“Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance” (Luke 3:1-20)
Advent is a penitential season, and every year on this Second Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist shows up, leading the call to repentance. John came to prepare the way of the Lord, and he did so by calling the people to repent, that that is fitting as they get ready to welcome the coming King. And that is precisely what we are doing now during this time of preparation, the penitential season of Advent. As we anticipate the arrival of the Christ, John would have us “Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance.”
So the word of God came to John, much like the word of the Lord came to the prophets of old. And therefore John came, as it says, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Note both parts of that proclamation, both the “repentance” and “the forgiveness of sins.” They are two sides of the same coin, really. Repentance means a recognition of, and a sorrow over, your sinfulness and your sins. But God would not have you be stuck there, dead and dismal and despairing. The other side of the coin is that then, realizing your lack and your lostness before God–that then you would eagerly desire and receive the free forgiveness God so graciously offers you.
You see, repentance is really a gift from God. Without repentance, you would feel no need for God’s forgiveness in Christ. If you don’t think you are a sinner, then why would you need a Savior? And so you would be lost forever, and not even know it. That is the case with so many in our society today. That’s why they’re not in church. They don’t think they need a Savior from sin. But you do, don’t you? You know you would be lost without Christ. You know your constant need for his forgiveness. And so God is always calling you to repentance, so that you would always be running to Christ your Savior as your refuge. Thus John the Baptist comes, proclaiming a baptism of repentance “for,” or “into” or “unto,” the forgiveness of sins.
Now you, dear Christian, you have been baptized into a life of both repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Your baptism into Christ is a dying and rising with him. You were buried with Christ by baptism into death and raised with him into newness of life. Every day the old Adam in us is to be put back under the water and drown and die. Every day, through our baptism into Christ, the new man arises and we live in God’s forgiveness and walk in the new life of righteousness. So the life of a Christian is one of continual, ongoing repentance and forgiveness, a daily dying and rising with Christ. This is how we live as we await the coming again of our King. In that respect, it is like what John was calling the people to, in the baptism that he was doing back then.
Repentance and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin. We’ll come back to the forgiveness side in a little bit, but first let’s spend a few minutes on this matter of repentance. That’s what John does. Repentance: What is it? What does it look like? What will repentance do and look like in my life?
To begin with, we can speak of repentance in the general. By that I mean the general awareness of our sinful condition. The Holy Spirit works in our conscience to lead us to realize that something is not right between us and God. We know something is not right. We have this sense of guilt before God, our conscience accusing us, telling us that we have not lived as God would have us live. We see the whole wrongness in how people all around us have lived, and we know we are a part of it. Oh, we may do better than the really bad people in this or that, but we know, deep down, that while we can put a mask on our sinful heart, we cannot escape it. And we see people dying, and we know that we will die, too. After that, then what? We fear the judgment to come. How will we possibly be able to stand before God and pass his scrutiny? So this is the general aspect of repentance. We mourn our sinful condition. We admit that we are sinners, lost apart from God’s mercy. We confess that we are indeed “poor, miserable sinners.”
But poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins. Sin doesn’t stay in the general. It takes shape in the specific, in actual, real sins against God and against people. Sin takes shape in the specific, in the thoughts, words, and deeds that we do wrong. And in all the times that we fail to do the right. Whenever we fall short of loving God with all our being. Whenever we fail to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. These are the poor, miserable sins that we poor, miserable sinners do, and we need to come to grips with them and confess them, and turn to God for his forgiveness in Christ and for the help we need to do better as God’s children. Repentance moves from the general to the specific, or it can move from the specific to the general, but it always includes both. Real sinners do real sins, and we need real forgiveness and real help to make real changes in our life.
This is what John preaches, a repentance that does not stay in the abstract, but moves us to make actual changes in how we live. He says to those coming to be baptized: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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.” In other words, if you think that just belonging to the church, without true repentance and faith–if you think that will fool God on the day of judgment, you are sadly mistaken. A phony repentance, a mere lip-service repentance–that won’t cut it, and you will be cut down. Instead, John says, bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
But that raises the question: Tell us, John, what are those fruits that are in keeping with repentance? “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’”
As we said earlier, repentance takes shape in the specific. John gives specific answers to their question, “What shall we do?” And his answers involve both what we should not do, as well as what we should do.
The answers will also be tailored to our specific vocation in life. Take the example of the tax collectors and the soldiers. Both of those are positions with some power. And John basically tells them: Do not use your position, do not abuse your power, in order to serve your own selfish interest. Tax collectors, don’t line your pockets by charging too much. Soldiers, don’t use your power to get things for yourselves.
So what does this mean for you? Well, what is your vocation or your vocations in life? In your work? In your role in the home, or the community? Whatever it is, do your work honestly, and don’t take advantage of your position to serve yourself. The specifics of that will vary from person to person. So ask yourself: How will this take shape in my life?
But repentance is not just avoiding the negative. It is also doing the positive, acting in love toward the neighbor. That’s what John is saying with his “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” How can you share with those in need? What are the needs that your neighbor has? It may not be a tunic. But it could be a visit, if the person is homebound. It could be a meal, if the person has been sick or is swamped all kinds of burdens. What you share could be friendship, if the person is lonely. What can you share with others? How can we, as God’s children, share the love and the mercy, the kindness and the compassion, that our heavenly Father has shown to us?
Repentance is not just general; it takes shape in the specific. Repentance is not just sadness over our sin; it is making changes in how we live, seeking to do better, to better reflect our character and our standing as God’s beloved children. Repentance is not doing these things on our own, though. We always need God’s help and God’s Spirit to do real repentance. Pray for this gift and this help. God will give you what you need.
And finally, and most importantly, along with repentance, remember that other side of the coin, the “for the forgiveness of sins” part. 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. He is the one mightier than John, who does the job neither you nor I nor John could ever do. Christ wins our forgiveness for us. That is why he came. He came in the flesh at Christmas so that he could die on the cross for us on Good Friday. There is where you will find your forgiveness, in the crucified Christ. He puts the forgiveness into your baptism. He preaches forgiveness into your ears. He puts forgiveness in your mouth, in his blessed Supper.
For the forgiveness of sins. That is why Christ came. And that is why he will come again. To bring us the result, the outcome, of the forgiveness he won for us. For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Eternal life, eternal salvation. Christ is coming again, and he will deliver us from the judgment and bring us into the everlasting life he has for us.
It’s Advent, and once again John the Baptist is calling us to repentance. Let’s take that call seriously and specifically. And at the same time, let us also hear John preaching the good news, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins that comes in the person of the Christ.