“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand” (Matthew 3:1-12)
“Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand”: That was the message of John the Baptist as he came preaching in the wilderness. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”: That is the message of John the Baptist as he comes preaching in our midst today. Let’s listen and take heed to what he is saying.
“Repent”: That’s the big word that comes through in our text today. What does this call to repentance mean for us and for our lives? What shape will it take? You see, this is not just a word for way back then. This is a word for right now, for us. It is the word of the Lord delivered through John that is meant to go in our ears and straight to our heart and affect what we do and think and how we live.
Repent. The Old Testament word and concept for this was to “turn.” To turn from the wrong direction we are going and to turn back to the Lord and to walk in his ways. The New Testament word and concept of repentance is to “change your mindset,” change your way of thinking. You’ve been thinking about things the wrong way, defending your sin and blocking out the word of the Lord. Now change your way of thinking and get it in line with what the Lord says and let that reorient your life.
Taken together, these Old and New Testament concepts help us understand what John is calling us to when he says “Repent.” Turn from your wrong paths, where you have gotten off the road. Turn back to the Lord, seek his forgiveness, and then go his way, walk in the ways of his commandments. Change your way of thinking. Don’t listen to the tempting voices of the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh whispering in your ear. Rather, listen to what God says. Let God’s word shape how you think and how you live. Yes, repent.
John is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” And it does seem like a lone voice these days. So many voices now are saying something quite different. What God calls sin, these days is no longer seen as sin. Rather, sins of the flesh now are seen as perfectly normal and are even celebrated. Leaving your marriage, not even bothering to get married–this is the new normal. And people accept it. Indeed the only people now that want to get married are people who are never meant to marry each other, namely, those of the same sex. And our culture has accepted it.
But this is not just out there in the culture. The culture has infiltrated the church. We have become indoctrinated by the culture. Now there are voices in the church that want to excuse and condone sin and explain away the call to repentance. A term that’s been used to describe this phenomenon is “soft antinomianism.” The term “antinomianism” means “against the use of the Law in the life of the Christian.” It’s saying the Law of God can only beat us over the head and we shouldn’t be bothered with hearing that we should turn from our sins and seek to live holy lives, according to God’s commands. And it’s “soft” antinomianism because they won’t go so far as to outright say God’s Law is wrong. It’s just that it really doesn’t affect how we Christians should strive to live.
And there are people in the church, even in the Lutheran church, who are advocating this approach. It goes something like this: Of course God’s Law, the Ten Commandments, condemns us as sinners. We are all poor miserable sinners. I sin in thought, word, and deed. We all do. Even if I have a sinful thought, I am a sinner, and I am just as guilty as the axe murderer or the serial adulterer. Well, OK. Fair enough. That’s true, as far as it goes. But here’s where the soft antinomianism goes off track. It’s when they say, since we all sin, it really doesn’t matter what we do. I don’t have to struggle against sin, since I’m going to sin again anyway. And besides, God will forgive me. So what difference does it make?
Friends, this soft antinomianism that is going around these days–it is insidious and it is subtle. It’s being used to excuse and condone, to rationalize and defend, behavior that God clearly identifies as sin. It is so easy for us to fall for this. I myself can use this approach to rationalize behavior I know to be wrong. “This or that particular temptation is too strong for me to resist. And besides, God will forgive me anyway.” Do you ever think this way? Oh, this sounds so appealing. It sounds “Gospelish.” It sounds almost Lutheran. But it’s not.
John the Baptist will not let us fall for this line of thinking. And so he comes around here during this Advent season, telling us to get our heads back on straight. “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” The call to repentance is more than just a fleeting feeling of “Yeah, I know I’m a sinner,” and then that’s it. Poor miserable sinners do poor miserable sins, and we need to confess those, call them for what they are, and then turn from those wrong paths and get back on the straight road.
It involves specifics, specific changes in our lives. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” John cries out. Turn away from and mourn the bad fruit that sin is producing in your life. Turn to the Lord, and the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, will produce good fruit proceeding from a humble faith, things like love, joy, peace, patience, self-control, etc. You can’t produce that fruit by yourself. Only by abiding in the vine, our Lord Jesus Christ, will that fruit fit for repentance keep on growing.
The fruit of the Spirit will be in accord with God’s Law. The Law of God is good and wise. God’s commandments are the best way for us to live. Our Creator knows best. And the Spirit will lead us in those paths. There is no disagreement between the Holy Spirit and the Ten Commandments. Indeed, as new people in Christ we delight in God’s Law. We know it’s what’s best for us, and we ask for God’s help to walk in his ways.
The late professor Kurt Marquart of the Fort Wayne seminary put it like this: “The Law is the standard and measure of good works, but it lacks the power to produce or motivate them. Only the Gospel does that. Yet the Gospel does not simply liberate us from the Law, as antinomianism imagines; rather, it liberates us from the condemnation and the coercion of the Law, so that according to our new nature we are now free to love and obey it.”
So don’t listen to the antinomianism going around these days. It’s not OK to continue in sinful behavior that God says is wrong. Don’t use forgiveness as a license to sin. Instead, repent, recognize your sins for what they are, confess them, and ask God for help to resist them.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”: That’s what John is telling us today. It’s especially fitting as an Advent message. For Advent is about the kingdom of heaven being right at hand. The kingdom is coming. Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. Are you ready? When he comes, “he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” How will you escape the wrath to come? “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.” What will be your plea on the Day of Judgment? It won’t be because you had Abraham or Luther or Walther as your father. That won’t work. And Abraham and Luther and Walther would be the first to say so.
Now there is one plea that will work on the Day of Judgment. And that is to plead the blood of Jesus. He is your only hope. And he is a sure hope. You don’t have to wonder if that will be enough. It will be. For the blood of Jesus covers all your sins, every one of them. Those impure thoughts you have. Those harsh and hasty words you’ve spoken. Your sinful acts, behaviors small and large that go against God’s will. They’re all covered by the blood of Christ. Covered and cleansed and fully atoned for.
In Holy Baptism, God washed away those sins of yours. In Holy Absolution, Christ’s minister speaks the mighty word of forgiveness, loosing those sins from you. In Holy Communion, once again today, Christ gives you his body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. God wants you to know and receive what Christ has done for you on the cross! You are free! The slate is wiped clean!
And God’s grace is so wonderful, he also gives you the gift of the Holy Spirit to live as the new person you are now in Christ. The Spirit will produce the fruits of repentance in your life. Take hold of the new life and the new you you are in Christ! Ask God to help you in your struggle against sin. Don’t excuse it. Don’t defend it. Rather, live in your baptism, dying and rising with Christ daily, in your walk as a Christian. I know I need that kind of help from God. I struggle, and I bet you do too. We’re all in this boat together, but the good news is, Jesus is in the boat with us. And he will bring us safely home.
Thank you, John, for coming here this morning to deliver your message to us. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” We know this is for our good, and it’s something we need to hear. Our king is coming, and repentance is the fitting way to prepare his way. Repent.
Repent, and then rejoice! For your king is coming to you, and he is righteous and having salvation. This salvation is for us. It is for you, dear Christian! Christ has done it all for you. He gives you new life and eternal life. Your life is linked up with his, bound up in baptismal resurrection. Brothers and sisters, your king is coming to you. He’s right at hand. Repent, rejoice, and live in that rhythm of the Christian life until our king comes again, when there will be no more need of repentance, only rejoicing forevermore.