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The Voice of the Prophet: The First Word of the Gospel

June 11, 2006

Mark 1:1-8, 14-15

Some years ago, a man came to the lumberyard and said to my grandfather, “Mr. Neely, I can help your business.”

My grandfather knew that his business needed help, so he asked the man what he could do for him. The man explained, “I am a business consultant. I come into your place of business, observe the way you handle your inventory and the way your employees work. I also study how you manage your books. After I spend a little time with you, I draw up a list of recommendations that will improve your business.”

My grandfather asked, “And I pay you for that, right?”

The man said, “That is right.”

My grandfather answered, “Before I put good money on letting you tell me how to improve my business, give me some time to make the changes I know I should make. Then I will call you, and then you can tell me your opinion.”

Most of what we do needs some improvement.

I would like you to find a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. We are going to make a list. I know you probably make lists with some frequency. Let me get you started. Write the word car. If you drive a truck, write that word. List the maintenance that you need to perform on the vehicle you ordinarily drive. Do you need to change the oil? Do you need to rotate the tires, check the fan belts, or change the air filter? Now, write down the word house. List the improvements that your house or apartment needs. Do you need to clean your gutters, closet, basement, or garage? Let me move a little closer to your personal life. What improvements are needed in your marriage and in your relationships to your children or grandchildren? Do these relationships need some attention?

You might say, “I did not come to church today to make a list of jobs I need to do.”

Let me tell you why you came to church today. Everything of value requires maintenance. The most important things in our lives need improvement. Nothing is ever exactly the way it needs to be. Something could always be better, fine-tuned.

Write down the words My Spiritual Life. Does your spiritual life need improvement? For some of us, some things need drastic improvement. That is certainly true of our spiritual lives.

Years ago, I heard a sermon entitled “The First Word of the Gospel,” by Dr. Jay Edwin Orr, a great revival preacher. I have used his title and scripture today: Mark 1:1-8, 14, 15; but the sermon I have for you is not Dr. Orr’s sermon.

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way” –

“a voice of one calling in the desert,

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight paths for him.’”

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

What is the first word of the gospel? The Greek word metanoia, translated in our English Bible as repentance, is the first word of the gospel. Few of us, however, really understand that term. We think of repentance as being sorry for the sins we have committed. Perhaps you have known of examples of “jailhouse conversions,” sometimes called “foxhole conversions” or “deathbed conversions.” A person finds himself in a perilous situation and suddenly feels sorry for all the sinful acts he has committed. Sometimes the person is not sorry because of the sins committed but because of the consequences of being caught. A death row conversion or a deathbed conversion certainly has validity. Even at the last moment, acknowledging and confessing sins before the Lord and receiving the gift of salvation have validity. The meaning of metanoia, repentance, goes much deeper than just being sorry for the sins we have committed. Repentance represents a change of heart, a change of mind. Metanoia, as used in classical Greek, means to “shift the thought,” to “change the mind.” In the New Testament, it means not only a change of mind but also a change of heart, behavior, and direction.

Clare and I wanted to try a little restaurant in the eastern part of our county that we heard had very good food. I downloaded a map from Map Quest so that we could be sure of our directions. As I was driving, Clare, who was following the map, said, “I think we are going the wrong way.” I answered, “Oh, no. We can’t be going the wrong way.” That comment will sound familiar to some of the men in the congregation. A few miles later when we crossed the Greenville County line, Clare repeated, “Kirk, we are going to wrong way. Turn around.” I turned around and went in the other direction.

Repentance means to turn around because you are going in the wrong direction. In addition to being sorry that you are going in the wrong direction, you need to turn around and make a change, go in another direction. In military terms, you make an about-face.

We can look at several individuals in the Bible who preached on repentance. When John the Baptist began his ministry, he preached that with repentance, life changes and goes in a new direction. Those immersed in the water through a baptism of repentance experience a shift, a qualitative change of heart, mind, behavior, and direction. When the Lord Jesus began his ministry, his first words were, “Repent. The kingdom of God is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). He is telling us to shift, change, and go another direction. Following Simon Peter’s message on Pentecost, the Scripture says that his hearers were “cut to the heart.” They cried out, “What must we do to be saved?” Simon Peter responded, “Repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38).

Repentance, the first word of the gospel, has gained a bad reputation in our culture. We think of a bearded man, wearing a sandwich board that says, “Repent. The end is near.” We think of some self-appointed prophet of doom and gloom. A quick search on the Internet, using almost any search engine, will reveal a number of ways the culture and even the church have distorted the word. A New Age website actually states that the New Testament has mistranslated the word repentance. That site states that repentance means, “to have the mind altered.” A software company uses the word metanoia in its name, claiming that metanoia is artificial intelligence. Both an alternative rock group and a support group for gays and lesbians have adopted the name Metanoia. Repentance is not just being regretful; it also represents a change of heart, a change of mind, a turning around and going a different direction, doing an about-face.

Perhaps the best way to understand what metanoia means is to use the companion word metamorphosis, which comes from the same root. Think of the transformation of a worm into a butterfly. A tiny worm hatches from an egg on a milkweed plant. As the worm voraciously eats the leaves of that plant, it grows and molts. After about two or three weeks, this worm, now a caterpillar, takes on beautiful colored stripes: orange, black, and white. It continues to eat and grow. Some weeks later, it weaves and attaches a small silk pad to a branch. Then it hangs upside down, going through yet another molting, forming a chrysalis, a cocoon. Inside the cocoon, the colorful caterpillar transforms again. When the time is right, a new creature emerges from that cocoon. Its body will pump bodily fluid into its wings so that they expand and become rigid. When the wings dry, the butterfly will fly. It has the very same DNA as the worm, but it is a new creature.

Something very much like that happens in human life. It is the reason the Apostle Paul could say, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Former things pass away, and all things become new.” In the passage I used for our call to Worship, the Apostle Paul says, “by the mercies of God, …you are to be transformed, not conformed, by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:1-2). God is at work in human life, calling us to repentance. Our tendency is to think that repentance is something only for sinners, for the unsaved. You do need to repent in order to experience salvation, but we are mistaken if we think that once we repent, we never have to repent again. For the Christian, repentance is a daily part of our growth. In order to emphasize this point, the Apostle John, writing from the island of Patmos to seven churches, reiterates in five of the seven letters that Christians must repent.

Every single one of us can identify aspects of our spiritual lives that need maintenance and improvement. Do you hold a grudge? Do you have a vindictive attitude against someone? Would you like revenge? If so, you need to repent. Have you become apathetic in your relationship to Christ, in your relationship to his church? If so, you need to repent. Are there times when you try to go it alone, failing to consult Christ? Trying to make decisions without regard for him calls for repentance. The truth is that every single one of us needs repentance every day. It does not happen just one time. For Christians, it becomes a daily event. We must live a life of repentance so that Christ can be constantly at work in our lives, turning us around, changing our hearts, our minds, and our behavior. The DNA is the same, but the creature is different.

Many of you know that I write a column for HJ-Weekly. Next week, the column will contain a story for Father’s Day. I do not know the exact headline because editors tend to change the author’s title sometime during the wee hours of the morning. I entitled the article, “A Story for Father’s Day.” Many of you have heard the story, but it is one of my favorites. It is certainly appropriate for Father’s Day, but it is also appropriate for this sermon as well. I want to share it with you.

Fred Craddock was a professor of preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He is now retired but serves as pastor at a small church in northern Georgia. When he was still living and working in Atlanta, he and his wife decided to take a vacation to Gatlinburg. While in the mountains of East Tennessee, they went to eat in a small, quaint restaurant. After ordering their food, they noticed an old man using a cane, moving from one table to the next, talking with all the patrons in the restaurant.

Fred Craddock thought, “I bet that old man will come to our table, too. We have come here to get away from people like him, and he will come over here and bother us.” Sure enough, the man made his way around the room and stopped at their table.

“Hi, where are you folks from?” he asked.

“We’re from Atlanta,” Fred Craddock said.

“And what do you do in Atlanta?” the old man asked.

Fred Craddock answered, “I am a professor of homiletics,” hoping to discourage the old man from intruding any longer.

“Oh, you teach preachers how to preach!” the old man exclaimed, revealing that he knew what the word homiletics meant.

“That’s right.”

With that, the old man pulled up a chair and sat down at the table, putting his elbows on the table. He said, “I have a preacher story for you.”

Fred Craddock thought, “I bet I have heard it fifty times.” He was wrong. He had never heard the old man’s tale.

I was born and raised right here in these mountains. My mother gave me her last name because I was illegitimate. I never knew my father’s name because she did not want me to track him down. She did not want me to hold a grudge against him. From the time I was born, I felt unfit, unacceptable. I carried with me the stigma of being an illegitimate child.

When my mother and I came to town on Saturdays, I always had the feeling that people were talking about me behind my back. When I started school, classmates actually made unkind remarks about my birth. My mother quit attending church, feeling that the church would not accept her because of my birth; but my grandmother knew how important it was for me to be in church. Every Sunday, she took me to a little Methodist church up on a hill. We would sit on the back row, arriving just as the service started and leaving out the backdoor just as soon as the service ended because we did not want to speak to anyone. We did not want anyone to speak to us. For fourteen years, I lived my life in shame.

One cold winter day, my grandmother took me to church. As before, we sat on that back row. During the service, the weather outside deteriorated as rain turned to sleet and snow. Afterwards, the ushers would not let us go out the backdoor because the steps were slick. They told us that we would have to go out the other side of the church. I found myself caught up in the line of people coming down the aisle to the front of the sanctuary to speak to the preacher. I was afraid of him and did not want to shake his hand. He was a big man with a booming voice that rattled the windows in the sanctuary. When he preached, he pointed his finger as if it were a loaded pistol, and his bushy eyebrows jumped up and down on his forehead. I always had the feeling he was preaching just to me, and I did not want to shake hands with him.

When I got almost to the front, I saw my opportunity to escape out the side door. Just as I headed in that direction, I felt an enormous hand on my shoulder. I turned around and looked straight into the face of that preacher. He asked me the question I had dreaded for fourteen years. “Boy, who is your daddy?” The silence of that moment was awful. Then the preacher looked at me and said, “O, now I see the resemblance. You are a child of God. Go and claim your inheritance.”

Fred Craddock said that hearing that story made chill bumps run up and down his spine. He asked, “Old man, what is your name?”

“My name is Ben Hooper.”

Then Fred Craddock remembered his grandfather telling him a story about an illegitimate boy who was born and reared in the mountains of East Tennessee. This boy had become an attorney, Ben Hooper, a man the people of Tennessee had elected to two terms as governor. Ben Hooper’s encounter with his pastor when he was fourteen years had old drastically altered the direction of his life.

Metanoia, repentance, is like the process of metamorphosis. A worm can change into a butterfly. The DNA is the same, but the creature is different. Only the Lord Jesus Christ, through repentance, can transform a broken person into the person he desires. If you have never accepted Christ, he wants to do the same for you. He wants to change your life through repentance. Even if you are a Christian, you know in your heart of hearts that your spiritual life needs attending, changing. The first word of the gospel is repent. You are not to be sorry for your sins only, but you are also to have a genuine change in your heart, your mind, your behavior, your direction. Because Christ longs to give you that gift, he came into the world and died on Calvary. He loves you so much that he wants to change your life. He wants you to become what he intends you to be.

If you have never made that decision, we extend to you that invitation this morning. Some here need to accept Christ. Please do not delay. Let this be the day of your salvation. Some of you who have come today know that God is leading you to become a part of this fellowship. He wants to make that change in your life. Do not resist. Allow him to have his way in your life. Allow him to work this repentance for you. We extend the invitations of God to you on behalf of our Savior. As we stand and sing together the hymn of invitation, “Speak to My Heart, Lord Jesus” we invite your response as God leads.

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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