Joy in a Season of Repentance
Advent is a season of repentance. On this Third Sunday, however, penitence is supposed to lighten with joy. The pink candle is lit on the wreath, and the Introit used historically is the first line of our Epistle reading, "Rejoice in the Lord always." However, this is also traditionally John the Baptist Sunday as you can tell from the Collect and the Gospel. How do we reconcile the preeminent preacher of repentance, John the Baptist, with a Sunday of joy?
Where's the joy in John's answer to the question, "What should we do then?" Do you recognize that question? You should. When Peter preached the Law to the people of Jerusalem on Pentecost, this is what they asked, "What should we do?" And when the earthquake preached the law to the Philippian jailer who had cruelly imprisoned Paul and Silas he asked a similar thing, "What should I do to be saved?"
So John, Peter, and Paul are all asked similar questions. What ought to startle you is their different answers. Peter answered, "What should we do?" with, "Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins." Paul answered, "What should I do to be saved?" with, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ." We like these answers. These are joyous answers. But then we get to John's answer. To the crowd's question, "What should we do then?" John answers, not repent and be baptized, not believe and be saved, but, "Do this, this and this!"
This is a horse of a different color. This is something that makes you squirm in your pew. The fruit of repentance is doing. John has called the crowds a bunch of snakes, told them they can't run away from the hot wrath of the holy God, pictured them as unfruitful trees and God as a lumberjack ready to chop them down. He told them they can't use the excuse that they are lifelong Lutherans, or sons and daughters of the church. Unless they produce fruit in keeping with their repentance they will be chopped down and thrown into an eternal fire.
The fruit of repentance is doing. The fruit of a greedy man repenting is sharing. The fruit of a tax collector repenting of overtaxing is to stop collecting more than he is required to. The fruit of a solder repenting of pillaging is to stop extorting money from people and instead be content with his pay. Do you all see this? The fruit of repentance is doing. So, the person who repents of using the Lord's name as an exclamation, stops doing that. The person who repents of fearing, loving or trusting anything more that God, stops doing so. The person who repents of despising God's Word comes to church. It works the same with the Second Table of the Law. The person who is repentant of breaking any of those Commandments stops doing that sinful activity.
The person who doesn't stop can't claim he or she is repentant, can they? Can the man who won't share his tunic or food claim to be repentant of his greed? Can the tax collector who continues to overtax claim to be repentant? Can the soldier who continues to extort money, accuse people falsely, or be discontent with his pay claim he really is repentant? John says, "Not at all." Yet, you say, "O sure he can." This is your crazy way of thinking. The person who uses the name of the Lord as a condiment on his speech really is sorry for misusing the name of the Lord. The person who doesn't come to church really doesn't despise God's Word. The person who fears anything more than God really fears God. Yes, the liar who still lies, the thief who still steals, the people who go on living together, and the child who keeps disobeying are really repentant although they don't stop what they are doing.
Is this what our text says? Is or isn't the fruit of repentance doing? That means you can tell who is repentant by what a person does. How do you tell a pecan tree from an oak tree? By it's fruit. You wouldn't allow me to stand before a tree loaded with pecans and say, "This really is an oak tree." You'd think me silly, stupid or both. Yet, you stand before the person who continues to misuse the name of the Lord and say, "She's really a repentant Christian." You stand before the sexual sinner defending his sins and say, "He's really a repentant Christian." That's because you're definition of repentance is, "I'm sorry; that's just the way I am." As long as a person says they are sorry, they are repentant. There doesn't have to be any fruit; they just have to say, "I'm sorry."
Well, we'll see on Judgment Day who is right, you or John. We'll see if trees that don't produce the fruit of repentance continue to flourish in the next life as they do in this. We'll see if a Lutheran or Christian pedigree can get you into heaven without the fruit of repentance.
See what I mean? Where's the joy in John's answer to the question, "What should we do?" There is no joy. There is only confrontation, guilt, damnation, and despair. But here is where many of you go wrong. You think I'm about to take away everything John has just said by preaching the Gospel. But the Gospel is not, "The fruit of repentance is words." The Gospel is not, "Go on living in your sins Jesus will save you." Likewise, it's certainly not the Gospel to say, "Repentance is doing." It's true to say, "The fruit of repentance is doing." But still there's no joy in this truth. No, the joy is not in what repentance produces but in what repentance is.
The Greek Word for repentance is metanoia. That's a compound word change + mind. Metanoia is a change of mind not a change in behavior. Did you get that? What repentance is, is a change of mind. The fruit of repentance is a change in behavior, but that's not what repentance is. The fruit of repentance is doing but the root of repentance is a changed mind.
People don't change their own mind. Something outside of them does. That change of mind must happen first before any change of behavior is possible. Our sinful nature lives from our sins. It is a death sentence to the sinful nature when it is told, "You must give up your sins. You can't keep them as pets. You can't defend them as being caused by a poor upbringing, bad genes, or as just they way you are." The sexual sinner caught up in his sin believes he will die if he stops. The same is true with the acceptable sins of our society. The person who despises the Word of God; the person who uses God's name as punctuation; the person who worrys: they all believe they will die if they give them up, and their sinful nature wants no part of death.
Death is the answer, the death of Christ and your dying in Christ, but the person caught up in their sin can't hear the answer. They only hear the pounding of their heart in their ears beating to the rhythm of that pet sin, that secret sin, they think they are keeping locked away from everyone else. In reality, that secret sin has them under lock in key, under cruel enslavement on the way to the second eternal death. The Law tells them this, and though they deny they believe it, they know it's true. But there is no joy in the Law demanding they repent and produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The Law only brings the wrath of God and the blade of His axe lying heavily on their ankles ready to break them both.
Joy is not in the fruit of repentance the Law demands but in what repentance is, a change of mind. Seeing your sin not as a comforting pet but as a huge beast; seeing that in dying to your sin you won't die but for once you'll really be alive; seeing that the change in behavior the Law demands is not what saves you; Jesus is. But as I said, no one cause this change of mind in them self. Only the Gospel can, and you need to see this is what John was about. The last line of the text says, "John exhorted the people and preached the Gospel to them." He wasn't about rubbing people's face in the dirt of their sins. He was about holding up the mirror of the Law so they could see that their dirty faces needed to be washed by the waters of Baptism.
The Gospel brings about the change of mind not the command, "Thou must change." The Gospel is that Jesus did what you can not do: Keep the holy 10 Commandments. Even when we bring forth the fruit of repentance, our fruit is not perfect. It's still sinful. It still needs to be forgiven by God. And God can and does forgive it? Why? Because He doesn't see the Law being broken by you but being kept by Jesus. So if the Law is a done deal, kept, fulfilled by Jesus, then in Jesus the Law doesn't need, require, or demand you do anything before you can go to heaven, but the Gospel is not only the joyful message that the Law can't accuse you, it's also the joyous news that your sins have been paid for.
The Devil is like a credit card company. He keeps you in debt till you despair of ever getting out of it and so give into it. If you're going to hell for your sins of yesterday anyway, what will your sins of today do? Make hell hotter? The Gospel is the good news that Jesus paid off your credit card. To pay off our debt of sin requires suffering, dying, and damning till the holy God we offended has been paid satisfied. How could my suffering, dying and damning which are all tainted by sin, do that? They couldn't. But Jesus is God in flesh and blood. The suffering, dying and damning of God for your sins, satisfied God. Paid off your debt in full. The sin that says you must make minimum monthly payments is lying. The devil that says you can never be free of that beast of a pet sin is lying. You are free because you are forgiven.
There is joy in what repentance is. Repentance is a change of mind. It's seeing your sin as something you can be free of, forgiven of, and master of . It's seeing Jesus as your victory over your sin and over the devil who says, "You must give in; you must continue your slavery; it's hopeless; you are mine." No, you are not. You belong to Jesus. He redeemed you which means He bought you back. He purchased and won you from all sins be they pets, beasts, secret, or open. Repentance is this truth exploding on your mind in a beautiful array of colors that colors everything else. Your sin looks different; you look different; your future looks different. And in this season of purple penitence suddenly there's a flare of pink joy. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Third Sunday in Advent (20061217); Luke 3: 7-18