True Repentance

Sunday 25 January 2009

Jeremiah 3:21-4:2, Psalm 130, I Corinthians 7:17-23, Mark 1:14-20



The message of Jesus was very simple: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.  Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)  Jesus preached exactly the same message that John the Baptist had preached before Him.  In fact, the message of repentance was what all the prophets in the Old Testament had preached.  There is no new revelation in the Kingdom of God – only old revelation made new.


The way into God’s Kingdom always had been, and always will be, through repentance.  To repent means to make a 180 degree turn – or what we sometimes call a U-turn – and change direction.  Of course this is talking about our hearts and the way we live our lives.  When we travel by road we sometimes come to a roundabout, where there are many possible directions.  There are times when we feel that our lives are like this, and we are confused by all the possibilities and choices that the world offers us.  But in the Kingdom of God there are really only two directions – towards God, or away from God.  What is important is not how spiritual you are, but which direction you are going.

There is no salvation without repentance, and this involves confessing our sins.  The Bible tells us that sin puts a barrier in the way of our relationship with God, and even in our relationships with one another.  If you find that you are struggling to connect with God in prayer, or that there seems to be a wall blocking your relationship with another person, the best way to begin to put things right is to ask the Holy Spirit to search your heart, and to confess to God whatever sin He may reveal to you.  I John 1:8-9 explains that If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Confession allows us to make our hearts right with God and to receive forgiveness, so that the guilt and shame that has hindered us from drawing near to Him is removed.  If there is true repentance in our hearts, God also promises that He will remove the sin itself, leading to actual change in our lives.  In God’s eyes you will be as if you had never sinned, but He also desires to make holiness a living reality in our daily experience.


Often if we are waiting a long time for God to do something and our prayers have not been answered, it is likely that God wants to change something in our hearts first.  Our salvation, deliverance and healing usually begin with change on the inside before there is change on the outside.  Commonly we blame people or situations for the struggles we experience, because we do not realize that the real problem is in our hearts.  It is true that people hurt us, and that some situations can be very difficult.  However, God knows this and has compassion for us.  Ever since the conception of Jesus, He has experienced what it is to be fully human, and so He understands our struggles perfectly.  He also understands perfectly our temptations and the excuses we make!  God does not excuse our sin – He calls it what it really is, and He has forgiven it, because in the Person of Christ He Himself was tempted yet was without sin.

We cannot control situations, and we cannot control other people.  But God has given us the freedom to choose how we will think, handle our emotions, speak and act, and He expects us, with His help, to use our freedom not to sin but to serve Him.  We are not helpless victims of the circumstances, but we have responsibility for the choices we make.  Repentance means taking responsibility for the wrong choices we have made in the past and for the choices we will make in the future.  Many of our struggles are the result of wounds where we have been hurt in the past, and of unresolved anger and unforgiveness.  God wants to heal us from these wounds, but this begins with forgiving those who have hurt us, and asking God to forgive us for the ways in which we have reacted to those wounds ever since.

In our first lesson, the prophet Jeremiah confesses on behalf of the people, “Surely, the hills are a deception, a tumult on the mountains.  Surely in the LORD our God is the salvation of Israel.” (Jeremiah 3:23)  In ancient Israel, the mountains and hills were the place where people worshipped idols, or false gods, in various pagan ceremonies.  If you look closely enough you may see the same thing on Carlton Hill or the other hills around Edinburgh today.  More often, however, our idols are not physical images or statues but they are thoughts and motives in our minds and hearts that we have placed above God by obeying them and allowing them to shape and rule our lives.  Our enemy, the devil or Satan, is a liar and the father of all lies, and he has lied to us and deceived us in order to prevent us from fully walking in the ways of God and experiencing our freedom and the gift of abundant life.  To be deceived means that a thought or emotion has taken hold of our lives in such a way that we are not even aware that it is there or that there is anything wrong.  This is how Satan and his demons gain a foothold in our lives.  We will not be able to recognize for ourselves the lies of the enemy that have kept us from receiving our healing and deliverance, but if we ask the Holy Spirit to reveal them to us, He will open our eyes to the hidden strongholds to which we have been blinded, so that through confession and repentance we will be set free.  A tumult is a loud noise and confusion.  The lies and deceptions of the enemy are a tumult of voices in our minds that prevents us from hearing the still, small voice of God. 

It is not enough simply to turn from our sin and from these idols and deceptions in our hearts and minds.  We must have something definite to turn to, otherwise we will be confused will not know where to turn or where to go.  This is why Jesus told us we must believe in the Gospel.  Faith does not mean that we believe whatever we want, but it means that we must believe in the truth, because it is the truth that sets us free.  God is the Source of all truth, and Jesus Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  If we want to know the truth, we must look to Him and make His Word the foundation of our lives, through meditating on the Bible and on the teachings of the Church that are made available to us each week.  God is testing our foundations because He wants to make them more solid and to strengthen our faith.  He is calling us to become more deeply grounded in the truth so that we will be better equipped to overcome the lies of the devil and to overcome in the spiritual warfare that is against us.

Today’s Psalm tells us that receiving the answer to our prayers is often a long and painful process of hoping and waiting for God.  This is very important because God wants us to be sure that our hope is in Him alone and not in the people or things around us.  Eventually these will all prove to be unreliable, but only He is truly reliable and trustworthy.  The suffering we experience is often part of the inner working of the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see things that otherwise we could not see.  The sinful attitudes and desires with which we try to protect ourselves from being hurt only blind us to the truth, and we need the light of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to us, not only intellectually but in our hearts, in the areas of our lives where the deepest wounds are.  Often the only way this can happen is through the struggles and frustrations of certain circumstances that will bring these things to our awareness.  The Psalmist said, “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O LORD” (Psalm 130:1).  He did not cry out to God for help and deliverance in these areas of his life from the mountain-top, when He was experiencing great happiness and fulfilment and the presence and glory of God every moment of His life.  He cried out from the depths – from the lowest valley, from the most difficult circumstances and the deepest wounds of his heart.  Jonah did not cry out to God and go in the direction God had told him to go until he had been thrown into a stormy sea and swallowed by a fish.  Sometimes God has to bring us to the lowest place in our lives before we will truly surrender and release certain areas to Him.  If you feel as if you are in the lowest place, then it is probably a good sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life, and it is an opportunity for you to cry out to God and to receive healing and deliverance.


We heard in the Gospel how Jesus called certain fishermen to follow Him, and how they immediately left everything behind in order to travel with Him as His disciples.  They did not follow Him because of their parents or their religious teachers, but because He had spoken to them personally as individuals, and they each had to make this choice for themselves.  This is how it is for all of us – we must each hear the calling of God personally in our lives.  Our parents, church leaders and others may help us, but ultimately it is a personal interaction between us and God.  We are not called to a religion but to a relationship.

The calling of God is to repentance and faith – which also means surrender and obedience.  A few weeks ago we heard how Joseph and Mary got up in the middle of the night and travelled to a strange country because God has spoken to Joseph in a dream.  Today we heard how four fishermen left behind their business and their parents in order to go wherever God would lead them.  The Lord has the right to disrupt our lives in this kind of way, but usually the disruption is more on the inside than on the outside.  Most often what we have to change is in our hearts.  The angel also told Joseph to marry a woman who was pregnant with someone else’s child.  He was already engaged to marry her, but he had planned to break off the engagement when he heard the news.  God’s calling for Joseph in this situation was not to change the plan but to change his thinking and trust God in a greater way.  Often we are tempted to run from a situation where we are struggling, but God’s calling is for us to remain in the situation, to surrender our struggles to Him and trust Him in a greater way.  Many people have left their countries because of their struggles there, and have gone to other countries where they thought life would be easier.  Now even some of the richer countries are being affected by the economic crisis, and perhaps some people again want to run somewhere else where things will be easier.  But the only reliable place where we can run is to God, and He is not to be found in any country or geographical location but only in our hearts.  Sometimes we are tempted to run when there is a conflict in a relationship.  But where can you run, when the pain and unforgiveness are in your heart?  Repentance means that we must stop running away in these kinds of situations, but we must turn and face the problem and run to God who alone can help us.  Which way are you running today?

St. Paul tells us, Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. (I Corinthians 7:20)  In most cases, we do not have to leave our jobs or move to another church or cut off our relationships in order to serve God effectively.  However we may need to change the way in which we serve within our situation, and the way in which we see it.  Your job is more than a way for you to make money – it is an opportunity for you to use your gifts to serve others, and to let your light shine in the world around you.  In whatever situation God has placed you, He has a purpose either to perform a work in your mind and heart, or to do a work through you that will make a difference in the lives of the other people around you.  The question is, what do you see there?  Do you see only the struggles and your daily routine, or has God opened the eyes of your heart to see the bigger picture?  Is your service to God only in your prayer time and in church activities, or is it also in your family life and your school or work and the way you spend your free time?  Jesus called His first disciples to leave their jobs because He wanted to show them a bigger world than mending fishing nets.  There was nothing wrong with what they were doing, but they were missing the bigger picture.  God wants to enlarge our borders and remind us of the greater purpose for which He has called us.

In some cases it may be necessary for us to change our outward situation, if it is keeping us in bondage and hindering us from our service to God.  Paul advised those who were slaves to gain their freedom if they could, both for their own welfare and so that they would be able to serve God more effectively.  If your work is making it difficult for you to attend church on Sundays, or if it does not leave you any time for a ministry that God is calling you to fulfil, or if it is making you so tired that your health or family life is suffering, then you should pray about making changes, and ask God to direct you and to show you a better way.  There may also be certain relationships that you need to cut off if the nature of that relationship or the influence of that person is causing you to drift away from God rather than helping you to draw nearer to Him.  We have freedom to make choices, but these choices begin with allowing the Holy Spirit to search our minds and hearts.


We all need to know what God has called us to do, and who He has called us to be.  The Christian life is not un-natural but super-natural.  It is not a religion in which we have to try hard to be something we are not, but it is a process of discovering and learning to be more fully and more truly who we really are.  This is something we can only do with God’s help.  However in this process God will reveal to us something much greater than what we were aware of before.  Jesus did not call His first disciples to become academic scholars of the Bible but to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).  Some of them probably did not know how to read and write, and so for them to study like the existing religious leaders would have been unnatural for them.  To become “fishers of men” was more in keeping with their skills as fishermen – and yet to be involved in the harvesting and healing of souls is a much greater calling than catching and cleaning fish.  This is the kind of change God wants to bring about in us all.  He has given each of us a unique personality and set of gifts and abilities, and He does not want you to become like someone else, but to become more like you – and of course more like Him.  When David went to fight Goliath, he refused the armour and weapons that King Saul offered to him – they were too heavy and he did not know how to use them.  Instead he used a stone and a sling-shot, because that was the way he was used to killing bears and lions when he guarded his father’s sheep.  Many people are worn down by their jobs because they are trying to wear Saul’s armour.  Sadly, the same thing often happens in the Church because people think that in order to do ministry or to be spiritual, you have to do certain things a certain way.  In some churches you even have to speak in a different kind of voice and use old-fashioned words that you would not normally use anywhere else.  Some people disqualify themselves because they think they do not fit.

God’s commandments are not burdensome – you do not have to wear Saul’s armour in order to fulfil God’s calling in your life.  We cannot obey Him in our own strength, because that part of us has already been put to death, and God wants it to die completely.  Religion makes all kinds of rules and regulations that are impossible for anyone to keep.  True Christianity is the freedom to be who God originally created you to be.  When God first created Adam and Eve, it was not natural for them to sin but it was natural for them to love and obey Him.  God created you uniquely in His image, and He said that it was very good.  The unique way in which He has created you is fully acceptable to Him.  Even though you have sinned, God still accepts you because of the blood of Jesus His Son.  For us to become more like Jesus is not to wear Saul’s armour – it is to go back to the way we were originally created.  Repentance means moving on through taking responsibility for our choices, and not allowing the hurts and mistakes of the past to shape our future.  It means allowing God to restore the original glory with which we were created.  It is through turning around and believing the good news that in Christ we can become truly ourselves.


Who are you really?  What are the hidden dreams and desires in your hearts that are still unfulfilled because you are not sure whether there is really a place for them or for you?  Repent of believing the lies of the devil that have led you into slavery, and ask God to shape and mould you into the person He has called you to be.

“Mending the nets” speaks of the ordinary every day things that are necessary for our survival but that do not ultimately make a great difference in the world around us or have any eternal value.  It speaks of being caught up in our own struggles, or consumed with things that are unimportant, so that we miss the things that really matter.  “Fishers of men” speaks of the bigger picture – of finding our place in God’s greater mission and purpose for the world in which we live, and of fulfilling His calling in our lives.  The mission of the Church is not only to survive, but to seek and save that which was lost.  Are you mending nets or catching men?


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