January 22, 2012
Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Dallas, TX
Text: Mark 1:14-20
“In many and various ways God spoke to His people of old by the prophets…” That’s how the Epistle to the Hebrews begins. The writer is describing to us the place to look and listen, in order to hear the voice of God Almighty. Paging through the Old Testament, then, we can hear God speak through the words of Moses, Elijah, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, even Jonah.
Even John the Baptist, that last prophet, operates in the same way. His message is from God, and it concerns one particular message: “Repent.” It’s the same message as Moses, David, Isaiah, et al. This is no empty repentance, but the repentance that means “return to the Lord, your God.” Turn around and listen to what the Lord is telling you.
But everything was to change. The prophets would cease to speak, they’d not even be necessary. All these messengers point to the final messenger to come. “But now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son” is how it goes in Hebrews. Mark puts it this way: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'”
The consummation of God’s eternal plan of salvation is taking place. That’s what “the time is fulfilled” means. For all those Jews it meant that they could stop waiting in hope for the inbreaking reign of God’s Christ, and instead see that their cup of expectation now ran over. The winter of longing for God to finally send His Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world was changing over to the spring of salvation won and presented to all people.
For us this is both a word of caution and one of comfort. The kingdom of God is at hand in the person and presence of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God is not something that God expects us to create, but instead is one that He has formed by coming to us in the flesh of Jesus. God’s kingdom is found where His Word, spoken to us by His Son, is likewise proclaimed. In this Word faith and salvation are given. Jesus’ mission is chiefly two-fold: proclaim His work of repairing the sin-brokenness of the world and man, and then accomplish that work of setting it aright.
The Lord is a preacher. Jesus is a preacher, speaking to us God’s word. And the content of His preaching is so simple: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” It’s good for us to hear these words of Christ. It’s good for pastors, because it serves as a reminder of the basic content of the sermons that we preach. All of the preaching of God’s Word centers around a call to repentance and a call to belief – Law and Gospel is another way to describe it. It’s good for you to hear it, too. You Christians should hold your pastors to Jesus’ standard. It’s good for all of us to hear together. This basic message of Jesus holds all of our expectations in check. Each one of us, pastor and people alike, might think to ourselves, “I know what sort of sermon will really bring the people in.” Yet unless what we had in mind was a “repent and believe” sermon, we’re deluding ourselves.
“Repent and believe.” This is God’s message. Following Jesus’ lead, if the law isn’t preached, the Gospel is meaningless. If we’ve done nothing wrong, then who cares if we’re forgiven? It’s a solution for a problem that we don’t know exists. If I don’t know I need sustenance, then all the food in the world holds no appeal. If we look at it this way, proclaiming repentance isn’t a bad thing. It’s a very good thing, for with the preaching of the law and repentance comes the opportunity meaningfully to apply the gospel of Christ.
Repentance, then, is a gift from God. We ought to pray that we may always be recipients of it, and we pray for all those who hear this message, that “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25)
The message of Jesus is so simple. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” How could anyone not believe it? It’s so simple, so perhaps this is why it’s so tough to grasp that so many don’t. Are we missing something? Are they? The answer to both questions is yes.
To be repentant means that God’s law has been spoken, showing those who hear it their sinful nature and even their sinful actions. You cannot be sorry if you don’t think you’ve done wrong. So there are some who don’t know of their need for salvation.
Likewise, there are some who hear God’s law, and don’t like it one bit. Many have no interest in admitting that they do a single thing wrong. “How dare you!” they may say back to you (though they’re really saying it back to God). So there are some who are deeply offended by being told that they are falling short.
And sometimes saying that repentance is necessary can lead to some nasty name calling: “hypocrite”, etc. But don’t forget, the law is necessary for all of us to hear, believer and unbeliever alike. That’s why Jesus preached repentance and faith, and why even today His church continues with that same message. Christ’s message is not “you’ve got Jesus, so now you’ll never sin again!” Rather it’s “Repent and believe the gospel.” For your whole life you need to hear this message. “Repent and believe the gospel.”
When Jonah preached to the Ninevites, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. “‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God.” “Repent and believe.” And the wonderful good news is that they did. And God was pleased to care for them in His Kingdom. Who could guess that the Ninevites would turn out to be the example for God’s people to follow?
So when we wonder how anyone could turn Jesus down, we confess how little we understand of ourselves. We do not easily let go of the old; old sin dies hard. Consider the difficulty we have in trusting in God’s constant care for our lives; in giving away our time or our money for the Church’s work. Consider how hard it is to admit that whatever keeps us from God’s Word and Sacrament on the Lord’s Day (sickness, sports league, NFL game, shopping trip, camping trip) just might be a tool of the devil. Consider how easy it is to go days, weeks, maybe even months without sitting down to read God’s word, by ourselves or with our family.
If we struggle to do these things, then we shouldn’t wonder at all why many refuse this offer and reject the Kingdom of God. An honest look in the mirror should convince us. On our own we can’t bear to repent. We won’t believe the gospel. Even now our faith is very weak. And we still cling to the old and hold onto “the present form of this world” – even though it is passing away. (1 Cor. 7:31)
So the solution for us is not to look to ourselves, because what a tremendous disaster that would be. God’s forgiveness is a gift for us. Repentance is a gift, worked by the Holy Spirit in the preaching of God’s word. And believing in the Gospel is a gift, too, from the same Holy Spirit through the same word of God.
And the solution for others to believe is the same – not to look to ourselves, and our ideas and thoughts and clever new ways to draw people in. The weekly attendance count is not how we know God’s kingdom is at hand. Instead, it’s the marvelous true preaching of God’s message. “Repent and believe in the gospel.” It was good enough for Jesus; let it be perfect for us as well!
So the true preaching of the Lord is to repent and believe. Repent, for you are sinful through and through. And in repentance, trust in this good news: Jesus Christ paid for your sin in His death on the cross, and then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. The Lord has taken away your sins and removed them as far as the east is from the west. He remembers them no more. You have been redeemed into Christ’s kingdom! This is the eternal Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it’s for all to hear and believe. Amen.