History repeats itself. John came preaching a baptism of repentance, and the people didn't know what repent meant. A song in the mid-90's sang, “They said, ‘Repent.' I asked them what that meant.” Do you know what ‘repent' means, or do you only think you know what it means?
The liberal idea of repentance is, “I'm sorry, but that's just the way I am.” The person has a liberal idea of repentance who says after an outburst of anger, “I'm sorry I have a bad temper,” so does the person who says, “I'm a worrier.” Such people aren't repenting of their behavior; they're explaining it. The word “repent” means to think differently, to change the mind, to turn from one course of action to another. Repentance is not an explanation or rational for why you are the way you are, it's leaving sins behind. It's saying, “I want to be free of this sin. I don't want it anymore.”
John doesn't have the liberal idea of repentance. If John did he would have said to the tax collectors, “I see you're sorry for collecting more than you're required to, and now I understand that it's just the way you are.” With a liberal idea of repentance he would have said to the soldiers, “I can see you're sorry for extorting money and accusing people falsely, but I know that's how all soldiers are.”
Hear this. If you have the liberal idea of repentance, you're not repentant at all and the ax of God's judgement is resting against your legs right now and He might very well cut you off at the knees with sickness, tragedy, or death before next Sunday..even before tonight. You're fooling yourself if you think your pathetic little explanation of, “That's just the way I am,” can cover your sins before God. It can't, and He'll show you that if need be.
Of course, you might not have the liberal idea of repentance, you might have the conservative idea of repentance which is, “I'm sorry, but I'll do better next time.” In some respects, it's harder to get someone to repent of this type of false repentance than it is the first. Why? Because this sounds nobler. Here the person takes responsibility for changing their behavior. But that's the problem. True Repentance turns from the self; this type of repentance turns to the self. Furthermore, the conservative idea of repentance sets your works against your sins as if your efforts, or even just your promises, could be good enough to make up for sinning. They can't.
All the conservative view of repentance will get you is God's judgement. God's wrath can't be satisfied by your promises to do better. Even if you could do things perfectly, even if you could stop the lust, the greed, the anger, the worry, the pride going on in your fallen heart, do you think that would be enough? Even if you hung on a cross and were tortured, whipped, ridiculed and killed for your sins, do you think that would be enough to satisfy God? Not hardly; you would still go to hell forever and ever, because even the horrible, suffering, savage death of a sinner is still sinful.
So what are we to do? Where are we to go? If God isn't satisfied with me as I am and if my promises to do better and even my doing better can't satisfy Him, where on earth is the answer? In John's preaching. John brought true repentance to people by the harsh, sharp preaching of the Law.
You cannot make yourself repent of something anymore than you can make yourself believe something. The verbs repent and believe are the same type of verb that suffer is. You know that the person who makes themselves suffer is not a sufferer at all, but a masochist. Likewise, the person who makes themselves believe something is not a believer but a dupe. So the person who makes themselves repent isn't a penitent but a hypocrite. You've probably seen this in kids. You caught them doing wrong and the child thought he could appease your wrath or make up for his sin by tears. You watched as he worked himself up. Such a child is not repentant, is he? How different is the child who offers nothing, no excuses, no scene, no promises to do better, but just stands there guilty and ashamed. The Law preached correctly leaves a person no hope of doing better, no second chances. This is true repentance, and it will produces fruit.
John calls on the crowds to produce fruits of repentance. He doesn't tell them to make themselves repent, but to make the fruits of repentance. The fruits or the absence thereof show whether we have repentance or not. When we respond to the Advent call to produce fruits in keeping with repentance by saying, “I'm sorry, but that's just the way I am,” we're saying, “I'm not really repentant.” When we respond with, “I'm sorry, but I'll do better,” we're saying we don't really need to repent but only to do better.
There's danger of being damned in the liberal idea that you don't really need true repentance and in the conservative idea that your promises and works can take the place of true repentance. But these false ideas about repentance really come from a more serious error. The error of mistaking John for Jesus. That's what the crowd did. The text says, “They were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ.” The Greek is stronger. They were saying that from their point of view John had to be the Christ.
Is that you're real problem? Have you grabbed on to John thinking you've got Jesus? John's whole life, dress, and words speak of the Law. He lived in the wilderness; Jesus in a town. John dressed in rough camel hair; Jesus in normal clothes. John ate the Spartan diet of grasshoppers and wild honey; Jesus ate meat and drank wine. The call to repent and to bring forth the fruits of it is a call of the Law. The Law can humble you; it can terrify you; it can convince you that you're going to hell unless you do change, and it can convince you that you can't change enough to go to heaven, but the Law can't save you. John can't save you only Jesus can.
John is no Jesus; Jesus is more powerful. That's what John says, “One more powerful than I will come.” But who looks more powerful Jesus or John? John does. King Herod was afraid of John right up until he had him executed. This same Herod wasn't at all afraid of Jesus, but mocked Him. And Jesus is more worthy than John even though it doesn't look that way. John lives the life of an ascetic; Jesus did not. John did not eat with sinners; Jesus did. Jesus stood in line with sinners to be baptized by John with the baptism of repentance that was meant for sinners. Yet John is not worthy to untie Jesus' sandals.
What we need for Christmas isn't John, but Jesus. Jesus is more powerful and worthy than John though it doesn't look that way. The Law always looks more powerful and worthy than the Gospel, and that's why people prefer Law to Gospel. But we need Jesus if we're going to be saved. We can't stop at John's call to repent and think that even true repentance is powerful and worthy enough to save us. Moreover we can't bring forth the fruits worthy of true repentance without getting what Jesus came to give us.
Think about this. When did the 2 most famous tax collectors, Zacchaeus and Matthew bring forth fruits worthy of repentance? In response to the Law's demand to repent and to produce fruits worthy of repentance? No, it was when Jesus came to them. What produces the radical changes in those in Corinth who had been living in their sins, worshiping idols, committing adultery, being used by homosexuals or homosexuals themselves? What made the thieves stop stealing and the gossips stop gossiping? Was it John? No it was Jesus. St. Paul says, “Some of you used to do these things. But you have been washed, you have been made holy, you have been declared holy in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
John can only do so much for you. He can show you hell opening beneath your feet. He can show you that you can't do anything to avoid it, but he can't save you; Jesus can. Jesus is the One powerful and worthy enough to pour out the Holy Spirit and fire. What does that mean? When did Jesus do that? He did this on Pentecost after He has lived a perfect life and yet died a damnable death as a sinner. As a Man, in your place, in my place, in the place of all people, the Man Jesus earned the right to pour out the Holy Spirit upon all flesh. He did that on Pentecost with flames of fire, and then the Word of forgiveness in His name went out into all the world.
Friends, stop being satisfied with what you are. Stop being Scrooges on Christmas Eve. Admit you are what you say in the confession ; nothing but poor, miserable sinners who always and only deserve temporal and eternal punishment. And stop promising to do better as Scrooge did after he had the tar scared out of him. How many times have you made that promise only to break it? Come to terms with the fact that on your own all you can do is sin. You can't repent without the Holy Spirit, nor can you bring forth the fruits of repentance without the Holy Spirit.
And you can only get the Holy Spirit from the Man who is God, Jesus. By His innocent life and by shedding His holy blood, Jesus won the right to pour out the Holy Spirit who forgives sins and makes new creatures. He did that on Pentecost, and then the Church armed with the Spirit went forth giving the Spirit, and the forgiveness and new life that goes with Him, by baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You saw this miracle again today. Little Andrew James was given the Church's most precious treasure of the Holy Spirit by the Sacrament of Baptism. If you've been baptized, you too have received this treasure. You too have received all that Andrew did today: the Holy Spirit and all the gifts that go with Him, repentance, forgiveness, and a changed life. Look at the lives of Zacchaeus, and Matthew. It wasn't the spirits of Christmas past, present or future that changed these Scrooges so radically. It was the Holy Spirit. He knows what it means to repent; He knows what it means to forgive; and He knows what it means to change people more radically than anyone dare imagine. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Advent III (12-14-03), Luke 3:7-18