In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”Matthew 3
This may sound strange, but I have come to look forward to this Sunday in Advent, to our annual visit from John the Baptist. In our church calendar, the second Sunday of Advent always includes a gospel reading focused on this remarkable man, whose God-given task was to prepare the way of the Lord.
And John the Baptist does it with style, doesn’t he? Out in the wilderness, dressed strangely, living off of the land, baptizing in the river Jordan, and proclaiming a powerful message, of warning and of hope. John did all of this because he believed in a very simple but world-changing truth – that the Messiah is coming; and so it is time to get ready. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, is on his way; the long-promised Savior who would rescue Israel from its sin.
John believed what the world hoped – that the Savior was about to come, and with him would come the Holy Spirit, and the whole kingdom of heaven. And because John believed this down to his bones, he devoted his life to preparing the way. And he did it with fearlessly and passionately. It would cost him his life, but he didn’t care. Because he was doing what God wanted him to do. And he gave his life to it.
But that doesn’t really explain why I appreciate his annual visit in our lectionary. It is because his message seems to cut right through all the trappings of this season, and get to the heart of what it is all about. It is easy to get distracted this season, to lose our focus on the “reason for the season.” But John the Baptist won’t let that happen. His message brings us right back to the reason. And the reason, John might remind us, isn’t even the birth of Christ. That’s a reason, for sure, but not really THE reason. Two of our four gospels don’t even bother to include birth of Christ in the story. No, the reason is the coming of the kingdom, which comes in and through Christ. John the Baptist reminds us that the reason for the season is the coming of the Lord, and he wants to make sure that we are ready.
And he also tells us how to get ready. And, again, it cuts through all of the other preparations of the season. The way to get ready, according to John the Baptist, can be summed up in a single word: “Repent.” “Repent,” he cries out for all to hear, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
These words, by the way, are exactly the same as what Jesus himself will proclaim at the beginning of his public ministry. If we are to prepare for the coming of the kingdom, the single most important thing we can do is to repent.
But what, exactly, does that mean? I was surprised in seminary to learn that the Greek word for repent used in the New Testament literally means to change your mind. But the Hebrew word for repent literally means to turn around! And neither one means to feel sorrow for our sins! The Latin word means that. This word can be looked at a lot of different ways, but one of my favorites comes from a contemporary Christian author, Thomas Keating, who says that: “to repent is to change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.”
And that might mean changing your mind, looking at your life differently. It might mean to feel sorrow for the ways you are falling short. It might literally mean to follow another path in life. But for sure what it means is that a change is needed. And that is true for us all.
REPENTANCE AS AN “I CAN’T” EXPERIENCE
But there is another way to look at this notion or repentance that is particularly Lutheran, and that I find really helpful. And that is to think of repenting as being an “I can’t” experience. True, honest, repentance begins with us saying, “I can’t.” I can’t turn my life around, on my own. I can’t get ready for the coming of the Lord by my own effort. That’s why I need a Savior. I’m drowning in sin. I can’t save myself. I need help. That is what repentance looks like, through a Lutheran lens. Listen to these powerful words from the Lutheran theologian Richard Jensen:
In repenting … we ask the God who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. Repentance is an “I can’t” experience … The repentant person comes before God saying, “I can’t do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.” That is the language of repentance. True repentance begins with our saying, “I can’t.” And it takes real humility to say “I can’t”.Richard jensen
It takes real humility. In fact, I think that is why John the Baptist was so upset with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming for baptism. It is because they lacked this basic quality of humility which is so important to repentance. “Do not presume to say to yourselves,” says John the Baptist, “‘we have Abraham for our ancestor.’” It’s probably safe to say that if we are presuming, we are not repenting! That’s what the Pharisees and Sadducees are accused of doing.
But we Christians can fall into that trap, too. Presume that because we are Christians we have everything all tied up and secure. Repenting means turning from our presumptions, and turning toward our Lord and Savior. And that take’s humility, and trust, and a definite lack of presumption.
CONFESSION AS WE BEGIN WORSHIP
Advent is a season when we are invited to say, humbly and faithfully, “I can’t.” I can’t do it myself. I can’t get ready for Christ’s coming by my own effort. I need help. And that does take humility. But I also find it to be something of a relief.
One of the many things that I appreciate about our Lutheran worship service is that we begin each Sunday morning throughout the year in this way. We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. We have tried everything, and nothing worked. And so we are here to give up on our own efforts and to turn to our Savior, Jesus Christ. And that is the basic life-changing message of John the Baptist. That in Christ, the kingdom of heaven comes to us; and the best way to prepare for it is to confess our need for Him. The best way to prepare for Christmas is to acknowledge my need for Christ.
BEAR FRUIT WORTHY OF REPENTANCE
John goes on to say to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and to us as well, that we must “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Which means that if we have truly repented; if we have truly changed the direction we are looking for happiness; if we have truly re-connected to Christ; then we will naturally bear fruit. Jesus said that he is the vine and we are the branches, and when we are connected to the vine, we naturally bear fruit.
When we hear that we must bear fruit worthy of repentance we probably think of doing good works for God. And that is certainly part of it. And today at First Lutheran we are blessed to recognize several of our community ministries who are doing just that. They are bearing worthy fruit. Helping those in our community who are poor, hungry, homeless, recovering from substance abuse, seeking safety from violence in their homes, needing counseling to deal with challenges in their life, and on and on. These are real challenges being faced by our brothers and sisters in this community, and these are ministries who are truly bearing worthy fruit.
But I also think it is helpful here to remember what Paul says about bearing fruit. He says that when we are led by the Spirit, we will bear the fruit of the Spirit. And these fruit that he describes are things like love and joy and peace; patience and kindness and goodness; faithfulness and gentleness and self-control. I wonder if this isn’t also what John the Baptist is also thinking of when we invites us to bear fruit worthy of repentance.
When we come before God admitting that we can’t do all of this on our own. When we turn to him in faith and trust, admitting that we need him, that we need a Savior. When we humbly ask him into our life. We can’t help but bear fruit like love and joy and peace. We can’t help but me more patient with others, knowing how patient God is with us. We can’t help but show kindness and gentleness to others. When we turn to God in this way – as repentant, humble people of faith – we begin to bear this wonderful fruit of the Spirit, fruit truly worthy of the repentance that John the Baptist describes today.
It is time to get ready. The big day is drawing near. For much of the world, that means Christmas, of course. But, ironically, for Christians it means something different. It means more than simply the celebration of the birth of Christ. It means getting ready for his glorious return.
And John the Baptist reminds us today that if we are to prepare for this, we must repent. We must think differently; we must act differently; we must live differently. We must turn from our old, self-reliant ways, and turn to God, depending on his grace, mercy and love. And when we do this, we bear this wonderful fruit of repentance: fruit like love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness. Fruit that can’t be purchased. That can’t be placed under a tree. That can’t even be earned. It can only be received, as gift, from those who are humble, trusting, and repentant: “Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in.” Blessed are the meek, who know they can’t do it alone, and who bear fruit worthy of repentance. Amen