THE SAVIOR COMES: REPENT.
In the name + of Jesus.
I don't know if you would ever want John the Baptist to be your pastor or not. John was not a lot of laughs. He had no time for small talk. He was not subtle. God sent him into the world to prepare the way for the Lord and to make his paths straight. As Scripture records John's ministry, he did that very well. In fact, it seems that he didn't do anything else. John preached with blunt force and was unapologetically direct. John the Baptist is like the coach who rarely gives you a compliment, but is quick to tell you what you are doing wrong. If you are seeking praise, you will hate him. If you recognize you need to be corrected, you will welcome his blunt words. You might wish he were nicer, but you know he's not wrong.
John's message was this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) The reign of God was going to come upon earth. You and I usually think in terms of us being taken up to heaven. John the Baptist speaks in the exact opposite direction. It is not that we will go up to God; it is that God will come down here to us! And when John proclaims that the reign of God comes to us, he speaks in terms of judgment and even hellfire. For this is what John says: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
Our holy God wants to see holy people. That is why he looks for good fruit and will destroy those in whom he does not find it. The Psalms would have us ponder: “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the LORD.” (Psalm 24:3-5) If our hearts and hands are not clean, then our works will not be clean either. This is why John calls us to repent before our holy God.
If there is one thing that makes people uneasy about God, it is that he is holy. God has no sin in himself, and does not tolerate sin in any other. In order to make God seem less threatening, many churches have adapted their worship to be more pleasing to people. It presents God as one who need not be feared. No one kneels before him; God bends to the way man wants to approach him. God is proclaimed as a guy who enjoys a good time like the rest of us. There is no need to get too uptight about this God. He's cool, and all.
This is NOT the God whom John the Baptist proclaimed or whom Scripture reveals. The prophet Moses hid his face from God. The apostle Peter was terrified in the Lord's presence and begged him to go away. The prophet Isaiah testified that he was a dead man in the presence of God. St. John fell at the Lord's feet as though dead. If that is how the prophets and apostles reacted before God, what do you make of the God who is chummy and entertaining? John the Baptist's message to repent doesn't really fit there. John told us what God coming to earth would bring: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:12) That which does not bear the fruit God is looking for will be cast away into the fire that never goes out. The punishment is everlasting. Therefore, John declares: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2)
John's most scathing remarks come at the expense of the religious leaders of his day. The Pharisees were the rabbis who taught in all the synagogues in Judea and Galilee. The Sadducees were the upper crust of Jerusalem who worked in the temple. They were admired by the people, but they were not admired by John. He says why: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” (Matthew 3:7-9) John did not rebuke them because they were religious or clergy, as if that were bad. John rebuked them because of what they trusted in. They did not see any need to repent. They did not sense any real need for a Savior. They believed they had a good standing before God. To tell them to repent was insulting to them.
The Savior is coming: Repent. It is not insulting for us to hear the call to repent. For, you and I still have sins with which we are comfortable or sins which we are prone to. We know that we should repent of these things, but repentance that remains theoretical is useless. If a child tells his parents, “I know I should obey your rules,” but then disobeys anyway, his parents will not credit him saying, “Well, at least he knew what we wanted.” Or tell your boss, “I will always show up to work on time,” and then don't. You will not be praised for knowing his expectations if you don't do them. Knowing you should do something and not doing it is both useless and insulting. How much more when it is before the Lord! “Lord, I know I should control my anger. Lord, I know I shouldn't gossip. I know I should pray and ponder God's word.” This is not repentance at all. Sins are to be rooted out and fought against. And yes, that is a struggle; even a battle. But this is life in the Church Militant. We all are called to fight against sin as it brings wrath from God and harm to our neighbor. Just as sin is not bad only in theory, so also we do not repent only in theory.
The Savior comes: Repent! John the Baptist tells us that God seeks true repentance when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8) If you know God is seeking this, you might recognize just how weak you are in it. And this is precisely why even religious people still need a Savior. You know that Jesus has come to deliver you from sin and judgment. You know that Jesus took your sin and died under your judgment; and yet you still fall prey to sins and fear God's judgment. You know that in baptism the Lord set you apart from a curse and set you apart for a godly life. And yet your godly life is still not what it could be and should be. You know that Jesus rose from the dead and lives and reigns to assure you victory over Satan, the Accuser. And yet, Satan still seduces you with temptations and then accuses you when you do what he tempted you to do.
Somehow, the mere knowledge of Jesus' sufferings, death, and resurrection is not enough. And it isn't. You are not saved by knowledge of facts; even the devil has that. You are saved by faith, and faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17) Faith in the word of Christ means genuine repentance which despises sin, which takes God's promises to heart, and which seeks to do the good that God desires. Faith means that God works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13) You are saved by faith in Jesus whose pierced hands and heart cleanse you from all wickedness and produce in you all that is good. Therefore, if you abide in Christ and he abides in you, you bear much fruit. (John 15:5)
The Savior comes: Repent! The life of a Christian is one of continual repentance. Satan will always tempt us. The world with its ungodly attitudes will always urge us to join in its rebellion or at least to agree with them that it is good or funny. Our own sinful flesh delights in its sins and gets lazy and tired in the fight against temptations. We cannot stand on our own. But we have a Savior. He has ransomed you from the devil; the price he paid to set you free was his own sacred life. He has set you apart from the world. So if the world despises you or mocks you because you are different, it is because you are. You do not go along with the likes of Pharisees or Sadducees who take pride in how good they are. Nor do you follow the world which delights in drunkenness, lust, and greed. You are saints living in a sinful world. Jesus has even delivered you from yourself. Jesus has made you a new creation which recognizes that love is devoted to the will of God and to the good of others, not to the glory of oneself.
The Savior comes. The very fruits of repentance that God seeks in you Jesus produces in you. Both repentance and good works are worked in you as you remain devoted to the word. Jesus produces them in you as you partake of the body and blood which have redeemed you from sin and death. If you want to be free from judgment and hellfire, then flee to the one who alone delivers you from them. John the Baptist pointed to Jesus as the one who takes away the sin of the world. And Jesus delivers his salvation to you through word and sacrament. This is where you find deliverance from judgment. This is where God cleanses you and makes you fruitful. This is how your Savior comes today. And this is where the repentant find peace and hope.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.