“Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance” (Luke 3:1-14)
It’s Advent. Advent is a season of hope and anticipation, as we look forward to our Lord’s coming, both at Christmas and on the Last Day. But besides hope and anticipation, Advent is also a season of repentance. It is a penitential season. And this mood of repentance is also tied to our Lord’s coming. For it is by repentance that we prepare the way of the Lord. Repentance is the proper preparation that befits the coming of our Lord. And not just a vague, nebulous feeling of repentance. But more than that, a repentance that takes particular shape in the way we live. And so our theme this morning, in the words of John the Baptist: “Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance.”
Yes, John the Baptist. Advent really is his season to shine. John shows up here, every year, on this Second Sunday in Advent, whether we’re reading Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This year it’s in Luke’s Gospel that we find John doing his thing. In such-and-such a year, Luke records, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
“Proclaiming a baptism of repentance.” That was John’s message. That’s what he preached. And the preaching was connected to the baptizing. Both had to do with repentance. Out there in the wilderness, out by the Jordan, John was calling people to repent, both by his preaching and by his baptizing. And in so doing, John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
You see, John was the forerunner of our Lord Jesus Christ. John’s assignment, his task in life, was to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming. And this ministry of his took the form of preaching and doing a baptism of repentance. That is what is fitting when the Lord is coming to save sinners like us from the wrath and judgment of God. Repentance.
Yes, repent. Recognize and confess your sins and your sinfulness. Realize that you need a righteousness greater than your own, a righteousness that you lack and must receive from outside of yourself–that is, from the Lord himself–in order to stand before God on the Day of Judgment. That day is coming. How will you stand? It will be a day of wrath. “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.” This is no game here. John is being deadly serious.
Repentance–this is how the way of the Lord is to be prepared. John preaches it. Baptism puts us into it. And Isaiah tells us what this repentance will mean: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways.”
So repentance involves things like this: “The crooked shall become straight.” This means straightening out the crooked places in our lives. Are there ways in which you have been swerving from the straight road? Are there crooked paths that need to be made straight? That’s where repentance will happen. “And the rough places shall become level ways.” What are those bumps and rough places in your life that need to be smoothed out?
Or how about this? “Every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Our high and haughty ways need to be cut down to size. Humbling oneself is part of repentance. And this: “Every valley shall be filled.” Where are you lacking the love and good works that you should be doing? Those places need to be filled in.
So all of these things are involved in repentance, the way of life into which you were baptized. And you have been, and you are, baptized. This affects and transforms your life, every day. You learned it in the Catechism: “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Baptism puts us into a whole life of repentance, an every-day dying and rising with Christ. Every day we put that old sinful self to death. Every day we rise to newness of life as the new persons we are in Christ. The baptismal life of repentance changes the way we live.
And again, not just in some vague feeling. But in concrete action. That’s why John says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” True repentance will show up in how we live, both in the things we stop doing, and in the things we take up doing. Mountains need to be brought low. Valleys need to be filled in.
“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” OK, so what will that look like? It will take shape in terms of the specifics of your particular calling in life. Notice, the tax collectors ask John, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he says to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” You see, those were some specific tax-collector crooked ways that needed to be straightened out. Some soldiers ask John “And we, what shall we do?” And he tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Those were some soldier-sized mountains that needed to be made low.
But repentance isn’t just the bad stuff you get rid of. It’s also the good stuff you take up. For the crowds ask John, “What then shall we do?” And he answers them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Love, mercy, good works–these are how those valleys are to be filled in.
The point being, don’t let your repentance remain just at the level of the vague and the general. The Lord will work repentance in your life also in the particular and the specific, both in terms of the sins you struggle against and in terms of the good works you take up. That is what John is preaching to us when he says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” What will that look like in your life today and this week?
Now how are you going to bear those fruits? Are you just going to muster up your willpower and grit your teeth and resolve to do better? “This time I’m really going to get rid of those sins! Now I’m really going to become a merciful and loving person!” Well, willpower alone won’t get it done. You need help. You need the help of the Holy Spirit to live this life of repentance, day by day.
And thank God, you were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in your baptism. The Spirit will help you along the way. Live in and from your baptism. The Spirit will guide you and strengthen you and help you to live as the new person you are in Christ. One of the names for the Holy Spirit is the Helper, and indeed he will help you to live the life of repentance and to bear those fruits, which, after all, coincide with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Again, how are you going to bear these good fruits? You need to stay connected to Christ. For apart from him, you can do nothing. But abiding in Christ, you will bear good fruit, and bear it in abundance. For Christ is the source of your new life. And you stay connected to Christ by abiding in his word. Word and Sacrament–these are the means that God has established to keep us Christians alive and flourishing and bearing fruit. Stay close to Christ. Draw near to him here in church, where Jesus is supplying us with what we need to be his people. There is no other way to be a fruit-bearing Christian.
And besides that, even as a baptized, Spirit-helped, abiding-in-Christ, fruit-bearing Christian, you’re still going to mess up and stumble and fall in your walk. You will always be discovering more rough places in need of smoothing out, more sins in need of forgiveness. And so notice that the baptism of repentance is tied to, and leads to, the forgiveness of sins. John came, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The Christian life is a constant rhythm of repentance and forgiveness, repentance and forgiveness, all throughout our journey in this life. Repentance, yes, but that recognition of our sinfulness and our turning away from specific sins–that is meant to lead us to the forgiveness of sins.
That’s why Christ came, isn’t it? To win that forgiveness for us! Jesus came, the one mightier than John. The repentance that John preached–that was to prepare the way of his coming. And then when the Lord does come, that’s when, as Isaiah says, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
All flesh shall see the salvation of God in the flesh of the man Jesus Christ. He is the Savior who delivers the salvation. Christ Jesus took our sins in his body on the tree, and he suffered and died for those sins of yours. And by so doing, he saves you from the wrath your sins deserve. In place of wrath, now you will receive salvation. In place of death, now you receive life. In place of judgment, now you have Jesus to be your righteousness on the Last Day.
Dear fellow baptized, John the Baptist has been telling us today: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” That repentance will take specific shape in how you live, in what you put behind you and in the works of love and mercy you take up. And real repentance will always lead you to the forgiveness of sins, which is yours as a free gift in Christ. He is our salvation, and he is the source of our life. It is the new life that is yours in Christ that will keep you bearing good fruit, the fruits of repentance.
Friends, it’s Advent. Prepare the way of the Lord!