Mark 1 :12-15
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
I was watching a skiing race the other night. It amazes me how anyone in their right mind would want to careen down a mountain at 80 miles per hour on two little skis without any padding. As I watched, I saw a couple skiers take pretty bad falls down the mountain into those few layers of fencing they have set up on either side of the course to catch out-of-control competitors from going into the trees. A few skiers later I saw something that I hadn’t seen before: one skier was pushing his way back up the mountain. Now, why in the world would a skier in the Olympics turn around in the middle of his moment on the world’s stage? He missed a gate. A downhiller has to weave in and out of those designated markers to successfully complete the course and register a time. If you don’t, if you miss just one, you are disqualified, and you won’t show up in the final results. This guy missed a gate. So, he stopped himself, turned around, and went back up the course a bit to do it the right way.
Have you ever missed a gate before? I’m not talking about skiing in the Olympics. I think it’s pretty safe to assume we don’t have any Olympians here this morning, right? I’m talking about life. You know the way God has laid out for you – he’s got a guideline for his people, “your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” – and you missed a gate. On purpose or on accident doesn’t matter. What matters is that you went off the course. Do you know what you need at those times? A turnaround.
The people living in Palestine during Jesus’ day needed a turnaround, badly. The Jewish religion was trying to show people what they had to do for happiness and contentment, how they had to deal with their guilt and sin, and how they had to appease God by making their own turnaround. That Jewish religious road, however, was leading to a disqualification (hell), because the search was focused on themselves, on what they had to do.
If you could follow through on your end, then God would follow through on his end. That was the deal. First, you show how well you can represent the name of Abraham and Israel and David, and then God would bless you, hopefully in similar ways to Abraham and Israel. First, you follow the works and rituals to demonstrate your worthiness to God, and then you will be rewarded.
This is not a foreign system in the 21st century. The road the Jews were paving was way narrower, more black and white, but the religious systems today still have the same focus: me first. If I am acceptable in my culture and society, if I am dedicated to being what I think kind is, if I am tolerant and open-minded with people, if I am trying hard to be a better person, if I have a religion and I’m dedicated without being to closed off and biased, then all of those things should put me on the right path. I am showing myself worthy to whatever god I follow. I have earned the respect of others. I am deserving of blessings. I should get whatever reward I’m looking for.
This is a road that is so easy to pave for ourselves, too. Me first sounds so logical. If you are nice, then nice things should happen to you. This 21st century religious open-mindedness sounds so loving and kind. My acceptance and kindness, and it will make this world better. It sounds like this road of togetherness and peace would lead in the right direction.
But that is the irony. A road that puts the focus on me first and what I do won’t help me with God. Because my road is always going to shoot off the course God has laid out. My way has never, does never, and will never line up with his way, because my road is sinful, and his road is perfect. My road leads to disqualification and his road leads to redemption.
So the question becomes, how can a sinner be on God’s perfect road that leads to perfect glory in heaven? Jesus shows us how. It’s a turnaround from religious rituals and observances. It’s a turnaround from what our cultural definitions of religion, faith, love, and God. It’s a turnaround from personal passions and pleasures. It’s a turnaround from putting the focus on me and what I do. It’s a turnaround from anything that is distracts us from the kingdom of God.
Jesus says, “Repent and believe the good news!” Jesus says, “You’re going the wrong way if you follow after all of that stuff that seems to make so much sense. You’re going the wrong way if you think you can make yourself more acceptable to God than others because of what you do or who you are related to.” That’s what those people in Palestine needed to hear, and we do to. Jesus says, “You’re going the wrong way if you follow those who water down the Bible into something we can all agree with. You’re going the wrong way if you want to make this world your home.” He says, “Turn around. Don’t continue going the way that is contrary to God’s. Repent.”
Isn’t it nice to know there is someone loving enough, someone interested in your life enough, someone who is willing to give you the tough talk you need? That is good news for us. It is good news that someone is willing to shout, “Turn around!”
When a racer goes off course, misses a gate in a ski race, or misses a flag like I once did in a cross-country race in high school, it’s really important to have someone who is willing and able to point that out. I would have been disqualified for missing one right hand turn, but someone was there to call me out and got me back on track so that I could finish the race the right way.
Do you see how necessary that is? When we talk about repentance, turning around from sin, we need to remember this is not my work to make God happy with me. A sinner can’t make themselves turn from a sinful road, can we? We need someone perfect to turn us around. That’s Jesus.
He went in the desert to face off against Satan so that he could overcome our temptations. He could see that sinful road, but he said no. That way wouldn’t lead to our redemption. Sure, Jesus would have had food for his belly, he would have had power in this world, he would have proved the power of angels, but none of that was what Jesus came to do. He said no to Satan, because Jesus came to follow the perfect road. That was the only way to give us redemption.
That’s the good news he was preaching in Galilee. Jesus was here to defeat Satan. He was here to say no to the sinful road. He was here to provide the turnaround that sinners needed. By his perfect life a new road is ours. Jesus was proclaiming the gospel of free and full forgiveness given to sinners by the perfect love of a perfect God and Savior, not earned by sinners. That’s not possible. That is like a bunch of cheaters trying to compete for who will be less disqualified than the other cheaters. It’s nonsense.
Jesus has good news for us, a shabby bunch of people who couldn’t stay on course if our life depended on it. His good news is that he never once strayed from the perfect road. He fought the devil off. His perfect life is for us. There’s more. He is also that person who is willing and perfectly able to shout out, “Turn around” when he sees us going off course.
Brothers and sisters, do we ever need that! We need the voice of Jesus calling out after us to turn around. Maybe it’s a parent. Maybe it’s a pastor. Maybe it’s a friend. We need the voice of the Savior who fought against sin perfectly and gave us the perfect road to heaven. We need to know when we have strayed from God’s way. When people are willing to show you, rejoice that people look out for you as Jesus would want them to. Rejoice that your God has a different road for you.
And then, repent, turn around from the sin that leads to disqualification. Turn around from the sins that might be popular or easy. Turn around from the things that you thought were maybe ok but on second or third glance might be questionable. Turn around from the sins that don’t just offend parents and the family of God, but they offend God. Jesus did not come to live here, he did not earn the perfect life that was necessary for us, he did not give up his perfect life with such a gruesome sacrifice on the cross, he did not conquer death for us, he did not make us his children through the power of his Word and baptism, he did not send the Spirit into our hearts so that we would throw it all away. He did all of that to save us from hell.
That’s the good news that leads us, guides us, motivates us, and gets us to turn around. Repentance is not me first. Repentance is God’s Word at work. It’s listening to your Father’s loving voice. It’s sorrow to God for the slipups and selfishness. It’s sorrow to God for accidents and ignorance, for bad purposes and choices. It’s sorrow to God for all of the messes and mistakes. It’s turning around from all of that.
And when you hear the voice of Jesus, calling out to repent, do you know what you see when you turn around? You don’t see a long list of all the things you need to do to get back into God’s good grace. You don’t see all these angry faces. You sure better not. God says, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” You see loving face of Jesus. You see the object of your faith that made you turn around in the first place. You see all that he has done for you. You see the road that he traveled so that he could shut the doors of hell and open the gates of heaven for you. You see and hear good news from the Savior who knows you and loves you.
Jesus’ road to win our redemption was hard. We are going to look at during this worship series. Today, we see how the turnaround happened. It wasn’t me first. It is Jesus first. It is his love walking the road to redemption for us. It is his grace suffering the punishment of sins for us. It is his gospel changing sinners into God’s children through faith in Jesus. It is his voice calling out after us when we stray. It his good news of forgiveness and life getting us back on track. It is his never-ending work through the Word and sacraments keeping us going.
You don’t need to be ashamed when you hear the word “repent” or when you hear the voice of the Savior coming from someone who cares calling out to “turn around.” Be thankful that God cares that much. Be sorrowful that you got of his path. And be faithful as he guides you. God grant it. Amen.