought. They did not want the thing around. They wanted it gone. They did not want this great King, this great Mystery, this great God among them—oh no, they wanted it shut down. “Help us,” begged the powers to the travelers, “Help us destroy it.” The powers coughed. “I mean, we want to worship it too. Lead us there, straight away. You must find it, for we cannot. All the diviners and knowledge-holders together cannot locate the exact whereabouts of this treasure, this person, this babe. But you, you can find it.  For you are wise. Then tell us. Tell us where he is so we can kill . . . we mean, pay homage. Do this for us, oh wise men.” Read more →

The Ever Ancient Mary


“The Ever Ancient Mary”
Matthew 1:16-23
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
December 28, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

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She is so old her teeth have begun to rattle loose. They say her mind may be going, but she says her mind is coming, always comin’ to her, alive with recollection and remembrance.

She is tracing the deep wrinkles in her hands with the edge of her thumb. She thinks of her well-worn hands in contrast to his baby fresh skin she once held in younger arms. Whatever they may say of her mind, her memories are clear. She pictures his tiny toes, smells his newborn, feels the smoothness of his miniature, pudgy legs. Read more →

Bathsheba Tells Her Story


The Four Women of Advent
Advent Four: Bathsheba Tells Her Story
December 21, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

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“Tamar, I’m here,” I say gently as I enter her room. She is nonresponsive. I do not wait for an invitation but sit beside her. Her body heaves a sigh; her brow is furrowed in pain; she does not want to look me in the eye.

My feelings toward her are maternal. She grew up with my children, and they all share a father. I’ve never felt anything but affection towards David’s other children. Children deserve to be loved, no matter who their mothers or fathers are.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Tamar through the years, watching out for her when her own mother was busy with the king. Today I feel a stronger bond with her than ever. I want her to know I am here, in spirit as well as body, but I do not know how to bring up what has happened. I sit quietly. She returns silence with silence. Read more →

Remembering Ruth


The Four Women of Advent
Advent Three: Remembering Ruth
December 14, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

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One could scarcely call it a decision, my choice to head back home. I just get up one day and start walking. The same way the very act of waking up has become involuntarily, this too is unwilled by me. Every night I lay down, hoping for eternal sleep, wishing for nothing but death. And yet, some unseen force pulls me out of bed each day, moves me to prepare my meal, opens my mouth to eat. My body complies independently; my spirit is elsewhere, wrapped up in despair. One day the force tugs at my feet and without forethought or warning, I begin the long lonely trek home. Read more →

Letters to Rahab


The Four Women of Advent
Advent Two: Letters to Rahab
December 7, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

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April 10, 2014

Dear Rahab,

My name is Cassandra. I am 16 years old, and I’m writing you from the Juvenile Detention Center in San Antonio. I been livin’ on the streets two years, ‘til bein’ arrested for theft end of March.

There’s a chaplain here who talks with me. At first she seem alright, but that was before I knew she was the chaplain. I tell her I don’t believe in God, so she might as well leave me alone. She asks me why I don’t believe. “What did God ever do for me?” I tell her. She waits quietly for me to say more. “I’m pissed at God,” I yell, thinking I can shock her. “What kind of God just stand by and let a kid get beat up and used? God never protected me from nothing.” Read more →

Tamar’s Diary


The Four Women of Advent
Advent One: Tamar’s Diary
November 30, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus

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Dear Diary,

It has been 17 days since Er died. I feel I should be crying, but the truth is we barely knew each other. He was a harsh man, and in the short time we were together, I was shown little kindness. Perhaps in time we could have acclimated to one another, but now I will never find out whether we could harmonize. I don’t know if this is grief I am feeling. I feel . . . bereft. Heavy with emptiness—I am empty with what I will never have. I am made heavy by the void of what will never be mine.

I wonder daily if it is possible that even in this season of death, there may yet be life in me. Perhaps I am with child. His child. It is too soon to know. Every morning, the first thing I do on waking is place my hand over my belly and listen, though not with my ears. I don’t know what I am listening for. A mother’s intuition? My own mother always knew before any outward signs. How did she do that?

Read more →

Matthew 25:31-46


Matthew 25:31-46
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
November 23, 2014
Christ the King Sunday
Will Bearden

(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)