Modern technology has provided us with a wide array of contraptions to theoretically make our lives easier and otherwise occupy our time with endless distractions. Most smartphones are equipped with GPS (global positioning satellite) applications to give direction. Before I bought my iPhone, I regularly used a Magellan GPS road map. I still have it, somewhere, but I don’t use it anymore. It’s a stand-alone device, and you can type in an address and it uses maps it has stored in it and a global positioning satellite to direct you to the desired destination. The direction on this particular device was offered by way of a female computerized voice. I got this doodad from my aunt, who was upgrading to a newer model. My aunt had named this computer voice Lorraine, after our rather bossy aunt Lorraine. Now Lorraine was just a computer, and like all things made by fallible humans, she was not perfect. Sometimes she wouldn’t warn you soon enough to make the turn. And sometimes, being a fallible human myself, I wasn’t able to execute her directions flawlessly -- especially in big cities, where there are often several other lanes of traffic in the way. So, when I would mess up, bossy Lorraine comes on and says rather insistently, “Make the first legal U-turn.” Well, sometimes that’s easier said than done; and if you don’t do it quickly enough, then the voice comes on with even more insistence, “Make the first legal U-turn.” …at which point I usually reach over and turn off the sound until I can safely turn. If we were to translate Lorraine’s instructions into theological terms, if you could flip the theological switch for the roadmap of life, she might say something like, “Repent – turn around.” That’s what Jesus says to us, anyway.
He picks up the mantle of John the Baptist and says there in verse 15, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Repent and believe; that’s his opening message.
In the realm of making small talk with the minister, folks will often ask what the subject of the sermon is for Sunday, as one of you did this past week. And I said that I was preaching on repentance. And the person I was talking to said, “Oh…” with a very somber look. And I have to admit, repentance isn’t the cheeriest subject. It usually calls to mind the fire and brimstone preaching, warning people of the dangers to come: “turn or burn.” I usually think of Rev. Ford, the preacher in the 1960 movie Pollyanna. Rev. Ford’s fiery oration shakes the chandeliers from the high pulpit towering over the congregation. And while I image that such preaching might make for a very engaging sermon, I shall save the fire and brimstone for another day and another time.
We are still left to contend with this message from Jesus to repent and believe the Gospel. I like the way Frederick Buechner puts it. He says, To repent is to come to your senses. It is not so much something you do as something that happens. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying, “I’m sorry,” than to the future and saying, “Wow!” Theologians tell us that repentance is an inward reality long before it’s an outward reality. In other words, our heart is changed before our behavior is changed. Otherwise, the life of faith is reduced to behavior reform and is nothing more than legalism. Repentance in the Christian context is about changing the direction of our life from self-centeredness (me, me, me) to God- centeredness. And such a change widens our perspective, because God always turns us outward toward the world. Remember John 3:16 says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”
To get a glimpse of the results of repentance, we look to the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Jesus calls to Simon and his brother Andrew, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people. At once they left their nets and followed him.” In the first act of discipleship, they drop their nets. In other words, they change what they were doing. Now we have to admit, this is a rather odd exchange. Most of us would probably have a few questions for Jesus, like, “Who are you? Where are you going? Why are you calling me?” As one writer put it, “There’s no business plan, no evangelism outreach strategy, no job description, no interview and no time to consider the pros and cons of the offer – just an itinerant preacher who appears on shore, shouts an invitation and walks on.” And the amazing thing is that they respond; they dropped their nets.
Now we’re not carrying physical nets, because most of us are not fishermen – at least not as a profession. But most of us, I suspect, find ourselves carrying things we would be better off without. Most of us have burdens that get in the way of our discipleship. What is your net? What do you need to drop in order to follow Jesus? For some folks it’s something spiritual – maybe a sense of guilt that gets in the way. “I’m not good enough to be a disciple because of something in my past.” For some folks it’s something psychological – a feeling of inadequacy. “I’m not good at anything. How could I be a disciple?” Some people are wrapped up in the net of a bad attitude. It’s hard to fish for people when you’re scaring them away! And, you know, nets aren’t necessarily bad things. The fisherman needed nets to fish; they were essential for earning a living. Nothing wrong with that! But sometimes even good and important things get in the way of following Jesus. How many of you have experience burnout from doing good works for an individual or an organization – like the church? We can get so busy being busy that we lose sight of the big picture. For the fishermen in our story, it was a question of vocation – God called them to do something else. When Jesus shows up, things happen. When Jesus enters the picture of our lives, when he comes into focus, things change. So, the inevitable question posed to us is this: What do we need to drop? What do we need to leave behind so that we can follow Jesus?
The second act of discipleship, the second result of repentance, is that the disciples followed Jesus. And they weren’t just wandering around the area of Galilee with Jesus; they were learning from him what it meant to “fish for people.” They were learning what it meant to share good news.
There’s a story about the famous football player Jerry Rice. He played for the San Francisco 49ers for fifteen years, followed by stints with the Oakland Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest receivers in the history of football, if not the greatest. He has won three Super Bowls and was once named the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player. If you look online at his Wikipedia entry, his list of accolades is truly impressive. Rice holds the most NFL records by a fairly wide margin.
The notable part of the story was where rice went to college. Obviously, someone with his talent could have gone to any school that would admit him. But instead of going off to one of the big schools with a legendary football team, Rice chose to attend a small school in his home state. He was once asked, “Why did you attend a small, obscure university like Mississippi Valley State?” Rice responded, “Out of all the big-time schools to recruit me, MVSU was the only school to come to my house and give me a personal visit.” Isn’t that interesting? It was the personal contact, the face-to-face encounter, that made the difference.
A number of years ago, the church I was working for held a Children’s Advent Festival as a way of reaching out to the community. In good Presbyterian fashion, we had a committee, and a budget. We recruited volunteers. There was advertising: we sent out flyers, we had yard signs made; we had newspaper ads and a spot on the radio. The response was underwhelming, to say the least. Everyone who participated had a great time, but the numbers were far fewer than what we anticipated. After it was over, we were thinking about what worked and what we might do better. We noted something interesting: The only children who came were those whose parents received a personal invitation. It was the personal contact that made all the difference.
As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee and recruited his disciples, he did so in a personal way. He didn’t put out a sign-up sheet and hope volunteers would sign up, or put up a billboard saying, “Disciples Wanted.” No, Jesus talked to people face to face. He dealt with them as individuals – and they are named here in the text (Simon, Andrew, James, and John).
This is Jesus’ example to us as well. He calls us to fish for people. We are called to invite people face to face. Cards and letters and advertising to invite someone into the kingdom can only do so much, and increasingly we are discovering that those older methods of “doing church” are doing nothing at all. But what makes all the difference is to extend a heartfelt invitation. It lets people know that we care.
Alan Jones, the Anglican theologian, says one of the deepest crises of our time is the sense people have of not being loved, cared for, desired, wanted. He cites one of the classic definitions of the neurotic personality: Someone who is denied the blissful certainty of being wanted. That is why, he says, we are all a bit neurotic – unless we are blissfully unconscious (numbed by drugs, drink, or what he calls mindless religion). So, are you blissfully certain that you are wanted? That’s the message of the Gospel: You are wanted and loved. In fact, that’s what primarily defines us as human beings made in the image of God.
So repent and believe the Gospel. Jesus says to us, “You are wanted.” Drop your nets and follow me. And if we do that, then things will never be the same again. And that’s good news – so good that we will want to share it with everyone.
 Frederick Buechner, “Repentance,” in Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (Harper: San Francisco, 1993)