3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Mark 1:14-20 Sermon
January 22, 2006
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
164 "God Himself Is Present"
568 "If Thou But Suffer God To Guide Thee"
515 "O Jesus I Have Promised To Serve Thee To The End"
520 "Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah"
REPENTANCE—THE WORD NOBODY WANTS TO HEAR
TEXT (vs. 14-15): “Now after John (the Baptist) was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.’”
Alphonse Capone was born in the year 1899 in Italy. He and his family moved to New York City in his earlier years, where young Al grew up, learning the ways of the world, and what we might call “street smarts.” He was a member of a teenage street gang; and during a gang fight, Al was stabbed in the face which earned him the nickname “scarface.”
After moving to Chicago, Al Capone rose to be one of the greatest crime syndicate bosses of all time. Whatever illegal thing was going on, you could be almost sure that Al Capone was behind it somewhere. During prohibition, booze of every description was as plentiful as water for Capone. Al Capone was also into drugs, prostitution, illegal gambling, smuggling, pornography, extortion, usury, bribes, you name it. If there was a dollar in it and it was illegal, Al Capone did it.
Human life meant nothing to Capone. If you crossed him, you could bet that your end was near. He systematically killed or caused to be killed many members of rival gangs. In 1929, Capone was part of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, where seven men were machine gunned in the back, killed in cold blood in a mechanic’s garage in Chicago. For Capone, this had no more meaning than just swatting a few flies.
The police, and one detective in particular by the name of Elliot Ness, worked long and hard to convict Capone and put him behind bars. Finally this happened in 1931. Unable to prove him guilty of any of the horrendous crimes he committed, Capone went to prison for income tax fraud.
After spending eight years behind bars, Al Capone retired to his home in Miami, Florida, where he finally died, insane and his body raging with syphilis, at the ripe old age of 48.
If you haven’t heard of Al Capone, now you know the type of person he was. And if you do know of him, then you know I’ve only given you a brief outline of this notorious criminal. But there is one thing I didn’t mention, and most of you probably don’t know about or wouldn’t have guessed.
Al Capone faithfully went to church. He was an active member of his church. He regularly went to communion, and contributed generously. As far as being a pew sitting church attender, Al Capone was impeccable. But outside of the church doors, it was a different story altogether.
This story about Al Capone is the first one that pops into my head every time I hear the word “repent” connected with the gospel. Because for Capone, the word “repent” simply didn’t exist. Al Capone went into church a criminal, and came out a criminal. Nothing changed in his life.
You might think that this situation was rather odd or unique, but Capone’s line of thinking was probably not much different than the way a lot of people think. Even though Al Capone was probably one of the most notorious sinners we can imagine, yet many people think the same way when it comes to sin and repentance. Nobody likes the word “repentance.”
The reason nobody likes the word “repentance,” is because it means we have to change something. Even though that change is always for the better, yet it means we have to change. And it doesn’t mean change a little either. It means a complete 180 degree shift in direction. For example, if you were walking in a straight line north, it would be like turning around and walking straight south. Repentance is like that. And it is still the word that is problematic for most Christians.
Repentance in our lives involves a turning away from that which is bad to that which is good, replacing that which isn’t God pleasing to that which is God pleasing. But people don’t want to do that. Al Capone sure didn’t.
Today, our text deals with the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. The first words out of his mouth sound the warning: “The kingdom of God is at hand!” Oh my! Whatever are we going to do? How can we sinners stand before a righteous God? Are we doomed for sure? Oh, what shall we ever do?
Jesus gives us the answer before the questions can even be formulated. It is a two-part answer: First, repent; second, believe the gospel. That’s it! That’s the way that all people can stand before a righteous God forgiven and acquitted.
But people seem to get it back to front. They say, “Okay, the ‘believe the gospel’ bit I’ll do, but I’ll repent if I want to;” or, “I’ll repent if it feels right for me;” or, “I’ll repent if it’s not too difficult for me.” The big rub comes from the change from what I want to what God wants.
The refusal to repent has been going on for many years. The Israelites in the Old Testament wanted the best of both worlds; they wanted God’s blessing, but they wanted to have things on their own terms. They wanted God to continue to act graciously while they were engaging in all sorts of open sin.
And if we bring it into at least the last millennium, we find a good example with England’s King Henry the 8th. He wanted the church to give him permission to divorce Anne Bolin. So he went to the Pope first. He said, “No, it’s wrong, no way.” Not to be beaten, Henry toddled off to Luther. Luther told him, “Sorry pal, no special dispensations here; what Scripture says has to stand.”
So Henry decided, “Forget you guys, I’ll start my own church where I can do as I please.” And that’s exactly what he did. That’s how the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church, or the Episcopal Church) got started. We can follow his subsequent trail of marriages and divorces and beheadings to see what kind of moral fibre King Henry the 8th had. When the church said “no,” when the Bible said “no,” and Henry said “yes,” then Henry had to win in his own mind. Unfortunately God just doesn’t see things in the same way Henry did.
And it is so true today. We can see example after example of repentance being thrown out the window for some sort of rational ethic or emotional band-aid. Repentance seems to take on the meaning of feeling good about yourself, whatever you’re doing or however you’re acting or whatever you’re thinking, rather than ceasing to do wrong and start doing right.
We see so many carrying the banner of Christianity, and yet in the name of Christ will sanction overt homosexuality, and even perform homosexual unions. Forget that the Bible says that it is a sin, and that repentance means to quit doing it.
Or we see other cases of adultery, de facto relationships, promiscuity, extra marital affairs, unscriptural divorces, or whatever happens to be going on.
And what do those churches say? Hey! That’s you, accept the way you are, live with it, and be happy! Keep on making those private lunchtime visits with the neighbor’s wife. Keep on taking the Lord’s name in vain. Go ahead and have that sex change operation, or keep on being gay or lesbian. God will understand! God accepts you!
This is nothing new. Paul even warned Timothy in II Timothy 4, 3-4: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” And true to form, King Henry the 8th did just that very thing, and we see it happening all the time today.
I guess the question needs to be answered, “Does God accept any sinner? Does God accept people just the way they are?”
Of course he does! The Bible proves that over and over again. God’s grace covers all, from the homosexual to the adulterer, to the idolater, to even someone as notorious as the famous Al Capone. Whatever the sin, because of God’s grace, through faith in Christ Jesus, all sins are forgivable ones.
But with this in mind, the Apostle Paul asks the question to the Roman congregation, “What shall we say then? Shall we keep on sinning so that grace may abound? By no means!”
You see, we can’t be looking for cheap grace, or a license to keep on sinning. That’s what Al Capone was trying to do. Like I said earlier, he went to church. But he refused to repent. He refused to leave his sinful life. He went into church a criminal, and he came back out a criminal. Instead of closing the door on his past life of sin, he tried to jam that door open so he could go back and forth as he pleased. For Al Capone, his church attendance perhaps gave him an excuse to continue his illegal activity with a clear conscience. He had to do his bit to keep in good with the man upstairs. Al Capone wasn’t the least bit interested in changing his life. Repentance had no meaning for him.
How true is that for us? How often do we look for an excuse to continue in a sin that affects us? How often do we know without a doubt that a thought we have, or an attitude we have, or something we do is definitely wrong? How often do we try to convince ourselves that the other person has to repent and change, but not us? And how often do we look to God’s grace for forgiveness while having absolutely no intention of changing any of our sinful ways? How often do we see God as the great giver of licenses to sin without any regrets?
Repentance is not an easy thing. Because it is not easy, and because it often means making changes that are not too easy at times, the more popular religions of today seem to completely cast it aside.
But we can’t. Jesus used the word “repent” before he used the word “gospel.” So we must realistically deal with it.
In our life of repentance we will slip and stumble. We will find ourselves plagued with old thoughts and attitudes and desires which are not God-pleasing. True repentance tells us to see these things as sin, and feel sorry for them. The Apostle Paul told the Romans, “The good that I would, I do not; and the evil I would not, I do.” Or in simple language, “The good things I want to do and know I should do are the very things I don’t do; and the evil things I don’t want to do, are the very things I do.” Paul knew the road of repentance wasn’t an easy one.
But Paul wasn’t looking for an excuse to continue to sin. He didn’t say, “Well Lord, this is just the way I am.” No, Paul knew his sinful nature was at work, and felt frustration. Most importantly, he looked to God to give him the strength to do the will of the Lord.
True repentance for us then causes us to look at our sinful selves honestly, calling sin the way it is. Repentance is the desire for us to turn the opposite direction of sin, and we pray for God to give us grace to do this. And when we slip off the rails from time to time, we also know that God will forgive us.
The attitude of repentance is of prime importance for us to remember every time we come into God’s house, and especially to the Lord’s Table. We can’t come here to receive cheap grace and a license to depart to go and sin as we please.
No, one of the important things is that we come to God with an attitude of repentance. We come to him knowing that we are sinful and ready to make a change. We come to him earnestly desiring that he would give us the strength to amend our sinful lives.
And with this attitude of true repentance in our heart, then we receive the message of the gospel. We know that all of our sins have been forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ our Saviour. We physically receive this forgiveness through Christ’s true body and blood given to us in the Lord’s Supper. Our sins are completely and freely forgiven through Christ’s merit. God’s grace is not cheap, but it is certainly free. We might not like to hear the word “repentance” or think about it, but we certainly need to see how important it is in our relationship with God.
Therefore, we can come to God in true faith and know that we will receive the forgiveness for our sins, just as Jesus himself has promised. And we can leave his house, being assured of this forgiveness, and that we will receive strength for our faith.
And so, as we go forth this morning, we can pray with the hymnwriter:
O Jesus I have promised, to serve thee to the end;
Be thou forever near me, my master and my friend;
I shall not fear the battle if thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway, if thou wilt be my guide.
(SBH 515, vs. 1)