Sermon: Repentance

[This sermon was originally preached on Sunday, December 13, 2015]

This Advent, we are listening together to the message of John, son of Zechariah, better known as John the Baptist. Each of the four gospels begin with John – the message and the mission of the man crying out in the wilderness. Only after we hear John do the gospel writers turn our attention toward Jesus. As we heard last week, John’s mission was to prepare the way for the Lord – for Jesus.

If the Spirit inspired all four gospel writers to include John at the beginning of the gospel, then maybe we would be wise to pay attention. So this Advent, as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we will be listening to John, the one God sent to prepare us for the coming of his Son. And maybe in listening to John we will be ready for God’s work in our own lives as well.

But as we hear John’s message this morning, we find out that ‘making ready a people prepared for the Lord’ is no easy task. It is not comfortable or natural. The word of the Lord comes to us this morning from Luke, chapter 3, beginning in verse 1. Luke 3, beginning in verse 1. Luke is in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Luke 3, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

These are the very words of God from the gospel according to Luke:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilee – during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

“Prepare the way for the Lord.

Make straight paths for him.

Every valley shall be filled in,

every mountain and hill made low,

the crooked roads shall become straight,

the rough ways smooth.

And all people will see God’s salvation.”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they said, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “What should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Happy Advent, everybody…

In a season of soft candlelight, of carolers, of chestnuts roasting over open fires, of ‘all is calm and all is bright,’ John’s message seems to grab us by the back of the head and shove us face first into a bucket of ice water.

Wake up!

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Wake up!

Shocking, like a slap to the face. It’s almost as if the shock is part of the point, as if John knows that if what he says doesn’t send a jolt through our system, doesn’t illicit some sort of reaction, then we might be content to just continue with business as usual.

In the midst of the story, John comes and tells the truth. And the truth changes things.

We need people to tell us the truth. In the fall issue of Comment Magazine, Dr. Raymond Barfield speaks of the power of truth-telling in hospitals. Barfield says that a wise doctor will enter a patient’s room listening for their story. The doctor will come in and listen for their ‘once upon a time,’ to know who they are, because more often than not, the doctor is about to be a disruption in the story of this person’s life. There is life before the doctor says, “Those strange-looking cells your doctor saw…I’m sorry to say that it is cancer”; and then there is life after that, with lots of challenges that were never asked for but must be overcome if we are to find home again.

We expect doctors to speak the truth. We need them to. Especially when the news isn’t all good. Because without the truth, we can’t live as we should. Without the truth about the present, we don’t know how to respond to the future. “You have to know what’s been lost or you don’t know what to hope for.”

Even the bad news, even the lost and the disruption is something we need to live in hope and integrity for the future. The doctor doesn’t cause the problem, but her training and calling and expertise allow her to see what we might not and name what we never could. And we need that. In the midst of a story that has already begun, doctors and other medical professionals are called to speak the truth.

In a similar way, this is part of the responsibility of a pastor and of a prophet – to tell the truth about the present, even when that truth isn’t all good news. Because only when we know what we face, know the truth about what is happening in us, between us, and most importantly between us and God – only then can we be ready to respond. In the midst of a story that has already begun, men and women of God are called to speak the truth.

Enter John, son of Zechariah – John the baptist. He enters a story that has already begun. Luke gives us the names of all the supposedly important players – Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Phillip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas. The story is already in motion when the word of God comes to John and he is called to speak the truth. 

And what does he say? verse 3:

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

In a word, John says, “Repent.”

“Repent”

Say shuv. Say metanoia.

‘Shuv’ – hebrew – and ‘metanoia’ – greek – are the words in the bible translated repent. They are also translated as ‘turn’ or ‘return.’ The word repent, the call by the Spirit from the lips of John is to turn around. Once we were headed in one direction and now, we turn and head in the opposite direction. It’s a 180, an about-face. ‘Repent.’

John has some bad news for us first. In our natural state, things are not right between us and God. Something is rotten in the state of our soul. It’s almost as if because of the sin of Adam, we are all born onto a train headed away from God. That train is moving, it’s efficient. Even if sometimes we don’t exactly like what happens on this train, we stay on. Sometimes because we aren’t sure there is any other way, but other times because we have happily buckled ourselves in.

John has to speak the truth to us. No matter when you got on, whether you are sitting in first class or stowing away with the cargo, that train has only one destination.

The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Folks, we need to be real this morning. The pathway of sin, of selfishness, the train headed away from God has only one destination – one scripture describes with fire. It’s hell.

Knowing this, this, I believe, is why John does what he does. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

If the ways of this world are a high speed train headed away from God, then John calls us to jump off the train.

‘Repent.’

‘Repent’

That word, in the power of the Holy Spirit can strike your heart and mine, and awaken us to get off the train. To take a leap, not knowing where you will land, but trusting that Isaiah was right when he said that we would see God’s salvation.

If jumping off a train sounds like a terrifying image, sounds scary and a little dangerous, it is. There’s nothing safe about life with God, but it is infinitely better and more beautiful than life against God. In the words of Mr. Beaver, ‘safe, who said anything about safe, but He’s good.’

He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John was sent with one mission and one message, to call sinners to repentance symbolized in the washing of the waters of baptism. It was a cleansing and a consecration. A commitment and a calling. To leave behind all the ways of sin and death and selfishness and fall on our knees before the throne of God trusting in his mercy.

Repent.

And caught up in this repentance is the promise of the forgiveness of sins. God forgives. Not as a reward for good behavior, or only to those who’ve cleaned up their act, but to all who call upon him for mercy. Scripture tells us that  everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

People responded to John’s message, crowds streamed from all around the country to be baptized in the Jordan – to proclaim their commitment to turn from sin and live to God. From a purely numerical standpoint, John’s ministry was  a resounding success. The nation came out to turn to God, they came out to make straight a highway for the Lord’s coming.

But John sensed a problem. Something was disjointed. And it is here that his words become a greater challenge – words intended for believers, for those already converted and declaring that they would forsake their sin and walk with God. Listen to what the Spirit says through John:

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Evidently there were those who came out to be baptized by John whose hearts were in the wrong place. They wanted the show of repentance, they wanted the appearance of having turned to God, but didn’t want to produce the fruit. Baptism, sure, but actually change the way I live, change my priorities, my commitments, leave behind what draws me away from God, let go of that which damages my soul and relationship with God – I’m not sure I’m going to do that.

It was a half-hearted, self-serving repentance that John condemned. It was just a show. And John had more truth, more bad news this time, for those who walked this way – The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Genuine repentance – the repentance born of the Spirit as a result of spiritual regeneration – will bear fruit of a changed life. Being born again by the Spirit always results in the fruit of faith and repentance. To say we have repented, but to refuse to allow the Spirit to sanctify our lives is to never have truly repented in the first place.

The great reformer Martin Luther once said that ‘the whole of the christian life consists in repentance.’ ‘the whole of the christian life consists in repentance.’ Turning away from our sin and clinging to God, trusting in the blood of Christ for our salvation. Having been declared righteous through Christ and filled with the Spirit, the Christian life is one of daily dying to sin and living to Christ – one of turning away from the old path and turning toward God in Christ.

In John’s message, the bad news gives way to the good. In his call to repentance, he names our brokenness and rebellion against God. And he tells the truth about the outcome of that life. But he also calls us into life with God, into holiness, joy, peace, and fellowship. He calls us into something more truth, good, and beautiful than we could ever find on our own.

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

“Prepare the way for the Lord.

Make straight paths for him.

Every valley shall be filled in,

every mountain and hill made low,

the crooked roads shall become straight,

the rough ways smooth.

And all people will see God’s salvation.”

Having heard John’s message, the people respond: What should we do then? Three times, which is a biblical way of telling us to pay attention, three times they ask, What should we do?

What does the fruit of repentance look like? How should our lives look if our hearts have been turned toward God and we have received forgiveness?

John says this:

Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.

In other words, love the poor.

Tax collectors, be just and fair, don’t exploit people for their money.

Soldiers, be just and fair, don’t abuse your power for people’s money.

In other words, love your neighbor as yourself.

What should we do? John doesn’t tell the people to leave their professions, sell their property, and live in the desert. Instead, he calls them to deeper love, justice, and faithfulness right where they are. You want to know what the fruit of repentance looks like? Love the neighbor God has placed in your life.

What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

What should we do then? The crowd’s question should be ours. Having heard the truth from the lips of John, how will we respond?

Maybe you sense the Spirit working in your heart, I’ve lived my whole life my own way, without a care for God or his will, but I don’t want to be on that train anymore, I need forgiveness. If that’s you this morning, I urge you to listen to the Spirit. Please talk to me after the service, I’d love to talk with you.

Maybe you are sensing that there are some areas in your life that you are still holding back, some aspect of your life that you know God wants to set right, but you’d rather keep it the way it is. If that’s you this morning, I urge you to listen to the Spirit and turn from that. Again, please talk to me after the service, I’d love to talk with you.

Or maybe you can’t think of any part of your life that requires repentance and that troubles you. Don’t be afraid. I urge you to listen for the voice of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth and into the peace of Christ.

What should we do then?

The call of John requires a response. And John reminds us that whether we have turned to God or not will be shown by whether we have turned toward our neighbor in love and justice. That is the fruit of true repentance.

May we brea that fruit for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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