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A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:14-20

On a balmy spring afternoon at the University of Virginia, I was walking to my seminar class when I heard a voice echoing across the lawn, “Repent and Believe!”  Ahead of me was a preacher carrying a big sign that said, “Repent!” and he was shouting at the top of his lungs that all of us students were going to hell for getting an education, because “the Word of God was all that’s needed.”  Most of the students paid little attention to the commotion and hurriedly walked on to their class.  Others shook their heads and made comments among themselves.  I paused for a second, wondering how his proclamation was going to attract students to the cause of Christ.

It is interesting that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus himself also proclaimed “repent and believe” as he began his earthly ministry.  It seems to me that in today’s society, no one wants to be told that they need to repent.  “Repent” is a “four-letter” word (yes, I’m mathematically challenged!).  It has negative connotations and people who tell others to repent are often seen as judgmental, negative, and condemnatory.  That’s not how you win friends and influence people these days.  As a pastor, I’m tempted to believe that if I want to successfully recruit disciples and followers, I should stay positive and not step on people’s toes.  I should stick with the “come and see” strategy recorded in the Gospel of John that we saw Jesus used last Sunday, and ditch the “repent and believe” strategy that we see Jesus use today in the Gospel of Mark. 

But before Jesus called for repentance and belief, He made this proclamation: “The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.”  The word Jesus used for “time” is kairos, a Greek word used to describe not chronological time, but an opportune or right time.  One could say that in the Bible, kairos is the term used for God’s time, a decisive time ushering the in-breaking of God’s presence into our lives and our world.  Kairos moments can be positive, like the first day of school, the day you got married, or the birth day of a child.  But kairos moments can also be negative, like the day when Pearl Harbor or the Twin Towers were attacked, the day you failed a test, lost a job, got divorced, or the day your parent passed away. Kairos moments occur when you have the opportunity to take stock and make a change that will affect the rest of your life.

One such event took place during my senior year in high school.  As I told you last week, I went to a small, private high school, and during my senior year, I was the editor of the yearbook.  The administration trusted me enough to give me a key to the school so that the yearbook staff and I could work before or after school or during the weekends without having the custodian come and open up the school for us.  During the spring semester, several of my senior classmates approached me about “borrowing” the school key so that they could execute the traditional, annual senior class prank.  One of my best friends was Ginny, the daughter of the headmaster of the school, and she begged me not to do it.  I struggled with the decision, but in the end, I decided that while I wouldn’t let my classmates borrow the key, I would use it myself to open the door for them.   I succumbed to peer pressure because I didn’t want to be seen as a killjoy.  I thought that my presence during the night of the prank would help moderate what my classmates wanted to do.  I was wrong.  We made a mess of the school, and the headmaster called our parents and we all got into deep trouble.  I made Ginny so disappointed and mad that she wouldn’t talk to me for a week afterwards.

That event was a big kairos moment for me and it led me to repentance.  The word repentance in the Greek is metanoia, which literally means “to change one’s mind for the better.”  The senior prank caused me to change my mind about how much value I should place on just going along with the crowd.  No one had to tell me I needed to repent.  I knew that I had experienced a decisive moment, and I had a choice as to whether I was going to use it as a positive turning point in my life or not.  Seen in the context of a kairos moment, repentance became a positive opportunity for God to change my mind for the better, to help turn my life around. 

So, what does repentance look like?  For many, repentance is merely feeling sorry for the wrong things one has done.  But according to Mike Breen, repentance also involves three other steps: observation of the kairos moment, reflection on one’s actions, and discussion with others about it.[1]  In other words, repentance requires not just a feeling, but reflection and confession within a spiritual community.  Dr. Larry Crabb writes, “A spiritual community consists of people who have the integrity to come clean. It is comprised of those who own their shortcomings and failures because they hate them more than they hate the shortcomings and failures of others.”[2]  Therefore, disciples in a true spiritual community do not point fingers of judgment at others, instead they allow the Spirit of God to do the convicting in their own lives through observing, reflecting and discussing their own struggles and failings. In other words, repentance is not just for non-believers and the unchurched. 

Repentance is necessary for discipleship.  But according to Jesus, it is not enough to repent, to have a change of mind by observing, reflecting and discussing.  According to Jesus, one must also believe.  Now, we often think of belief as having right thoughts.  But in the Bible, “belief” is more than just intellectual assent; it also involves a corresponding change in behavior.  A story is told about the tightrope walker who asked the crowd whether they believed that he could walk across Niagara Falls on a rope while pushing a wheelbarrow.  The crowds enthusiastically replied: “Yes, we believe! We believe you can do it!”  The tightrope walker then asked, “So, which one of you is willing to sit in the wheelbarrow while I push you across the falls?”  After several seconds of awkward silence, one little boy replied, “We believe, . . . but not that much!”

How often in our lives, do we believe, but not so much as to actually stake our lives and change our behavior based on those beliefs?  I believe in exercise, but not so much as to actually go to the Y and hit the weights.  How many of us believe that a habit is not good for us, but we don’t believe in it enough to actually quit the habit?  How many of us have repented of a sin, only to backslide and stumble again and again?  According to psychologist Carl Jung, “We seldom get rid of an evil merely by understanding its causes . . . and for all our insight, obstinate habits do not disappear until replaced by other habits.  But habits are won only by exercise, and appropriate education is the sole means to this end.”[3]  So, how can we truly believe by changing our behavior and exercising a new habit?  According to Mike Breen, belief consists of three steps.  The first step is to have a plan to enact a new behavior as a result of repentance.  Then make sure that someone keeps you accountable to your plan.  The third step is to act on that plan.[4]  Once that action becomes a new habit, then you have made progress in growing as a disciple by taking on more of the character of Jesus, our divine Teacher.  And when that happens, there will be a greater chance for someone to see Christ in us when we invite them to come and see our lives.  Seen in this way, “repent and believe” is no longer an off-putting accusation of condemnation, but a challenging invitation to discipleship attractive enough for Andrew and Peter, James and John to drop what they were doing in order to follow Jesus. 

In order to illustrate this dynamic in a more concrete way, I would like now to give a live demonstration of what repentance and belief looks like in a spiritual community.  A student who has been involved in our collegiate huddle will now come to share a kairos moment in her life. . .

* * * * * *

This is what goes on in our huddle discipleship groups.  As you can see, I don’t tell her what areas of her life need repentance or a change of mind.  We trust God’s Holy Spirit to convict her as she observes and reflects on her life.  I also don’t tell her how she needs to change her behavior.  We trust God’s Holy Spirit to show her that path and to help her plan her next steps.  What we do is to create an accountability structure for her to make sure that she acts on what she is sensing from God.  And she does this with a group of other people who are just as vulnerable and honest in examining and sharing their own lives.  As a result, a safe, caring and supportive spiritual community is formed among the participants, and we all help each other to grow as disciples and followers of Jesus Christ. 

Repent and believe.  That is the invitation that Jesus gave to His would-be followers at the beginning of His earthly ministry.  That is the invitation that Jesus gives to His would-be followers today.  Will we accept this invitation?  Amen.

[1] Mike Breen and Steve Cockram, Building a Discipling Culture, (3 Dimension Ministries, 2009), pp. 30-32.

[2] Larry Crabb, The Safest Place on Earth (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1999), 30-31.

[3] Carl Jung, The Practice of Psychotherapy.

[4] Mike Breen and Steve Cockram, Building a Discipling Culture, (3 Dimension Ministries, 2009), pp. 34-35.

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