Advent 3: Real Repentance
Homiletics is the theological term for the study and craft of sermon making. Seminarians take a couple of courses on homiletics of course, and there are lots of books on homiletics written for the guidance of preachers. Nowadays, there’s a lot of emphasis on the introductions of sermons. The theory is that the modern audience has to be led gently and carefully into the sermon and the text as though they were being led into alien territory. So there’s a lot about “contracting” or “partnering” with the audience, easing them into the word with stories and humor, giving them the assurance that you’re on their side.
Well, evidently John the Baptist didn’t take a course in homiletics. The very first words we hear from his mouth in Luke sound less like he’s partnering with his audience and more like he’s attacking them. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7) Look around, says John, looks like we’ve got some bad trees around here that aren’t producing good fruit. Every one of them is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire. Look, there’s the axe already lying at the root. And don’t think your pedigree will save you. God can make children of Abraham out of rocks. Even when he gets around to speaking about Jesus, the messiah who was to follow him, the message doesn’t sound much better. “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (3:17)
From what I can see, people are not banging down the doors of the church to hear this kind of stuff, especially not just before Christmas. So what are we doing mucking around in this unsettling text about John the Baptist instead basking in the soft glow of Christmas peace and joy? It’s because Advent is not Christmas; it’s about getting ready for Christmas and the whole of the Christian year. And in God’s timetable, John the Baptist comes before Jesus. Law comes before gospel. Judgment is the necessary precursor to grace.
There’s good reason for that long-standing Advent tradition. John comes before Jesus in all four gospels. Wherever the story of Jesus is told, it begins with John the Baptist. In Luke, the only gospel that has a birth story of Jesus, actually has two birth stories, John and Jesus. From the time of their birth, these two boys are linked together, so that John is the forerunner, the prophet who prepares the way for the coming of Christ. So this Advent tradition has its roots in the gospel itself.
With the appearance of John the Baptist, holy history, the story of God’s salvation begins again. Like the voice of astronauts came crackling over the radio again after they passed by the other side of the moon, the voice of prophesy comes crackling to life again after a long silence of 400 years. John is the Old Covenant in person; Jesus is the New Covenant in person. John is the law in person; Jesus is the gospel in person.
To prepare the way of the Lord, John says we have to do something, repent, because something is about to happen, the Kingdom is coming. I’m afraid that the word repent has lost its edge these days. To many of us, it just means feel bad, feel guilty. We have psychologized the gospel and transformed the Kingdom into a mood altering experience. The Messiah is the cosmic affirmer of all we hold dear. But that’s not really what repentance is all about. John is not calling people to cry big crocodile tears over their sins. Repentance is turning around, it’s shaping up.
Given his harsh demeanor and his searing message, it is perhaps surprising to us that John was a very popular figure. People flocked to him out there in the wilderness. They went out there in the wild and began to openly confess their sins. And they wanted to be baptized by this fiery prophet.
We live in an age which thinks that the way to preach the gospel is to soft-pedal it. Believe me, it’s very tempting to try to make it all nice and smooth, and attractive. It’s all about acceptance. It’s all about feeling good about yourself. It’s seeker friendly, market driven. But deep down people know that what we might want to hear is not the same is what we need to hear.
Every true revival of faith starts with the hard-edged preaching of repentance, not the soft, rounded preaching of positive thinking. A few years ago a revival swept through many Christian college campuses. True to form, it began not with smiling testimonies to the love of Jesus, but with a great reawakening to the reality and power of sin in their lives. It began with repentance. It began when students openly confessed their sins. You may come to John the Baptist singing “Just as I am”, but before you leave you better realize that things have to change.
John’s preaching represents what the church should always remember: the law has a continuing importance in the Christian life. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “Why does God have the Ten commandments preached….? First of all, that all our life long we may become increasingly aware of our sinfulness, and therefore more eagerly seek the forgiveness and righteousness of Christ. Second that we may constantly and diligently pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit so that more and more we may be renewed in the image of God….” Repentance is not just some testimony of wrongs committed in the distant past. Confession and repentance is our daily spiritual discipline. We need to be confronted again and again with the stinging indictment of God’s law. Whenever the preaching of the church loses that quality of searing judgment against sin, that bony pointing finger of John, we lose the gospel itself.
John’s thunderous tirade continues, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Wrath. Now that’s not a word we use much in relation to God, but the Bible does. We talk often about the love of God, and we should, for God is love. But both John and Jesus make clear that while the gospel is about much more than the wrath of God, it’s also about nothing less. The coming of God here and everywhere in scripture is the coming of a love accompanied by fiery justice.
The wrath of God is not the same as human anger. The wrath of God is not some intemperance, some irritability in God. “Watch out, God is kind of touchy today”. The wrath of God, says Fredrick Dale Brunner, “is the love of God in friction with the injustice and hatefulness of persons. It is the warm, steady, patient, but absolutely fair grace of God in collision with the manifest selfishness and unfairness of human beings.” God’s wrath is not the opposite of God’s love; it is its inevitable counterpart. Love without wrath is mere sentiment. Wrath without love is mere legalism. They belong together, as they always are in Jesus’ message. That the wrath of God is coming is good news to the oppressed, the poor, the victims of this world. It is not so good news for the oppressors, the self-indulgent, the perpetrators. You better change, says John, for the wrath of God is coming, God’s ultimate justice is sure and decisive. He will separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” That’s what made it so hard for the religious leaders of the Jewish people to hear John. It’s very seductive for us to believe that we stand in some kind of special relationship with God because we enjoy some wonderful heritage of faith. I’m Reformed. I’m a child of Calvin and Kuyper. I had Sunday School medals down to my belt. I’m a born-again Baptist. I’ve gone through three years of Bible Study Fellowship. I know the Catechism. I speak in tongues. We can shine all these medals of ours as a kind of shield behind which we can hide. We all like to think we’re in the club, but John rips up the membership card. John the Baptist points his finger at us and says, “Shape up! God can make evangelicals out of rocks”.
“What do we need to do?” They asked John. Soldiers and tax collectors and ordinary people wanted to know what it meant to repent.
John says, change the way you live. Interesting, isn’t it, that he doesn’t tell them to give up tax collecting, or resign from the army. Rather John tells them to give their second coat to someone in need, and share their money with the poor. He urges them to make sure they conduct their business with scrupulous fairness and justice. John says see to it that your profit is not based on someone else’s loss, your enrichment on someone else’s poverty. John says live in compassion and honesty and justice!
We need to notice that John doesn’t call us to some private spirituality or personal piety, but to public justice and compassion. His call is not that we attend church more often or attend more Bible studies, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Repentance is not just feeling sorry, or getting cozy with God. It’s is changing the way we live our lives in the world. It’s a wonderful, free life whose heartbeat is sharing rather than clutching, giving rather than taking, living for God’s Kingdom of justice and righteousness and peace rather than for yourself.
In that way our instincts as we approach Christmas are quite right. We sense the call to help others, to reach out to the most needy around us. Businesses on Grape Rd. from Meijer to Gurley Leep got together this year with Channel 22 to encourage people to find ways of giving themselves on behalf of others. This is the true spirit of Advent because it’s true to the spirit of repentance. But it’s the spirit that needs to pervade out lives throughout the year.
John’s message belongs alongside of Jesus’ message, even today. On our way to Bethlehem we need to spend some time in the wilderness to hear this gaunt, thundering prophet. We need to confess our sins and face ourselves.
But, thank God, that’s not John’s only message. John’s message was the message of the one who prepared the way. He could hear confessions galore, but he could not forgive the sins. He could baptize in the water of repentance, but he could not baptize in the cleansing waters of grace. And John knew it. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
John prepares the way; he is not the way. The law can show us our failure, but it cannot liberate us from it. The law can show us where we are wrong, but it cannot make us right with God.
That’s why John points to Jesus. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” What exactly is this “baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire” that Jesus will bring?
In the New Testament baptism is always linked to the gift of the Holy Spirit. With the sign of our new life in Christ he gives the power to live that new life. God promises all of us that he will continue to give us the gift of his Holy Spirit to live a new life in Christ. He will forgive our sins and give us the strength to overcome them. The power to produce a new life is not ours, it is God’s power through the fiery, purifying work of the Holy Spirit. Every urge in us to turn away from the darkness of hate and selfishness to the light of grace and giving is from God. Every step of love, and giving and caring we take is empowered by the Spirit. Every shining moment when we catch a glimpse of the holiness to which we are called in Christ is burned on our souls by the Spirit. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire”. He will plant in your hearts the very power by which he lived his life for God and gave it up for others. Changing our lives is not just some far-off ideal, it happens today in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I read the story of a boy who came to church for the first time on Christmas. When he was asked how he liked it, he said, “It was fine, but I want some of that unphant.” “Umphant, what’s that?” his mother asked. You know, it’s what all those people were singing about-“O come all ye faithful, joyful and try umphant. I’d like to try some of that “umphant.
That’s what we all need, some of that umphant-the power of the Holy Spirit to triumph over sin and to share in the joy the new humanity to which Jesus Christ has joined us in our baptism, joining us to that new humanity that came to earth at Bethlehem.
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