December 4th, 2016
“John's Call to Repent”
In much the same way that the holiday season brings visits from loved ones we may see once a year, today we have the annual Advent season appearance of John the Baptist. And just as every family seems to have that one crazy uncle or aunt (and as they say, if you don't know who it is, it's probably you), so John the Baptist is a very strange character himself.
He must have looked kind of rough, living out in the Judean wilderness. He won't be winning any fashion shows with his camel's hair outfit. His cookbook full of locust and wild-honey recipes probably won't have a wide appeal. And he's not going to write a book on how to win friends and make nice to pharisees – calling them out as a “brood of vipers”.
But for all of that, it wasn't John's oddity that gained all the attention. And he was gaining quite a following, as, “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him”. What was it about John that grabbed everyone and made then take notice? It was his message:
“Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand”
It's Advent. Jesus is coming. And John the Baptist has appeared again with the same Advent message, even to you and me: “Repent! The kingdom of God is at hand!”
Repent! Turn from your sin. What a strange message it must be in the ears of a world that is more concerned with decorations and presents and baking and parties. Repent! The world, if it listens to that message at all, usually finds it offensive. Imagine the accusations John would hear today! Judgmental. Harsh. Close-minded. Bible thumper. But John's cry still rings out, down through history. Repent! This is how you REALLY prepare for Christmas, for the birth of the Christ, for the coming of his kingdom.
And who likes to be told they are wrong? Who likes someone rubbing your nose in your sin? That's what the call to repentance is, first of all. The pointing finger of John jabs past the holly and garland, through the evergreen potpourri, past the neatly wrapped boxes under the tree, and it stabs at the heart of our sinful nature. Poking, prodding, touching the sore spot of sin that we so often pretend isn't there. John's call to repent is an uncomfortable reminder that you're not all right, you're not just fine, and you stand under the judgment of a Holy God. You've broken his commandments. You've rebelled against his word. You didn't eat of the forbidden fruit in Eden, but you chow down on all sorts of other forbidden pleasures. And as a tree, your fruit is rotten.
And because that word is so sharp – repent – there's no explaining away our sin. There's now softening its edges. We can't blunt the force of the accusation or shift the blame or rationalize it away. “Repent” leaves us no “out”. It is a crystal clear call to turn away from sin.
And the threats are real. The axe is at the tree. The fruitless trees are to be cut down and thrown into the fires of judgment. This is not just some slap on the wrist, it is the condemnation, the very wrath of God.
John anticipates their argument, “But... but... we're children of Abraham!” Spiritual resting on one's laurels is no excuse for sin. Claiming you are something when you are really nothing is a fool's game. John pulls the rug out from under them, and us. There's no refuge we can devise. There's no escape we can formulate. There's no merit or worthiness we can offer to shield ourselves from the force of the law.
And there's only one place to turn. The same pointing finger of John that calls out sin, is the finger he would turn to Christ and say, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” He preached repentance, yes, but a preaching of repentance, and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin! And let's not forget that aspect of John's message.
Yes, John was a harsh preacher of the law, whose words cut us to the heart even today. But he also held forth the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. The “greater One” who as soon to come. John's not worthy to touch his sandals. John's baptism is preparatory, fulfilled in the Baptism of Jesus Christ. John is a prophet, and greatest among those born of women, but greater still is Jesus, the one who brings the kingdom of God to us all.
For his part, Jesus the “greater one” makes himself last and least in the kingdom. He places himself under the axe of judgment. And lays down his life on the tree of the cross. But this tree does bear fruit – abundantly. The fruits of the cross – the body and blood of Jesus – are offered here, to you, even today. The forgiveness of sins Jesus procured for us there, is also freely given here.
John. Like any good preacher worth his salt, is really not about himself, but about pointing sinners to Jesus. Calling sinners to repent, turn from sin, and turn TO Jesus Christ in faith.
Really that's the other part of repentance. It's not just turning from sin, it's turning TO Christ in faith. If repentance was only feeling contrition, being sorry for our sin, then we would still be lost in despair, for there is no way to dig ourselves out of sin's pit. But faith turns its eyes to the only one who can save. And Jesus brings us out of the pit, even out of the grave, restoring us not just to neutrality – but to a place in the kingdom, even in his family.
You might be tempted to think that repentance is something you do – but it really isn't. It's a change of mind and heart that is worked by the Holy Spirit. It happens when he works through God's law to convict you of sin, and when he awakens and strengthens faith in you by the gospel. We confess, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...”. And that goes for repentance, too. Even this is a work of God, a gift from God.
Repent! It's also a daily call for the Christian. For each day, we return to our baptism:
For what does such baptizing with water indicate? What does such baptizing with water signify?--Answer:
It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Where is this written?--Answer:
St. Paul says Romans, chapter 6: We are buried with Christ by Baptism into death, that, like as He was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
So say hello again this Advent season to John the Baptist. He calls you to repent! Turn away from your sins, and turn in faith to Christ. And live in the daily repentance and faith of your baptism. For one even greater than John has come – Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And through him, the kingdom of God is yours.