Luke 3:7–18 7So John kept saying to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Therefore produce fruits in keeping with repentance! Do not even think of saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ because I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 9Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is going to be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10The crowds began to ask him, “What should we do then?”
11He answered them, “Whoever has two shirts should share with the person who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.”
12Tax collectors also came to be baptized. They said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13To them he said, “Collect no more than what you were authorized to.”
14Soldiers were also asking him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “Do not extort money from anyone by force or false accusation. Be satisfied with your wages.”
15The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John could be the Christ. 16John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But someone mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean out his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
18Then with many other words, he appealed to them and was preaching good news to the people.
What do you do when your child runs into a busy street? Do you ignore it? Do you hope that she’ll be OK? Of course not! When you see your child run into that busy street, you yell to her. You give her very stern and direct instructions on how to get back to you safely. You call her back because you love her.
What do you do when you notice that your neighbor’s house is on fire at 2 am? Do you ignore it? Do you let the house burn down because you don’t want to be rude and wake up your neighbor? Of course not! When you see your neighbor’s house burning, you shout, you bang on his door, you call 911. You do whatever you can to save his life.
Our heavenly Father loves us perfectly. He has done everything necessary in order to save us. When we sin against Him, He calls us back because He knows that sin is always harmful to us. At first, sin may seem fun, like playing in a busy street might seem fun at first. But as long as we play in the street of sin, we are in danger of losing our life – our eternal life. So, being the loving Father that He is, God calls us to repentance.
God shouts and warns and wakes us up. And the message isn’t always nice. But it is always necessary. Far worse than dying in a burning building, God wishes to save us from burning for an eternity in hell.
In the wilderness, God sent His messenger, John the Baptizer. Both his clothing and his message were rough.
But his message was even rougher and stronger compared to the nicely manicured rules of the Jewish religious leaders. John was an Old Testament prophet, preaching in the New Testament. John was a plow, cutting through the hard dirt, turning over the soil of people’s hearts to make them ready for the gospel seeds of the Messiah. John was the appetizer to the main course. He was the prelude, Jesus was the theme. “He must increase,” John said. “And I must decrease.”
John was a preacher who didn’t pull any punches. John had nothing to lose. He wasn’t on anyone’s payroll. He didn’t have to please any big contributors. He didn’t have to worry about ticking off any long-time church members. He wasn’t afraid of offending any visitors to church. He could come out swinging. He laid bare the sins of the people, exposed their guilt and shame. The strength of the message worked. The people responded, “What should we do?”
That was a very appropriate question the people asked. Today, the questions that pop into people’s heads during the worship are: “Where are we going to eat after church?” or “Is this going to be done in time for the Packers’ game?” In other words, John preached a message that meant life could not go on as it had been. Today, most people, though, only want to keep the status quo.
I’ve seen some stubborn children in my time. I remember one young student who had done something wrong and was waiting in the hallway to speak to the principal. I heard another student counsel him, “All you have to do is say you’re sorry. You don’t have to mean it.” That’s not the kind of pretend repentance John was preaching.
Nor was John speaking about half-hearted repentance. Another young student had done something wrong. This time, he had to bypass the principal and go right to the pastor. You know it’s bad then! I approached the lad from behind, while he was pre-occupied in a conversation with a friend in the school hallway. But as soon as I cleared my throat and he turned and saw me, he immediately started squeezing the tears out of his eyes.
But it isn’t only children who have pretend or half-hearted repentance. How many of you regret your mistakes … only because they are now going to mess up your future. You are sorry … because you got caught. You are sad … because this will ruin your reputation. You are apologetic … so you don’t get into worse trouble. But you aren’t really repentant enough to never do the offensive thing again if you got the chance.
But John preaches a true repentance, one that actually changes how you live. He said to those coming to be baptized: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” You cannot have a phony repentance, a mere lip-service repentance. That won’t cut it, because then you will be cut down and thrown into the fire. John says that if you are repentant, then you bear the fruits of repentance.
That means, if you are cheating people out of their money, you don’t cheat them any longer. If you are bullying people, you stop bullying them. If you are living together outside of marriage, you move out immediately. If you like to gossip, you keep your mouth shut. If you are addicted to alcohol, you throw the bottles away. If you are doing something against God’s Laws, you stop doing them … immediately. That’s what repentance is. It is not only sorrow and guilt over sins. It is an about-face. It is a change of direction. It is making a change in how you live, seeking to do better, living as one of God’s redeemed children.
Whether in the wilderness by John or in our church by your pastor, preaching about repentance is not a doom and gloom message. It is not, “Repent for the end is near.” No, as strong as John’s message was, it was always a message of hope. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near.” In other words, the focus is not on escaping the wrath of God but being ready to meet the mercy of God. God was coming to His people to save them. He was leaving eternity to enter time. He was taking on human flesh and blood to fulfill His promise of salvation and deliver His people from their sins. It wasn’t mere fear that shaped the people’s responses, but profound hope.
So don’t run and hide. Don’t cover up your guilt. Don’t live a life a sin, just because everybody else is. The message of John the Baptist is startling because we have grown casual and complacent with our sin. John connected what happens in the heart with what is lived out in the life.
The big jet was grounded for repairs. The passengers had to transfer to a little puddle-jumper. The plane was so small there wasn’t room for carry-on luggage. That news didn’t sit well with one of the passengers. When he was told he would have to give up his bag, he refused, saying, “My carry-on is legal size.”
The attendant apologized, but didn’t give in. She said, “Your carry-on still has to be stored.”
The man argued, “I’m not going to check it. There’s stuff here that can’t be left out of my sight.”
The man said all kinds of things. He threatened to write to the airline’s president and when that failed, he used colorful language. Eventually, the lady at check-in said, “Sir, here’s the choice: either give me your carry-on and get on the plane or keep your carry-on and stay right here.”
The furious man stalked off, with his wheeled carry-on following behind.
I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but that’s the way it is when it comes to sin and repentance. If you want to keep your sins, if you think your life is fine just the way it is, you can keep those sins … but you aren’t getting into heaven.
Scripture is clear – either you repent and turn your sins over to Jesus, or you keep those sins and stay right where you are.
Really, if you prefer to keep your sins, you get a one-way ticket to a place you don’t want to go.
Repentance. Being sorry you’ve been caught is not repentance. Trying to figure out a way to get around the rules is not repentance. Pretending you’re a different person is not repentance. Figuring out new ways to do old sins is not repentance. Just feeling “bad” is not repentance.
Repentance happens when you see that you’re a sinner, a stinker and a skunk. Repentance is realizing God is always right, and you are not. Repentance is what happens when the Holy Spirit turns you away from what you’ve been and - with faith in Jesus - begins to remake you into what God wants you to be.
The Holy Spirit does all this because, although Jesus accepts you as you are, He doesn’t leave you as you were. Our Savior makes us into something better, something you couldn't have been without Him.
He makes us forgiven sinners and thankful members who are part of the family of faith.
Being forgiven and thankful Christians leads you to then ask, “What shall we do?”
Hopefully you don’t need a wilderness prophet to tell you what to do. Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. Share your stuff. Be honest. Do a good job. You learned those things a long time ago from your parents, or at least in Kindergarten.
But it is much more than that. What shall we do? We go to Jesus. Go to Him with your repentance. He is already coming with His forgiveness. Your repentance will always be partial and imperfect. But God’s forgiveness is always whole and complete. It is forgiveness that comes in the Advent King, Jesus Christ. Forgiveness in the flesh. Forgiveness in the manger. Forgiveness in the wilderness. Forgiveness in the Jordan River. Forgiveness on Calvary. Forgiveness in the tomb. Forgiveness in the font. Forgiveness in the bread and wine. Forgiveness in the absolution. Forgiveness in the Word.
This is why Jesus came. For forgiveness. This is why He was mightier than John. He did the job you nor I nor John could ever do. He won forgiveness for us. That’s why you come to Him with broken and contrite hearts. So He can provide His balm and healing. That’s why you come and admit that you are filthy and covered with sin. So He can wash you again and again in your baptismal waters. That’s why you come to Him weak and helpless. So He can feed you every Sunday with His body and blood. That’s why you come with questions. So He can provide answers. That’s why you come troubled and shaking. So He can provide peace that surpasses all human understanding. That’s why you come dying and damned. So He can provide you life and salvation.
Live through repentance or die in judgment. It sounds so harsh. Well, it is. But death is harsh. Just like you yell to your child chasing a ball in the street or shout to wake up your sleeping neighbor when his house is on fire, so John, your pastor, your fellow members are yelling at you and warning you. Not because we dislike you. But precisely because we love you. Yes, it sounds harsh. But then, death is always harsh. If you continue on your way, physical and eternal death is inevitable. But if you listen and repent, then another death is yours – death to sin and life in Christ.
What shall we do? Repent. Die to your sins. Receive forgiveness for your sins and refuse to live in them any longer. Amen.