February 21, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
JESUS 101: REPENT, BELIEVE, FOLLOW
The first in a series of seven.
Last fall I preached a series on the Bible. I called it “Bible 101”. I called it that because “101” is the number associated with basic, introductory classes. If you are a beginner, you start with the “101” class. You don’t start with the “401” class. I didn’t tell you then, but I guess I can tell you now. I learned a lot myself. I’m not sure I’m even ready for “Bible 401.”
Now it’s time for a new series. The season of Lent is perfect for a sermon series. Here’s the plan. This is going to be a basic, introductory series on Jesus. That’s why I’m calling it “Jesus 101.” Most of you know a lot about Jesus already. You might be ready for an advanced level class. But, like I did in the fall series, I am going to assume no prior knowledge. I am going to go on the assumption that you are all beginners. So for some of you this will be review and for others of you it will be brand new information.
I think we are all going to learn a few things, me included. Learning about Jesus is important. No matter how much we know, there is always more to learn. But we need to begin this series with a caution. Good as it is to learn about Jesus, it is not nearly as good as it is to become like Jesus. With Jesus, the point is not information. The point is transformation. Changed lives. A changed world. That is why Jesus came.
And that’s one important difference between the fall series on the Bible and this spring series on Jesus. The Bible is a book. Jesus is a person. You can’t have a personal relationship with a book. You can, and I hope you do or you will, have a personal relationship with Jesus. We want to know Jesus, not just know about him.
It’s hard to know somebody unless you know what they look like. And of course we don’t know what Jesus looked like. But that has never kept us from imagining what he looked like. I think we all have our favorite Jesus painting. This is mine. (See featured image) I have this in my office. Whenever I look up from my desk, there he is. It was a gift from a dear church member a number of years ago. It was done in needlepoint. I understand that means it took a long time. It’s my favorite painting of Jesus. This what he looks like to me.
I did some research. The artist is Heinrich Hofmann. And I learned something else I had never realized. When he painted this he was not just painting the face of Jesus. Here is the original painting: (See featured image 2)
This is Heinrich Hofmann’s interpretation of Jesus and the rich young ruler. Jesus said to him, “Go, sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” But he didn’t. He didn’t follow Jesus. Instead, he “walked away sorrowful, for he had great wealth” (Matthew 19:21-22). Repent, believe, follow. This could be a sermon based on that story. But that same story we find more than once as we learn about Jesus. Our scripture today and throughout this series comes from the book of Mark. What we read today is also a “repent, believe, follow” story.
Jesus had twelve disciples. In today’s scripture we meet four of them. Mark is not one of the twelve. So we might ask, how did he get his information about Jesus? We have reason to believe, he got his information from Simon. Also known as Peter. He’s the one we read about who was fishing, with his brother Andrew, as Jesus walked by.
This is practically at the very beginning of Mark. Jesus is already 30 years old. So this is not really a biography. Biographies always seem to have that obligatory chapter or two on your parents before you were born and then your childhood. Not so with Mark. We find no birth stories here. We read Matthew and Luke at Christmas, not Mark. Mark’s story begins with John the Baptist baptizing a grown-up Jesus. Then we have Jesus alone in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. Which, by the way, is why we have 40 days of Lent.
We started today with verse 14. John the Baptist has been arrested and is in prison. The time has come. In fact, those very words are spoken by Jesus:
Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)
There is a lot packed into those words. “The time has come.” That means the waiting is over. And they have been waiting a long time.
They were slaves in Egypt. Moses set them free. Moses was a great man, but he was flawed. He died and he was followed by military commanders known as judges. Eleven men and one woman, Deborah. They were great leaders, but they too were flawed. The people asked for a king, so they could be like other nations. They were told to let God be their king.
But they were impatient. They didn’t want to wait. So they got their kings, starting with Saul, then David, then Solomon. Then the kingdom split in two. The northern kingdom was destroyed. The southern kingdom was exiled to Babylon. This king thing hadn’t worked out all that well.
God sent prophets to remind them that God was their king. That’s not what it looked like. It didn’t look like God was their king. It looked like God had abandoned them. But no, God was still their king, and these prophets kept saying that one day God would come down from heaven and be their king on earth. It would not be the kingdom of Saul or David or Solomon. Or even the Kingdom of Israel or of Judah. It would be the Kingdom of God.
“The time has come,” said Jesus. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news!”
Those are the first words Jesus speaks in Mark. First words are important. Jesus is saying he is the one they have been waiting for. He is their king. Not another to add to their long list of flawed kings who built up their hopes and then let them down. The time has come for something new. God has now come from heaven to earth to be their king. That is who Jesus claims to be.
A pretty bold claim. But if true, this is a big deal. Nothing is bigger. Nothing is more important. N.T. Wright says, “Jesus is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we had ever imagined.” And here’s the big, disturbing, urgent thing: “Throughout his short public career Jesus spoke and acted as if he was in charge” (Simply Jesus, page 5,11).
So is he? Is he in charge? Is he king? Is he king of the Kingdom of God?
He seems to think he is as he bursts onto the scene in these opening verses of Mark, proclaiming the good news of God. He speaks these three words: repent, believe, follow.
That first word is not very popular. It didn’t win Jesus any points. No one likes being told to repent. Because it means admitting you are wrong. That’s hard to do. Especially when you are 100% certain that you are right.
Jesus proclaims the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the first thing he says after that is “repent.” How can that be good news? It sounds like bad news. It means you are going the wrong way. It means you are heading for disaster. No one wants to hear that.
So, you are driving down the road. You are in a hurry. You are running late. You don’t want to be late. And then you see the sign: “Road Closed Ahead.” Bad news, right? Well, not nearly as bad as the news will be if you ignore that sign, keep your cruise control engaged, and drive right over the washed out bridge.
The good news is that you were warned in time to avoid the bad news. Lent is an excellent time to take a long, hard look at ourselves. Where do we need to repent? What sins have we gotten used to? They used to bother us, but not so much anymore. Where do we need to turn around?
And what do we always say? Later. What’s the rush? We have plenty of time. There is always time for procrastination. But eventually our time runs out. Jesus says, “the time is now.” Sure we can wait, but the longer we wait the more we miss out. Because repentance is the only way to get to the good news of Jesus.
Next we believe. That’s the second thing Jesus tells us we need to do. He says, “believe the good news.” What he is saying is, “believe me.” Believe what I am telling you. Believe that I have the authority to tell you these things. Believe that I am in charge. Believe that I am who I say I am.
We’re going to come back to this question throughout this series. Who is Jesus? Who did he claim to be? Who do we say that he is? Do we believe the good news that he brought? Do we believe the good news that he is?
What I want to emphasize is that believing the good news is more than agreeing that it’s true. We believe a lot of things that are true but that don’t make a bit of difference in our lives. We believe circles are round, rocks are hard, giraffes are tall. It’s good to know these things. It’s good to have lots of information filed away in our brains. It’s good to be smart. But remember what we said earlier – when it comes to Jesus, the point is not information. The point is transformation. Changed lives. A changed world. That is why Jesus came.
Which leads us to the third word. Follow. This is a “repent, believe, follow” story. And the “follow” part is not just something Jesus tells us to do. Jesus tells us a story about four people who did this. They stopped what they were doing and they literally got up and started following Jesus. Which tells us something. It’s not enough to decide in our heads that we are going to follow. Any more than it is enough to decide in our heads that we are going to repent or that we are going to believe. We need to do something about it. We need to take action that proves that we are serious.
This is a remarkable story. Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee and he comes upon these two fisherman, Simon and Andrew. They are brothers. Remember what I said earlier about Simon? He is the one who gave Mark the information Mark needed to be able to write this book about Jesus. You might know him as Peter. Same person. So we can be pretty sure this story is accurate, because one of the ones who told the story was there.
Jesus walks by and he speaks these words: “Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Next verse: “At once they left their nets and followed him.” No hesitation. No questions. No, “Let me think about that and I’ll get back to you.” No, “I’ve got to talk this over with my wife.” They just follow. Just like that.
So now we have three of them walking along the Sea of Galilee – Simon, Andrew, and Jesus. They haven’t gone far before they come upon two more fishermen – James, son of Zebedee, and John. Jesus invites them to follow and they follow. Again, no hesitation. And this time, James, son of Zebedee left a family member behind. His own dad, Zebedee is left behind in the boat with the hired men.
Jesus has his first four recruits. His first four disciples. Eventually he will have twelve, but three of the twelve will be kind of his inner circle. He already now has those three – Peter, James, and John.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about this that you may remember singing:
In simple trust like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord, let us like them without a word,
Rise up and follow thee.
Without a word. Without an argument. Without a moment’s hesitation. They left it all behind. They repented, they believed, and they followed.
There’s this earlier “repent, believe, follow” story. Except it’s a different ending. The rich young ruler walked away sorrowful, because he had great possessions.
These stories make me uncomfortable. Am I the only one? I am following Jesus. It’s important to me. But I have not left everything behind. Far from it. So can I even call myself a disciple?
I’m just going to leave that question hanging. I am going to struggle with it this week. Maybe you will be struggling with it too. What does it mean to repent, believe, and follow Jesus? Is there a happy medium so I don’t have to give up too much? Or is it all or nothing? Good questions for Lent.
I’m going to leave you with this. It is first paragraph of the book Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright.
Jesus of Nazareth poses a question and a challenge two thousand years after his lifetime. The question is fairly simple: Who exactly was he? This includes the questions: What did he think he was up to? What did he do and say? Why was he killed? Did he rise from the dead? The challenge is likewise fairly simple: Since he called people to follow him, and since people have been trying to do that ever since, what might “following him” entail? And how can we know if we are on the right track?
Lord Jesus, we begin this study today and already we can see that this is more than a study. This is not just about you. It’s about us. It’s about doing some work on ourselves. It is about getting out of the rut we might be in. But Jesus, thank you that most of the really heavy lifting is done by you, not us. You already did it. You carried that cross. And then you were nailed to it and you died on it. You died for us. You died for our sins. You died and you rose that whatever needs to die in us might die so that we might come alive in you. Whatever we might learn in this series, we pray most of all for that. Not information, but transformation. We ask it in your name, Amen.