A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 6, 2011.
O God, we confess that we find it hard to think of ourselves as sinners, but we are reminded every day. Our minds cringe from the awareness of our motives for so many of the things we do. We know our hearts and we fear that you do as well. We recognize our secret sins and our private hardness of heart or our judgmental spirits. We confess that we have taken false confidence in what we thought was moral superiority or extra spiritual sensitivity and these things have stopped us from relying on your grace. Help us to pray as others have prayed. Help us to pray as David prayed and to admit that our sin is ever before us. Help us to open our lives to you and to receive the cleansing power of your love that would wash us whiter than snow. Remind us of the moments when we have known true forgiveness, moments when your grace came over us and took away all that was impure. Help us to feel that cleansing once again and to feel close to you. Break down any embarrassment that we feel to admit our sin. Break down pride that causes us to refuse your grace. If there is anything in our lives that stands between us, take that barrier away this day. O God, you do know our sins and you love us still. We turn from all of them, and in these moments, we would cling to nothing if it means foregoing your presence. O God, we desire nothing more. We want nothing more. We need nothing other than to be restored and renewed this day. Through Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.
The invitation to repent is rarely a voice of chastisement but rather . . . the beckoning of a loving Father . . .
—Neil L. Andersen in Repent That I May Heal You
The winner was a middle-aged woman, very average in all regards, and the prize was a Mediterranean cruise. Today, that would be a very nice gift. I think all of us would like to win that as a prize. It would be wonderful. Thirty years ago, it was exotic. Nobody that was average went on cruises. It seemed like something too great to imagine. The woman hears that voice off stage of Don Pardo, or somebody like that, telling her what she has won. Her husband comes to join her on the stage, and he literally has to hold her up. The weight of the joy of the moment is just about to make her knees buckle. The announcer is describing, Seven days and six nights at exotic ports of call around the Mediterranean. Be the guest at the captain’s table every night for dinner.
As she is listening to it and the announcer comes to the end, she is suddenly aware of the enormity of the whole thing. All of a sudden, she can begin to visualize herself on the cruise ship, at the captain’s table, and all these other things. She has this amazed look on her face, her hand comes to her face, and she looks at her husband and says, “We’ll have to have all new things.”
She is beginning to think about dining at the captain’s table and suddenly that three or four-year-old sundress seems a little frayed. It just doesn’t quite have the bright colors it once did. Maybe she is thinking about her husband’s seven-year-old swimsuit that the kids make fun of. You know men don’t like to buy new swimsuits. She is thinking, “Oh no, he just can’t wear that.” The Madras shorts that he has been wearing to cut the grass for ten years will not look good on the Promenade Deck, so she says the obvious: “We’ll have to have all new things. We can’t take what we have. We can’t take these worn, faded, and used things. We’ll have to have all new things.”
Have you ever been the mother of the bride? Have you ever known a mother of the bride? Is there anything in your closet that will do? “My child is getting married. I’ve got to have all new things.”
You move into a new house. The couch served its purpose for 12, 15 or 18 years in the old house, but when you move it into the new house, it just looks faded and out of place. It makes the new house look shabby, so you have to have all new things. You have to have a new couch, a new Lazy Boy, something to go in the new den so it will match the goodness, the beauty, and the lift of where you are living now.
Men don’t wear suits as much as they used to, but there was a time when all men bought suits. You would go to a store and the salesman would say, “Don’t you need a new tie to go with that?” You have the new suit so you can’t wear the old frayed tie, the one that has gravy stains or the one that you sent to the cleaners and it came back just a little out of shape and the knot doesn’t work right any more. “I’ve got to have new things. I’ve got to have a couple of new ties to match the new suit.”
Whenever something is new and something takes center attention, is exciting and different, and is the focus of everything we look at, all of a sudden it casts this light on the things that surround it in the old, the worn, the tarnished, the frayed. It just doesn’t look right anymore and we think, “I’ve got to have all new things.”
For several months now, we have been listening and worshiping around sermons on Now That I Believe. Now that I believe in Jesus Christ, how is my life different? Now that I believe, what are the things that I am expected to do and follow in Christ. Since the beginning of the year and through Easter, we are thinking about Now That I Believe, I Listen to Jesus. All the messages are centered around things that Jesus would teach us.
The great British preacher, Leslie Weatherhead, always said when we have an area where we feel out of place or where we don’t feel like we know enough ourselves, we always seek out an expert. If we need to go to court, we seek an expert in the law. If we are ill, we seek an expert in medicine. Why not with our spirits? With our spirits, why don’t we seek someone who is truly an expert to tell us what is wrong with our souls, what would fix our souls, and what would make our souls grow. Who is the expert other than Jesus? Particularly as Christians, who else would we look at other than Jesus? Now that I believe, I listen to Jesus.
The message today comes with the first words in Mark and Matthew that are very similar. Jesus has been tempted by the devil. He comes out of the wilderness and begins his ministry. In Matthew, he says, “Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew is a good Jew and he doesn’t want to speak God’s name so he substitutes heaven instead of God. In Mark, he says, “The kingdom of God is near.” Now is the time. This is the time. God is drawing near to us.
In this short phrase, it is amazing what students of the Bible have unpacked. It is amazing what they have been able to explain to us. We know that when Jesus came preaching, he lived in a time when people really were looking for the Messiah. They really were anticipating that God’s time, God’s kingdom, God’s role on earth would come.
If we take the Old Testament prophets and the rabbis that taught in the centuries before and after Jesus and look to see what they expected, we find that they expected a time when the wild beasts would be tame. This is repeated over and over again. We can think of the passage, “and the lion will lay down with the lamb.” They thought there would be a time when there would be perfect peace and we could think about the prophets who said, “They shall take their swords and beat them into plowshares because they don’t need them for war anymore.” It will be a time of prosperity, a time when people live long lives. It will be a time when the enemies of Israel will be vanquished. Everybody who had been scattered will be drawn back together. Everyone who had been alienated from family, friend, God, and Israel would all be welcomed back. It would be a time of perfect peace.
Hans Hüng, a Catholic theologian, tries to describe what Jesus comes to tell us, what it means for the kingdom of God to be near. This is what he says:
“It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ prayer, God’s name is truly hallowed, his will is done on earth, men will have everything in abundance, all sin will be forgiven and all evil overcome.
“It will be a kingdom where, in accordance with Jesus’ promises, the poor, the hungry, those who weep and those who are downtrodden will finally come into their own; where pain, suffering and death will have an end.
“It will be a kingdom that cannot be described, but only made known in metaphors: as the new covenant, the seed springing up, the ripe harvest, the great banquet, the royal feast.
“It will therefore be a kingdom—wholly as the prophets foretold—of absolute righteousness, of unsurpassable freedom, of dauntless love, of universal reconciliation, of everlasting peace. In this sense therefore it will be the time of salvation, of fulfillment, of consummation, of God’s presence: the absolute future.”
I would like to know that time. Jesus comes and says, “The tide is turning. God is near.” What someday will be true in all of God’s creation can be true for each of us who hear the Good News today. The time is coming when God is near and all of these things that we would hope for in the world, among all nations, can be yours and mine. The disciples heard it by the seaside for the first time in all of its fullness. It’s time. All of this is available from God. Who would not want that?
Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is in front of you. It is near. It is ready. The tide is turning. It is available.” When I think about what it would mean to enter into the presence and the will of God in that way, I know something is true. I am going to need all new things to enter into that presence. I am going to need a new heart because this heart is a little too tarnished. It has been cold a few times too often. I am going to need a new soul because mine has been too darkened, sullied, grayed, and yellowed from all the times I have gotten it dirty and tried to scrub it clean myself and it would not come clean. I am going to need a new spirit. I am going to one that is ready, willing, and desiring the love and grace of God in my life. I can’t take these old things into that place. I can’t take all these old things into God’s love and receive his grace and forgiveness. I need all new things.
If you drive down the highway, you see signs that people have made. Sometimes they are by the interstate where someone has driven out in the field and tacked it to the bottom of a big pole that lifts up a higher billboard. Sometimes it is on a state route or an old country road and the sign says, Jesus is coming! Repent! All the letters are in flames. It is a message of fear. You may have heard the old evangelist term, Turn or Burn. That is the message of repentance. That is not really what we read in scripture.
I have been to some of your homes and I know that some of you have a mud room that is between the garage and the rest of the house. This is a place where when you have been out working or hunting and you come in the house and you leave your muddy clothes and boots. It is a place where you can take off all the dirt and leave it behind and not take the dirt and mud into the house. Repentance is a little like a mud room in our relationship to God. It is a place where we can leave all that other behind and where we can take on what is clean and new and move into God’s presence.
The word repentance actually means to change your mind. In the Greek, it is metta-noya. Metta means change and noya means knowledge or mind. Clarence Jordan, the great Georgian who translated the New Testament into the vernacular of the rural South, says it is a little like metamorphosis. Do you remember when we went to school and the teacher would have a cocoon? I don’t know where the teacher got those. I have been looking for them all my life and I can hardly ever find them. The teacher would have a cocoon, and we would wait, and wait, and wait. Then, one day that butterfly would start to burst through.
Clarence Jordan said, “Nobody said to that caterpillar, ‘You poor little caterpillar. You are going to have to metamorphosis. You are going to have to change. You are going to quit being a worm that crawls around and you are going to be a beautiful butterfly that can fly.’”
No, everybody says, “This is the most wonderful thing I have ever seen. This is grand. This little slug that crawled along all of a sudden has been changed. It is pretty and it is beautiful. It brings us the sense of God’s wonder. Metamorphosis – change form. Metta-noya – change your mind and repent.
Clarence always said that the same joy for the caterpillar to become a butterfly should be the same joy that we talk about when we talk about metta-noya. Changing our hearts; changing our minds; repenting; getting rid of all the filth; getting rid of all the things that would stand between us and God.
One of my favorite verses is Romans 2:3. Paul says, “God’s kindness leads us to repentance.” Not God’s anger, not God’s wrath, not God’s vengeance that he is waiting to visit on us—turn or burn—but God’s kindness leads us to the place where we can say, I need all new things. I repent and I lay aside every burden. I lay aside everything that I have kept in my heart, everything that dirtied my soul, everything that has tarnished my heart. I lay it aside for the surpassing worth of knowing God’s grace.
The kingdom is here. God’s presence is in front of each and every one of us. When we are aware of what a blessing, what a good thing, what a hallowed thing, what a peaceful thing, what a graceful thing it is that he wants to give us, wouldn’t we want all new things? Why wouldn’t we take them if they were available?
Repent. Enjoy. Get rid of all the old things that stop us from feeling as if we can enter into God’s presence. Take off all the dirty, remove all the muddy, cast off everything that is worn, yellowed, and frayed. We have new things—a new heart, a new soul, a new spirit. Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.