Last week, the men of Renewal Ranch were with us, to share their powerful testimonies in a special worship service. If you missed it, Renewal Ranch is a ministry to help men break the chains of addiction through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
I had the honor of leading a bible study at the Ranch earlier this year, and I was moved – in an unexpected way. I was teaching from the Gospel of Mark, at the Ranch, and I read the first words of Jesus according to Mark’s Gospel. Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled; and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” I immediately launched into my “pastor’s speech” about repentance and how the Hebrew word here means “to turn” and the Greek word suggests a “change of heart and mind that comes from beyond us.” The image is of a person going this way ... and finding themselves lost and broken and scared, surrounded by a darkness that they cannot overcome. And then something moves in their lives -- both from outside and deep within at the same time, and tells them to turn around – to repent. And in turning in a new direction they are able to see a whole new set of possibilities before them. They see a light that can overcome the darkness; and are surrounded with a love that can make life worth living.
So, I’m talking about this, and all of a sudden, I realize who I am talking to. I am in a room full of men who have literally done that. Many of these men were on the edge of their seat, because I was telling their story, as if I had some kind of inside track into their minds. This idea of repentance was so real to them. They were making this turn. They were experiencing this change.
Here’s what I want us to know today. This change is real. It is not just a nice theory that we talk about in the comfort of our Sunday School class. It is real. God really does work in our lives in this way.
In worship last week, these men did what they called, a “cardboard testimony.” Many of you were moved by it. Each man listed three words, on one side of the cardboard, to describe who they were before “repentance.” We saw these words: angry, lost, scared, liar, cheater, thief, drunk, addict, selfish, self-righteous, dead. These men knew about sin. Sin was so real to them that many of them, in their testimonies, personified sin, using names like the devil and the evil one, the one so good at guiding them into destruction.
Sin works in that way, beckoning us to engage in behaviors that might provide some immediate gratification but ultimately bring brokenness and pain here (heart) and then out there as well. At its root, the word “sin” is brokenness. And we can become so broken, and so lost, that we can never find our own way out.
By personifying sin, and using language like “the devil,” these men were not abdicating their responsibility. They weren’t just blaming their problems on the evil one. That’s not it. Acknowledging an evil force outside of us is important because it helps us to know that we are not the source of sin. Sin does not have to define us. It is something that has come into us. If the origin of sin is outside of us, then the remedy just might be as well. Maybe there is room inside of us for something else. Maybe there is hope. Maybe there is a way out. That is the first gift of repentance – a sense of hope, and so we turn.
The first words of Jesus, according to Mark, are “repent” or “turn” and then the next word is “believe.” “Repent and believe in the good news. The word “repent” paints this word-picture of “turning.” The word “believe” paints a word-picture of “stepping out in faith.” Believing here is so much more than intellectual affirmation, or affirming a doctrine here (heads). It is to actively move forward into the light, into the new possibilities before us. In faith we step into the good news, and run towards God’s transforming grace.
(Some Christian theologies take a more pessimistic view of just how much we can change this side of heaven. These traditions tend to define “believing” or “faith” as acceptance of a doctrine. All we need to do is “believe” and “accept.” Some even go so far as to caution us against struggling too much with our sin because that might lead to “works-righteousness,” or us assuming that we need to do more than just believe. We take a much more positive view. We believe that believing is active trust. It is stepping into God’s love where we can experience unimaginable transformation. We also believe that we can fall back into sin, and thus we are called to practice faith daily. We continually “wrestle with flesh and blood,” as Paul says, and “with principalities and powers.” And through this “struggle” we discover that God is with us and for us. God is there to see us through).
We saw the men of Renewal Ranch turn their pieces of cardboard over to reveal their new identity in Christ, as they were learning to see themselves as Christ sees them, and live into that in their daily walk with God. The transformations were so real. You could see it on their faces as they moved from being guilty and full of shame to being forgiven and set free, from being a crowd-follower to a Christ follower, from being lost to found, from being broken to healed, from being consumed with fear to empowered by faith, from being diseased with hate to filled with love, from being self-centered to being a servant. This kind of transformation is so real.
Here is my question for you today: What would be on your cardboard testimonies? What words would you use? You may not have been in the “pit,” so to speak. Your words may or may not be lost, broken, or something like addict. Your words may be more like “boring,” or “routine,” or “lack of meaning.” Some of us are just going through the motions of life and don’t really believe that life can get any better than this. Thank God for football or Netflix, or whatever it is that numbs us to the pain and helps us make it through another day. Oh, how the devil can work in such sinister ways to bring us to that level!
What transformation is happening in your life? In answering this question, I invite you to continually turn to the One who is able to reconcile us to God, not counting our sins against us, as our first lesson said. Turn to the Christ who is able to transform and give new life. Repent and believe! Step into this new reality. Experience the transformation that is so real. Amen.