Three Lessons in Repentance
A sermon preached on Mark 1:1-4 by Pastor Michael Johnson at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on December 6, 2020.
God wants us every day to do this thing called “repenting of our sin”. It’s how we properly get ready to celebrate Christmas, it’s how we properly live through a pandemic, it’s how we properly live life to the full as our Lord said in John 10, and it’s also how we stay ready for Christ’s return on the Last Day. But what, exactly, does “daily repenting of our sin” look like?
Let’s find out, as we consider the first verses of today’s gospel lesson.
The Beginning with no Ending
The book of Mark begins with these words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” That’s a good way to start any story, isn’t it–at the beginning. Even better when it is a true story, like this one. But here’s the odd thing. At the end of his book, Mark does not say, “The end.” He starts with the words, “The beginning,” but he does not end with the words “the end.” The reason is because the “gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” does not come to an end. Everything else does, football games, TV series, pandemics, marriages, your life, even this universe comes to an end. But not the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
“This is how it is written in the prophet Isaiah: Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you (Jesus), who will prepare the way for you (Jesus). A voice of one calling out in the wilderness,’Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’”
That messenger was John the Baptizer. John had a unique role in world history. He was called by God to prepare people to visibly see Jesus and receive him not for what he looked like but for who he was—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Which was why his message was one of repentance, as it says next:
“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Repentance. God wants us to do this thing called “repenting of our sin”, every day. But what, exactly, does that look like? Consider three types of church-goers who teach us three lessons in repentance.
Lesson #1—daily struggle to do the right thing in every part of your life
Church-goer #1 is like a corpse. Not on the outside; on the outside he is energetic, laughs a lot. But on the inside, he is dead. Spiritually dead. Like a corpse. Because even though he belongs to church, he has killed his faith by deliberate sin. Instead of struggling to do what is right as the Bible says, he keeps on committing the same sin without any struggle at all. Which sin? Could be any sin–getting an unscriptural divorce, speaking badly about others, trying to have power and control over your husband or girlfriend or coworker. It could be any kind of sin, but in his case the sin that has killed his faith is the sin of living together with his girlfriend without being married. That’s a very deliberate action, isn’t it. And Heb. 10:26 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”
Church-goer #1 teaches us Lesson #1 about repentance. Daily repenting of your sin means you are daily struggling to do the right thing as God says, in every part of your life. Even if you fail 9 out of 10 times–daily repenting involves getting back on the horse and struggling to do better the next time. What this does for us is it lets you see even more clearly why you need, every day, the forgiveness only Jesus can give, and does give, through his Word and Sacraments. That’s Lesson #1 in daily repenting—each day struggle to do the right thing in every part of your life.
Lesson #2—daily compare how you are handling things with God’s standard in his Law
Church-goer #2 is like the woman who has been letting herself go for years but then suddenly out of the corner of her eye catches her reflection in a dimly lit mirror and thinks, “I look pretty good”; which, to be honest, is more of an indication that she needs glasses than of her current state of beauty. Spiritually speaking, church-goer #2 is one of those people who needs to use the glasses of the 10 Commandments more because she is looking at her own sinfulness out of the corner of her eye and not directly in the full light of the 10 Commandments. Of course, she admits she’s not perfect, she needs Jesus, and she means it. But if you ask her to get specific, how exactly do you sin each day, she would have trouble with that question. Other people could tell her, and likely do, especially her children and siblings, but she just gets defensive. When the law is preached in sermons, she does not apply it to herself. And so her awareness of her need for forgiveness is ever so slowly melting away, like an iceberg in the Caribbean. Last Sunday in the gospel lesson Jesus told us to pay attention, to watch, wake up; will Church-goer #2 wake up and start regularly, in her daily devotions perhaps, looking at her life with the mirror of the 10 Commandments before it is too late?
Church-goer #2 teaches us Lesson #2 about repentance. Lesson #2 is that daily repenting of our sin means regularly comparing how you are handling your pleasures, handling the irritating people in your life, handling the pandemic, handling your uncertainties, handling…life—comparing it to the standard God has set in his Word. So that you see ever more clearly why you every day need, every day, the forgiveness only Jesus can give, and does give, through his Word and Sacraments. That’s Lesson #2 about daily repenting—regularly compare your life with the mirror of the 10 Commandments.
Lesson #3—daily enjoy the honesty of confession and complete forgiveness in Christ
Church-goer #3 is like a woman in her 20’s who posts several times a week on Instagram and Facebook. She is very aware of how flawed and terribly sinful she actually is. But doesn’t want anyone else to know. So, she posts pictures of plates of fancy food, of the one corner of her apartment that is clean and beautifully decorated for Christmas, of her LuLuLemon-wearing yoga group with arms around each other like besties. She has learned what every social media person learns—it is more important to appear to be happy and successful than to actually be happy and successful. But this is also why she loves church so much. Church is the one place where she knows she can be honest about her flaws and failings and sins and embarrassments and all the shameful bits. For in church she knows she gets to be honest with God and say, “Holy and merciful Father, I confess to you that I am by nature sinful and that I have disobeyed you in my thoughts, words, and actions.” When she says, “For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity,” she honestly knows it’s true. And she loves how God speaks to her through the pastor, so openly, honestly, “God our heavenly Father has been merciful to us and has given his only Son to the be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Therefore, as a called servant of Christ and by his authority, I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” It’s also why she’s found herself lately remembering her baptism more frequently. For she knows that one of the most honest moments in her life was when Christ himself reached down and connected her to his death and resurrection through that water, a connection which gave her a lifetime guarantee of forgiveness and promise of heaven at the last, as he has promised each of us who is baptized. That’s why remembering her baptism is so comforting for her, and invigorating. She mentally holds on to her baptism like a roller coaster rider holds on to the safety bar.
Which is Lesson #3 about daily repenting of our sin. The whole point of repenting is honesty. Learning to be honest with yourself about your sinfulness. And even more importantly, letting your God speak honestly to you through the pastor, though the gospel, through your baptism, through the Lord’s Supper the Word of his forgiveness. A forgiveness so free and so complete, that as far as he is concerned, things between you and him are exactly as they were before you committed the sins you just confessed. And while he may let consequences come to help us to learn not to do those things again, the way he feels about us in Christ is exactly as before. That’s the honest truth about his forgiveness in Christ.
And that’s the whole point of daily repenting of our sin—learning honesty with ourselves about the depth of our own sinfulness and honesty about the even deeper forgiveness God gives us in Christ. And why the whole thing is a gift. Being able to daily repent and daily be comforted and invigorated by God’s forgiveness in Christ is a gift worked in you by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacraments—and if he has worked this in you, you are truly a blessed person. Don’t throw it away. Amen.