The English language is made up of words and phrases that helps us to express ourselves with others.
Some of these phrases express a need, such as “I am hungry.” Some of these phrases express our physically state, such as “I do not feel well.” Others, however, simply suggest our preferences for something, such as “I like bananas.”
Of all the words and phrases in the English language, I believe there is one phrase that is more difficult than any other to say. That is because it is a phrase forces us to do the uncomfortable. It forces us to look within ourselves. It also requires us to understand what someone might be saying to us and to take a good hard look at our life.
The phrase that, I believe, might be the hardest for any of us to say is this: “I’m sorry.” Saying “I’m sorry” means to admit that we have done something that has hurt someone else. It means to confess that our actions, words, or thoughts might have caused pain for someone. At the same time, it also means to take the first step towards reconciliation and renewing our relationships with one another.
All of us can think to moments when we have said, “I’m sorry” to someone or have needed to say, “I’m sorry.” It is never easy to admit when we have done something wrong or caused pain towards another person. However, we can all think back to those moments and recognize that in those moments when we’ve said, “I’m sorry” it has led to healing not just in our relationships with someone else, but also within our own soul.
This idea of saying, “I’m sorry” helps to understand what Jesus might be saying to us today, especially as we look at this word from Matthew 4:17. Jesus has come out of the wilderness and his time of temptation to hear that John the Baptist had been arrested by Herod. It was an action that caused him to move to Galilee, which was an area that would have allowed him to interact with all sorts of people, from Syrians and Samaritans to Jews and Gentiles. It is from Galilee that Jesus goes out and begins to preach what it means to follow him and what the Kingdom of Heaven would entail. He does so with these words that are recorded in Matthew 4:17. He says, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”
These are Jesus’ first public words of his ministry and they are akin to the words John preached. By saying these words, Jesus is doing something very important. He essentially says that if anyone wants to come and follow him they must repent of their sins and turn towards God. In order for us, today, to be known not simply as fans of Jesus but as a Jesus follower, we must repent of our sins and turn to God.
What does Jesus mean by this idea of repenting of our sins and turning towards God? When we look at the references to repentance in the New Testament, there are two predominant themes that come across. Both play an important role in understanding what Jesus says in Matthew 4:17. The first is an act of seeking God’s forgiveness for our sins. Repentance is the act of admitting we have done something wrong that has disappointed God. That is what sin is. A sin is something we do that knowingly goes against God’s desires. When we recognize we have gone against God’s desires and love, it calls us to admit the error and seek God’s forgiveness.
That idea of repentance is probably the one most familiar to us. The second is one that involves more than just admitting our errors. In this usage, repentance is the act of turning towards God and connecting our lives with God’s desires and wishes. It is a matter of uniting our heart with the Lord, by turning away from our self and moving towards God in all things. Turning towards God means the abandonment of self to gain the life of Christ in us.
These two definitions of repentance are appropriate when we think of this idea of being a fan or follower of Jesus. What Jesus says with these words from Matthew 4:17 is this: If anyone would seek to follow Jesus, then they must be willing to repent of their wrongs and turn to Jesus. Both actions are required by Jesus. Followers of Jesus are willing to both admit their wrongs and turn to God in all areas of their lives. That is what repentance is all about. Repentance is about letting go and claiming God.
Jesus’ words about the depths and meaning of repentance are challenging, especially to those who would prefer nothing more than to be only a fan of Jesus. If you remember from last week, we said fans of Jesus are those who wanted the benefits of faith without truly connecting themselves with God’s love and grace. This really comes into play when we think about repentance and turning towards God. We cannot be connected to Christ unless we are willing to admit our wrongs and turn towards the Lord in all things.
In his ministry, Jesus often met folks who could be identified more as fans of God than as followers, especially when it comes to this idea of repentance. Among those were groups of known as the Sadducees and Pharisees. These groups of religious leaders often challenged Jesus and sought ways to discredit him. Jesus, on the other hand, often found ways to teach them the deeper ways of following God. Understanding the background to these groups helps us to see why there may have been a conflict between them and Jesus on this idea of repentance. The Sadducees were a group of people often made up of chief priests and elites. They were born into their positions, and so the heritage of their faith was important to them. On the other hand, Pharisees were often people who were theologically knowledgeable of the words of God. They believed their training was highly important in all things. Neither group, because of their statuses, believed they needed to ever repent.
Sound familiar? When we are more defined by being a “fan of Jesus” we can be just like the Sadducees and Pharisees. We can say that our heritage of being born and raised in the church means that we never have to repent and seek God. At the same time, we can believe that as long as we say the right things then it does not matter what is going on in the inside of our heart.
Yet, Jesus calls all people to repent – Pharisee or Sadducee, fan or follower. Both the Sadducees and Pharisees, and truly fans of Jesus, believe that the outer expressions of faith are more important than what is in their hearts. However, for us to grow in our faith, and truly be followers of God, we must be concerned about our inner self and the connections of our heart. Followers of God turn to God with their entire self, heart and soul, and merge their lives with God’s desires. Turning to God is about having a heart that is in perfect love and connection with the Lord. This does not mean that we do everything perfect. We are going to make mistakes. Instead, it means we have a heart like David’s that was undeterred in its devotion to the Lord. When we have turned our hearts to God, it informs how we live, how we share, and how we connect with one others. Truly, what is going on in our hearts defines how we share our love of God, relate with each other, and connect to the world.
In order to move from being a fan of the Lord to being a follower of God, we have to be willing to let go of our lives and turn completely towards the Lord. Each of us have things in our lives that prevent us from giving our lives completely over to the Lord and turning towards God in all things. These are things that we do not want to admit to God or that we want to still have control over. Sometimes it can be our desires. Sometimes it could be our careers or money. Sometimes it could be our families or hobbies. Sometimes it could be those things we would rather not mention to others. Repentance means recognizing what those things are, letting go of them, and turning towards God in those places where we’ve not really gone to him before. Repentance is the act of letting God, and letting God be the Lord of all things in our lives.
To be a follower of Christ, to turn to God, we must be willing to turn to God this in all areas of our lives. There is not a place in our life that we can hold back from God and say, “No, you do not get this.” God desires our complete devotion. Jesus desires to be the Lord of our lives in all things. Turning to God means giving up the things we want to hold on to and letting Jesus be the Lord of our lives in every aspect of our lives.
This is not just a one-time deal. Repentance is often referenced as something we only do once to receive the benefits of salvation. Once we repent of our sin and accept Christ, we sometimes act like we never have to repent again. Yet, repentance is not something we do once and move on. Repentance is a daily act of admitting our wrongs and turning towards God. Repentance is about daily renewal and growth in our love of God, so that God’s grace may grow in us. Followers of God turn to God every day, so that God may do the work of grace in us.
In your bulletin, you have a little note card. I want you to take it out. As followers of God, we are called to turn to God in all things, every day, and to connect our entire life over to the Lord. What would it look like if we were completely turned over to God in all things? Each of us have something that keeps us from being completely all in with the Lord. Maybe it is an old hurt. Maybe it is an area of our life that we don’t want God to be the Lord of. Maybe it is something that we haven’t asked God’s of forgiveness regarding. When you think of that thing, write it down on the card and keep it with you. Take it home and place it somewhere where you will see it and pray over it this week. Give it over to God every day and ask God to help you to let go of that thing, so that you can be completely given over to God in all things.
Jesus desires followers who turn to him in all things. That is what repentance is truly about. It is about moving away from ourselves, and moving towards God. It’s not easy. In this world where we are taught that everything is about us, having Jesus speak to us in words that says that following him means letting go and connecting our lives fully with his love seems foreign to us. Yet, when we do we recognize God’s desires are beyond anything we can image, and the Lord’s grace is beyond anything we can describe.
What would it be like, then, if we decided to let go? To let go of the hurts we have caused. To let go of the things we have done wrong. To let go of the things that we still want to be in control of. What would it be like if we were to let go of these things, give them over to God, and let the Lord be the Lord in our lives in all things?
What would it be like if we repented and turned towards God in all things?