December 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?
In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” – Matthew 3:1-12
The people of Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years, in expectation of the Messiah. Prophets had been promising for centuries that God would send a Redeemer to restore David’s throne, but it had been four hundred years since a prophet’s voice had been heard in Israel. As John the Baptist began his ministry, some hoped that perhaps he was the promised Messiah. He certainly spoke with prophetic authority.
John lived out in the wilderness, and ate whatever he could find. His message was relentless, and he didn’t seem to care who was offended by his preaching. John knew, even if the people who heard him didn’t, that he was not the Promised One. John knew his job was to prepare the way for the Savior, and that the time was very near. Like the people who thronged to hear him, he was eagerly waiting for the prophetic word he preached to be fulfilled.
Instead of going to the center of town to stand on his soapbox where more people could hear him, John lived out in the wild country, where no one wanted to go. Yet people from Jerusalem, even all of Judea, came out to hear him.
“Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near!” he shouts. “Get ready! The Messiah is coming, and he is going to judge the whole world, so you’d better turn away from your sins, before it’s too late!”
Repent. God’s Kingdom is close at hand. How does repentance prepare us for the coming of Messiah? Let’s look at the three ways John talks about repentance.
First, John preaches the simplest sermon ever written: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!” In the Greek, it’s only seven words, but this will also be the message Jesus preaches as he begins his ministry. Straight out of the chute, John tells us why it is so important to repent.
“Turn around! And here’s why you need to do it right now: God’s kingdom is gaining on you!” The time has come to turn away from our old patterns of sinful living. The time has come to embrace a new way of thinking and being, a Kingdom way of living. You not only need to turn around, you need to completely re-orient yourself into this Kingdom mindset.
Once we understand why repentance is so urgent, John tells us what this new way of living will look like. It will be fruitful. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees – and us. Our lives need to show evidence that we have turned away from sin, and have turned toward God.
Michael Wilkins writes that our repentance is proved authentic through the fruit of our lives:
“Talk is cheap,” he writes. “Hypocrisy is real. John will not tolerate any religious game-playing simply to gain a following. He articulates a theme that will characterize Jesus’ ministry as well. … The arrival of the kingdom will bring with it real spiritual life that produces change from the inside out. Jesus says later that false disciples are those who do not have the life of the true vine. They are dead branches, good only to be thrown into the fire (John 15: 6). The decisive identifying mark of a living tree is the fruit that it bears. The decisive identifying mark of the kingdom of God is a life that has repented from sin and bears the fruit of repentance.”
But that fruit is not just for our own benefit.
Worthy fruit is evidence of something so powerful, others want to turn toward it, too. It is a complete reversal in lifestyle, attitudes, and the way we interact with others.
When we turn in the direction God wants us to go, and follow faithfully, we demonstrate a life that is worth repenting for! Others take notice, and begin to desire such fruitfulness in their own lives. We bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.
Finally, John tells us that repentance is only the beginning of our faith journey. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (v. 11)
John’s baptism is a curious thing. Baptism wasn’t something new – immersion in water was required for entry into the temple for anyone who had become ritually unclean. Just outside the temple in Jerusalem, there are special pools constructed to make sure the person seeking purification has been completely covered with water. Some of these larger pools, or mikva’ot, have a stone dividing wall running down the middle of the steps that lead down into the water. You would go down into the water on one side of the steps as unclean, and come up out of the water on the other side as ritually pure.
This kind of ritual bath was also a requirement for gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. Our guide in Jerusalem told us that the mikva’ot used for this purpose were designed so that a convert entered the water on the outside of the Temple enclosure, and had to go under a wall to come up out of the water on the inside of the Temple courtyard. Diving under the wall ensured that the convert was completely submerged, and had been completely purified, before entering the temple to worship.
The mikva’ot were filled from an active spring, or “living water” to maintain their purity. So why were all these Jews going out to the wild lands by the Jordan river – not the cleanest river in the area – to be baptized by this strange man? Even the Sadducees and Pharisees, the most influential and faithful Jewish leaders, were coming out to hear John and be baptized. These were religious leaders who placed great importance on ritual purity.
But John’s baptism wasn’t a standard ritual. John’s baptism was a symbol of repentance, of turning away from sin. The people who came to John to be baptized wanted to be ready when the Messiah came. John’s preaching had awakened in them an awareness of what it meant to be God’s people, holy and set apart. John’s preaching also awakened in them a hope for the future, and the expectation that the future was nearer than they had thought.
John recognized something else that was different about the baptism he offered. He saw that water baptism associated with repentance was only a preparation for what was to come. The real baptism would be one of fulfillment, as Christ initiated his Kingdom, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire. Repent, John says, because the Kingdom of Heaven is near, and when it comes in its fullness, there will be judgment for all. Those who believe will be judged righteous through their faith in Jesus Christ, and those who do not believe will be cast away, like dead branches thrown onto a fire.
In her book, Unbinding the Gospel, Martha Grace Reese notes research that shows most people who have come to know Christ in the past ten years don’t mention a fear of Hell or judgment as the reason they came to faith. Instead of fear, they describe a desire to know God, to be part of a community where God’s love has touched them. Apparently, scaring people away from Hell is about the least effective way to introduce them to Christ.
Perhaps John the Baptist’s warning may not be so much for unbelievers, then, but for those of us who already belong to God’s family. It should burden our hearts that people we know and love might not be ready to enter the Kingdom. We should be so afraid of letting others be cast into the fire like chaff, that we want to do everything in our power to introduce them to God’s great love, shown to us in the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Let us bear fruit worthy of repentance. Let us live lives so compelling that others will see us as children of God, and they will desire to have that same peace, that same compassion for others that we demonstrate in our lives. Bear fruit worthy of repentance, so that no one you know will be cut down as an unfruitful tree and thrown into the fire.
To repent is to turn around. It’s what you turn toward that matters. As you turn away from old habits and patterns of sin, turn toward God’s love, made real in Jesus.
As humans, created in God’s image, we naturally turn toward Love. A baby turns toward its mother’s voice and warmth. Two people in love turn toward each other. God turns toward us, too. The Prophet Ezekiel tells us, “But you, O mountains of Israel shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to my people Israel, for they will soon come home. For behold, I am for you and I will turn to you…” (Ezekiel 36:8-9)
Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the season of the year we set aside to prepare the way of the Lord. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Repentance is how we prepare for the coming of Messiah. It is time to turn away from our own desires, as we turn toward God’s deep desire for us. It is time to turn away from our brokenness, as we turn toward God’s all-encompassing love for us. Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.