First Sunday in Lent

February 18, 2018

Bethel Evangelical Lutheran Church

Glenshaw, Pennsylvania



After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel!"


Mark 1:14, 15 (ESV)


            It would be an understatement to say that we live in a time and place of complacency.  I think a big part of the reason for that is that most of us seldom, if ever, are confronted with a situation that presents us with a real sense of urgency.  If you pay attention to the commercials soliciting contributions for the hungry in foreign countries, you can easily see that our "poor" are not poor at all according to worldwide standards.  From time to time we do hear or read about people in this country living from one day to the next without knowing if there will be food for them to eat and a place for them to stay tomorrow, but those things only happen here because something didn't go according to plan.  There was a time when that kind of living was the norm, when job security and a guaranteed income were luxuries that very few people enjoyed.  But today it's different.  Today we plan our future with confidence and boldness, and for the most part we get away with it.  It's only when something out of the ordinary happens--something unplanned and unanticipated--that we feel any sense of urgency about anything.


            Unfortunately, the complacency that we see and experience in life is most evident and most tragic in our spiritual life.  It is commonplace for people to calmly go about their business without giving any thought to the inevitability of their death or the consequences of their sin and spiritual indifference.  In this morning's Gospel Jesus Himself takes over where John the Baptist left off in the task of preparing sinners for receiving the Good News of God's grace that He Himself was in the process of revealing through His life, death, and resurrection.  There are two things in particular that we can notice in Jesus' preaching, particularly in the message that He proclaims in this passage--two things that, as I was taught at the seminary, ought to be the essence of every sermon delivered by every Christian preacher.  These two things are the Law and the Gospel.  In the case of Jesus' message before us this morning, the Law is evident in His admonition to repent and the Gospel in His invitation to have faith.


            The first thing that is necessary for genuine repentance and forgiveness to take place is that we need to acknowledge our sin and guilt.  That may seem so obvious and basic as to be left unsaid, but I for one never cease to be amazed at how creative we can be when it comes to denying our sin and guilt.  We can admit that we have done certain things but we deny that they are really sinful, using all kinds of moral and philosophical arguments.  We can recognize that the things that we have done are probably wrong in a legalistic sense but we deny that they are really all that serious, insisting that they are, in fact, quite harmless.  We may even go so far as to acknowledge that the things that we have done are wrong and serious but we deny that we are personally responsible for them.  What is so tragic about these spiritual games that we play is that our sin and guilt cannot be resolved in any adequate way unless and until we acknowledge that we are sinners before God--sinners who deserve His judgment and condemnation.


            But even this still leaves us lacking.  Even if we own up to our sin and its consequences, we will not come to genuine repentance until we also realize that we are helpless to do anything about it.  Sin is an addiction, similar in many respects to any other addiction.  As long as we think that we can handle sin on our own, we won't be the least bit interested in the deliverance that our God offers to us in His Son.  We have to get to a point in our lives where we despair of our own righteousness.  That's what King David was talking about in Psalm 51 when he wrote: "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17).  The problem is that we never reach that point by choice, as we heard on Ash Wednesday evening.  We are crushed and pounded into it by the weight of God's Law, which exposes our guilt and helplessness.  Only then do we see the need to run for dear life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


            Jesus offers to deliver us from this hopeless situation and invites us to believe in Him.  His Spirit has spoken to us through Word and Sacrament, revealing to us everything that Jesus did and taught for the purpose of delivering us from sin and its consequences.  What's more, He's given us the ability to believe it.  It's a cynical world that we live in--a world that doesn't dare to hope for the best--a world that motivates people by appealing to the worst in them--a world in which people are moved primarily by fear instead of opportunity.  But in spite of it all the Holy Spirit calls us to believe that in Christ God really did come into this vile world of ours and live among us, that He perfectly fulfilled His own Law, that He really suffered and died under His own judgment, that He was buried, and that He rose from dead in glory on the third day.


            That's a lot to believe, but it's still not all that Jesus is referring to here.  A person can believe all of that and still not have saving faith, because a person can believe all of that and still not believe that it has anything at all to do with him.  To say "I believe that Jesus lived, suffered, died, was buried, and rose" accomplishes nothing for us unless we can also say "I believe that He did all of this for me."  That's why our confession of all of this in the Nicene Creed is prefaced by the words: "For us and for our salvation . . . " (Nicene Creed, Article II).  Trust is a necessary part of faith.  It's one thing to say that I believe that the historical events reported the Gospels are true; it's quite another to say that I trust, to the exclusion of everything else, in the Lord who through these events accomplished my salvation.  To trust in the Lord and His Gospel means to reject all other would-be saviors or ways to appease God in favor of the One in whom we can have perfect confidence through the power of the Holy Spirit.


            The distinguishing characteristic of this text is the sense of urgency with which Jesus commands us to repent and invites us to believe.  He is continuing the work that was begun by His cousin John, who preached repentance and heralded the coming of the Messiah.  Jesus continues this message by saying that the Messiah's time, which John had predicted, is now here--that Jesus Himself is the Fulfillment.  His message is addressed not only to the people of His generation, but to us as well.  The time of preparation is over; the time has now come to repent and believe the Gospel.  What better time is there for us to hear and heed that message?  As we embark on this sacred season of Lent and hear once again the story of our redemption, we can, through the power of Holy Spirit, who works in and through the Gospel, approach it with repentant and faithful hearts so that we may receive the benefits of what Christ has done for us, and so that we may begin to enjoy those benefits right here and right now.




May the One who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, making us kings and priests before His God and Father, lead you to a life of repentance and trust.  May He also be glorified in the lives of you, His people.  He who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.  Amen.