2nd Sunday in Advent / December 8, 2013
God’s Message of Repentance
I go through those words over and over again. Every time, the scenario in my head only ends up the same way: people yelling, people screaming, hearts broken. I’m sorry, it was my fault. Even if I apologize in an argument, it seems like people will be mad anyways, so why even bother? I’m sorry, I was wrong. Those words are often the most difficult words to say. I’m sorry. Even if, in our mind, we didn’t do anything wrong, we may have hurt somebody or their reputation. I think we can all say that we don’t like to admit that we are wrong. Ever since we were children, we have been either trying to pass the blame or get by without any fault of our own. A parent walks in on their children fighting and what are the first words that you hear? He started it! And as you grow older, the conversation is the same, but maybe just a different scenario. I’m sorry, I was wrong. Those words can be so difficult some times. They can be so difficult that if we are in a fight or we are caught in the act of doing something wrong, we think it’s easier to hope that the other party drops their accusations and forgets the who ole thing. And we know, it’s never that easy. I’m sorry. That was simply the message of John the Baptist. He was preaching God’s message of repentance.
This was not John the evangelist and apostle, but the son of Zechariah and Elisabeth, a relative of Mary. John was born in the hill country of Judea and chose to preach there in the wilderness of Judea. It wasn’t some fancy auditorium in the city, but it was just a waste desert. Which, appropriately, was a symbol of the spiritual state of the people of Israel. Yet, people came by the numbers to hear what he had to say. “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near!” John was preparing the people for the coming Messiah. He was the herald announcing the arrival. We don’t really have heralds so much today. But if someone is going to come over to your place, they might call you, email you, or even text you to say, “Hey, I’m on the way!” And in those moments while you’re waiting, you look at your house and realize, this place is a mess! You’re throwing clothes in closets, shoes under the beds, putting dishes away, running the trash out. Maybe you’re better at last minute cleaning than I am. Nevertheless, John was telling the people to get ready! He wanted them to get ready and to repent because the mindset of the people was off track. They had become infatuated with themselves and had forgotten about God and his promise of the Messiah.
So he preached repentance because the kingdom of God was near. Repentance reminds us of that which we hate to admit, that we are wrong. Repentance reminds us that we are sinners, worthy of nothing but God’s punishment because God demands perfection. He demands that we live perfect and holy lives and yet, we can barely live decent lives. Repentance reminds us of the filth that we are by nature. Repentance is more than saying, “I’m sorry.” The primary sense of repentance in Judaism was always the sense of change. It is always the complete change of the attitude toward God and a change in the conduct of life. Yeah, right! Nothing is more difficult than that! We can’t do that because by nature we are sworn enemies of God! We can’t bring about change in ourselves. It can’ be accomplished by feeling really really sorry for what we’ve done. God must do it. The spirit works through the message that John spoke and what we hear in the Bible to accomplish God’s gracious purpose in the hearts of his people. It’s truly a miracle. Yes, even our repentance is something God does for us!
So when the teachers of the law came to be baptized, John refused them. Can you imagine that? Why would he refuse forgiveness? The Pharisees believed that they were already worthy in God’s eyes. They even added extra laws to obey, just so that in their eyes, they wouldn’t be close to the point of where God would condemn them. The Sadducees didn’t even believe in the afterlife or the resurrection. So they had no interest in the kingdom that John was preaching. It seemed that both these religious groups of men didn’t want to be left out. They didn’t want to lose their popular social vote by opposing this messenger of God. But John saw right through their deception. Just like snakes that would scurry away from a brush fire or a burning field, so these people were trying to escape God’s judgment by going through the motions of baptism, but they would not succeed. Being the descendants of abraham didn’t mean that they would automatically get a free ride to heaven, even though that is all they imagined was required. These men’s hearts were no more responsive than stones. There was no real love for God or his word in their hearts, and there were no visible signs of repentance.
We sort of get that Pharisee heart of ours working. I sit in church. My parents went to church. My grandparents went to church. We are happy with 1 hour of our week devoted to sitting on hard wood pews on a Sunday. But John would be quick to point out, who cares? Just because a person was brought up the child of Christian parents, just because someone has their name on the membership book of the church, it doesn’t guarantee that person heaven. That’s why John was using some very harsh words here with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We so easily become complacent with our spiritual life! When we become complacent with our spiritual life, we just go through the motions like the Pharisees and the Sadducees were doing in John and Jesus’ day. Spiritual complacency can be a slippery slope to trusting in what you do or the actions you go through to get to heaven instead of Jesus Christ.
John reminds all people that our sin is worthy of eternal punishment. Why would we want to go down that road of trusting in what we do or what the world does? A person can’t head two directions at once. A person cannot trust in God and then also do things the world does. The idea of repentance has the complete change in direction idea. As long as sin reigns supreme in the heart of a person, the Savior cannot live there. By clinging to sin, the sinner shuts out the Savior. By unbelief the sinner blocks the way of the Savior into the heart.
Repentance will always bear fruit. One of the first fruits of repentance is an honest confession of sin. The actions after will reveal repentance to be sincere. There was no evidence of these things here with these Jewish teachers of the law. They still sought to earn heaven by their own efforts or simply by their family heritage.
John did not enjoy seeing the suffering of people. His ministry goal was not to make people’s lives miserable by making them disregard what the world thought. He was a loving preacher. We see that with how he dressed. He wasn’t there to make money, but he loved people and desperately wanted these people to go to heaven. John is thought to have only spoken of law and repentance. That’s not the case. But he pointed the people to Christ. When John says repent, he not only says that sinners should acknowledge their sins and be sorry for them, but they should also, by true faith in their savior, turn away from their sins to a gracious and forgiving God.
We don’t like to be told that we are wrong or even admit it. That goes against our human nature. And even if I was sorry, could I ever be sorry enough? The amazing thing about God’s grace is that God took that blame and placed it all on Jesus. The one who would come to be born in a feeding trough. The one who would lived that perfect life for us, always seeking to obey God’s will. And the one who would take that guilt of sin with him to the cross. The sin that convicts us to eternal death, the sin that reminds us that we haven’t obeyed God’s laws, or produced good fruit, that sin Christ has washed away on the cross. Repentance is so important because it takes away the trust in ourselves, and it puts our trust in Christ and what he has done for us. We can trust God that He remembers our sin no more and our level of how sorry we feel plays no part! What a relief!
John reminds us that life is not a game and that no one will be able to escape God’s judgement. The end of the world is inevitable and a reality. God is coming to judge because of the “root” of our problem. Pun intended! The ax is laid at the root of the trees. When the ax is raised the fate of the tree is sealed. The axe will continue until the tree falls. Christ would strike at the very root of the problem. These Jewish leaders and what they stood for were at the root of the problem...they were leading people down a path of self righteousness which would only lead to destruction.
Repentance prepares us for the coming of Christ’s kingdom, which is why repentance is always an ongoing activity. Our baptisms remind us that we must daily drown that sinful nature because it will come back at us every day with a vengeance. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Yes, Judgment Day is a great reminder to us, but also a great comfort. We have the encouragement that Christ will come again to bring us with him.
I hate to admit that I’m wrong. I so often have the heart of a Pharisee or a Sadducee where I think I’m alright. But these words of John remind me that I am wrong. I am a sinner. The reality of judgment is very close as John says and I do not want to miss out on the glories that God has waiting for me by thinking that I’m alright on my own. But thanks be to God that I don’t have to trust in what I do or my family history, because Christ has done away with my sin. I want to be reminded of that fact every day because I so easily slip back into that old way of thinking.
Repentance is an amazing thing. Through the working of the Holy Spirit when we hear God’s word, God reminds me to put my trust in Christ who has already given us the victory.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.