Repent and Believe!
Fifth Sunday in Easter, April 27, 2008
Pastor Brian Henderson-Trinity Lutheran Church, San Diego, CA
INTRODUCTION: Perhaps the most important question someone will ever ask and have answered is, “How do you get to heaven?” When you ask people this question as often as I do, you will be surprised by the many different answers you receive; most of them have nothing to do with how God has determined is the only way to come to Him.
ILLUS: A little boy named Billy was caught being bad, something easily done for little boys who venture outside of the watchful eye of their parents. His mother, who had become frustrated, asked him, “How do you expect to get into heaven acting like that?” Billy thought for a moment and then said, “Well, I’ll just keep running in and out and keep slamming the door until they say, ‘For heaven’s sake Billy, either come in or stay out.’ Then I’ll go in!” And that is the same foolish idea that many today have about pleasing God and entering into an eternity of peace.
This morning I have a message to communicate to you that is so simple that it can be summed up in just one word, yet because of its simplicity many find it difficult to receive, so I will preface that simple Word with this story.
There was a couple many years ago that went through the long process of adopting a child. Those of you who have been through the process can attest to how grueling and frustrating adoption can be. When this young couple was finally approved as adoptive parents they were called down to the agency to meet and take home their new baby boy.
They arrived at the agency several minutes early and they were escorted to a waiting room upstairs. After a few minutes they heard someone else come through the front door, and slowly walk up the same stairs. Then they heard muffled voices and a door to a room next to them open and close. Again they heard muffled voices but this time the voices were accompanied by uncontrollable sobbing, deep with anguish the sobs continued for several minutes. Then suddenly, all was silent and they heard once again the same footsteps going down the steps, the same door closing. After a few minutes, the case worker entered their waiting room and asked the couple to follow her into another room. As they entered, they immediately saw a crib, and within the crib was a beautiful baby boy! On a chair next to the crib was a brown paper bag that contained a change of clothes and two sealed letters from the birth mother, the woman they heard sobbing. One of the letters was addressed to the adoptive parents; it thanked them for providing a loving home for her baby and accepted that under the terms of the adoption she was to have no contact with the child. At the end of this letter the young mother added one request—Would they allow her little son to read the other letter on his 18th birthday? She assured them that she hadn’t included any information about her identity, but rather simply wanted to communicate one thing in life that she had learned was more important than anything else.
The story never told what was in the letter; it’s point was to illustrate the enduring love of a mother for her child, a child that she could no longer care for. But I can’t help but wonder what she wrote. If you had to condense all that you feel about life and love into a few precious words, what would you write? You wouldn’t have time for trivial things; you’d have to get right to the point. Friends, this morning I find myself in a similar position along with the Apostle in this morning’s lesson from the book of Acts. I must start and end this message with one thought, indeed with one word. I pray that you will hear and understand this message clearly. Please don’t listen to my accent; don’t worry about my hair or tone of voice; don’t think about my race or my education. See past me and hear the word of God, “REPENT!”
This morning we find St. Paul delivering a message of repentance and salvation to the people of Athens. Turn with me now in your Bibles to Acts 17:16-31. Starting in vs. 16 we read: 16Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.
19And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
We’ve caught up with Paul waiting in Athens for his partners in ministry to join him there. While he’s waiting he begins to observe things that really bother him in his spirit. All around him are idols and evidence of false worship. As Paul is trouble in his spirit, he felt compelled to address the cause of that trouble. So Paul began to engage the citizens of Athens in discussion and debate about the One true God. As he did this, it became apparent that there were two groups of thinkers that seemed to control all of the discussion about religion and faith; they were the Epicureans and the Stoics.
The Epicureans believed that true religion was discovered in the pursuit of enjoyment. If life was difficult for a person then that meant that, that person was searching for happiness in the wrong place. If you were living a comfortable life then that was considered evidence that you were on the right path. We could say that their motto was “Eat, drink, and be merry!” The Stoics on the other hand believed that all of life was nothing more than a collection of atomic particles whose existence and order were predetermined by an unseen and unknowable force. If one wanted to find happiness in life, then it was necessary to discover this force’s movement and follow it. We might say that the Stoics motto was “Go along to get along” or “Go with the flow!” Does any of this sound familiar? We live in a consumer based society. Every day we see people living their lives in the pursuit of things. Young people, your parents and grandparents had a saying for this style of living—it was called “Keeping up with the Jones’”. “My neighbor or friend has this gadget or that thing and they seem happy, so I need to somehow get it too!” The problem with this style of living is that no matter how many things we collect, it’s never enough, we always want the next big thing! But, we also can find another type of person whose philosophy is “It doesn’t matter. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor just keep getting poorer. What’s the use? I’ll never have a comfortable life style, so why bother! I just won’t work for anything. I’ll just settle for whatever the government and charities give me. I just have to accept that as my lot in life!”
St. Paul tried to reason with both of these groups, by assuring them of something greater than themselves; he tried to tell them of a God who saw them as more than the things they had collected in life or failed to collect. What was his reward? They ridiculed him and called him a babbler, a speaker of nonsense, yet they could not reject the logic in his belief. Now intrigued by his logic they say, “We wish to know more about what you are saying.” And to this, Paul undoubtedly asked and answered the same question Martin Luther asks us in His Large Catechism concerning the First Commandment, “What does it mean to have the true God?” A God is the term we use to describe the one greatest thing or things we turn to, to find happiness; the things we find refuge in during times of need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than the very thing that we trust and believe in with our whole heart. So you see, it is trust and faith that makes both a God and a false god. If our faith and trust are right, then our God is the true one, but where our trust and faith are falsely placed then we don’t have the true God but instead we are worshiping an idol. Anything dear friends that our hearts rely on or desire, anything we depend on, that is our God.
What do we depend on? I mean what is it that we really think will make our lives better? For some it may be a certain life style. For others maybe it’s a certain political party, or government program. Maybe it’s a certain drug or substance that alters your mood. And for others it might be a system of belief that says all religions lead to heaven and all worship is sacred to God the creator. But all of these things if allowed to replace the one true God and His Word are simply false gods and idols. This was the truth that Paul taught and it no doubt caused quite the commotion within the halls of academia, in the city of Athens. And yet they wanted to hear more!
[Vs. 22] 22So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.
26And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Dear friends, what St. Paul was saying to the people of Athens, he is speaking to us as well. He is saying that the incarnation of God in Jesus means that even as we live our lives continually searching for meaning and knowing the true God, “Indeed he is not far from each one of us.” If you have never truly known the love, mercy, and kindness of God, and you hunger to know the truth, HE IS NOT FAR FROM YOU! Maybe you knew the sweetness of His presence once, but now because of circumstance either directly resulting from your actions or circumstances beyond your control you feel as though God has abandoned you. Please hear this word, HE IS NOT FAR FROM YOU! Perhaps you truly know God’s presence and enjoy a relationship of trust with Him, but something in this message has touched your heart, and you feel the need to confess your sin and be forgiven once again, then be of good cheer, HE IS NOT FAR FROM YOU! Friends, the truth is, we can’t make God come any closer to us than He already is. In Jesus, God lives in the flesh and He is redeeming our sinful lives every moment of every day! I know, for some this undeserved gift of love from God in spite of our rotten, sinful living just seems too good to be true. Of course it’s too good—that’s what makes every bit of it so wonderful! IT—IS—TRUE!
The truth is we don’t have to live as if God is angry with us, because the God in whom “we live and move and have our being” doesn’t need a single thing from us, instead we need to receive from Him. In our baptism we received all that was needed to approach Him with or aching and lonely hearts. And when we look back at our baptism we are reminded that he has incorporated us into His continuous and mighty act of salvation, as a gift of love from Him to us!
Now, because of this gift, we belong to a God “who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth”. We are not judged by a god who is separated from us. For in Christ, the world is judged in righteousness, not in anger. We are judged not by the virtue of any sacrifice we can make, but by the virtue of Christ’s glorious sacrifice for us—“By His wounds (we) have been healed.” By his agonizing death for you, the death you should have died, you have been saved.
Dear friends, St. Paul says that we can be sure of this promise because Jesus has risen from the dead, He is risen indeed! So repent! Turn away from your sins and turn to Jesus for forgiveness and life. Repent and believe that God is for you, and then let His love transform you forever! I pray that you will do this now, tomorrow, and every day in Jesus name…. AMEN!