December 8, 2019
Rev. Dr. Robert Downs Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist is one of the most intriguing characters you will find in the New Testament. In Matthew’s Gospel he simply shows up, dressed in strange clothes and eating strange food, as he carries out a strange ministry on the banks of the Jordan River. Thanks to Luke’s Gospel we know a little bit more about his background. It turns out that he and Jesus are actually relatives, probably second cousins. We also learn that his birth comes about through divine intervention and that he is destined to play a part in the unfolding story of how God intends to save the world. Matthew acknowledges that fact by identifying John as the fulfillment of a prophecy found in the Book of Isaiah. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel which describes the ministry of John has much to teach us about the place repentance is to have in the lives of believers. But it is intriguing to note those to whom John’s message is directed, and what he has to say to them. Apparently John is quite an item. Matthew tells us that he attracts crowds of people from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan River. He is a person of note, and crowds gather to hear what he has to say. Matthew says that among those making the trip to the Jordan River are many of the Pharisees and Sadducees. They are the religious elite of that day. The Pharisees in particular have a reputation for being super holy, especially in their own eyes. Though in the eyes of many they are ‘holier than thou,’ and actually hypocrites.
John the Baptist has one word to say to all who come out to hear him preach. That one word is, “Repent!” His mission is to prepare people for the coming of the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world, for the Son of God is about to usher in the Kingdom of heaven here on earth. Repentance is at the heart of that preparation. For to repent is to acknowledge the fact that we are not the people God intends for us to be and that radical changes need to take place in our lives if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven as citizens. It is a matter of confessing our sins, not generically, but specifically, and not privately, but publicly. It is all about facing the truth about ourselves and letting others know that we are sorry for all the things in our lives which have displeased and dishonored God.
But for John repentance is more than saying we’re sorry for the rebellion and disobedience in our hearts and lives. It is also a matter of renouncing those attitudes and actions which mark us as sinners in God’s eyes. True repentance involves letting go of those things, turning our backs on them and heading in a different direction – in the path of obedience. To repent is to choose to give up the kind of self-centered, self-satisfying life which stands in direction opposition to the Lord’s will for us, and to choose, instead, to put Him and His will at the center of our lives. It’s not enough simply to feel sorry for our sins. Godly sorrow motivates us to want to change, and to seek to change, to turn our backs on all that has drawn us away from the Lord, and to commit ourselves to living for Him alone.
Beyond that, the kind of repentance John the Baptist is proclaiming, always involves what he describes as “the fruit of repentance.” Sometimes that takes to form of restitution. When salvation comes to the tax collector Zacchaeus he promises to repay all those whom he has defrauded in charging more than was right. In fact, he says he will pay them back with interest. We can’t always undo the harm our sinful behavior has caused others, but true repentance requires us to do what we can to make it up to them when that is possible. And, though saying we’re sorry is a good beginning, words alone are rarely enough. The fruit of repentance is to be found in restored relationships being built on a foundation of earnest efforts to make things right with those we have wronged.
I think we Presbyterians sometimes forget why repentance is so essential to the Christian life. That may be because we have often grown up in believing families and have never strayed too far from the faith. It may also have something to do with the fact that we Presbyterians are a relatively decent lot, and don’t feel a whole lot of guilt. But the fact is that it is not until we see ourselves as the sinners we truly are, as God sees us, that we are willing to acknowledge our need for a Savior and our need to repent. Only then will we confess our rebellious, self-centered way of life, express our desire to leave that life behind, and surrender our hearts and wills to Christ. Repentance is the doorway into the forgiveness and new life which the Savior offers to all who acknowledge their need and turn to Him.
But repentance is an ongoing requirement if we hope to live as the faithful follower of the Son of God. There is a sense in which we acknowledge that truth when we include a prayer of confession in our order of worship each week. As generic has such confessions usually are, they serve to remind us that if we are going to discern God’s will for us, if we are going to recognize the leading of the Holy Spirit, we need to be conscious of those things in our hearts and lives which may keep us from knowing and doing what the Lord intends for us to do. Sinful habits or a stubborn will may blind us to a task we’re called to do. Only as we recognize such things and confess them to the Lord, and sometimes to a trusted and loving brother or sister in Christ, will we be free to embrace and carry out the work God has for us as faithful people, as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
Repentance not only plays an important role in our relationship with the Lord, but also in our relationships with one another. I often make the point that the best thing you can say about me or any believer, is that we are forgiven sinners. We are works in progress. And we need to remember that truth as we interact with other people, inside the Church and out. The fact that the Lord Jesus has forgiven me for all the ways in which I have disobeyed and disappointed Him, and continually disobey and let Him down, should be a powerful reason for me to be forgiving of others. It should also free me to confess my faults to those I’ve hurt, and to seek their forgiveness, and to make restitution where that is possible. Sincere apologies are an essential part of the dynamic of healthy relationships.
John the Baptist’s call to repent was addressed to all those who came out to the Jordan River to hear him preach. But John has something very specific to say to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious leaders of the day. I’m sure you are already aware of the fact that in Jesus’ day those people who were known as Pharisees did not have a very good reputation as religious leaders. They put on a great show of piety by obeying all of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures, and quite a few which they themselves had added. But, as I said, it was all for show. They considered themselves “holier than thou” and looked down on everyone else. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were more worldly and more liberal, picking and choose what parts of God’s Word they would pay attention to. Sometimes we Presbyterians look a lot like them!
Both the Pharisees and the Sadducees prided themselves on their religious heritage. They are in the habit of saying, “We have Abraham for our father,” which meant that they could trace their family lineage back generations, all the way to the first of the Patriarchs, Father Abraham. They were, as the Apostle Paul once said of himself, “Hebrews of the Hebrews.” And they were convinced that set the right with Abraham’s God. John’s response: “Don’t you believe it!” For the reality is that God has no grandchildren. Being a third, fourth, or fifth generation Presbyterian won’t save anyone. Godly parents or grandparents doesn’t count. Each of us must repent and be born again and adopted into the family of God. How and when that happens is not important. That it does happen is absolutely essential.
John also warns the Pharisees and Sadducees to produce fruit in keeping with true repentance. True repentance for them would surely include an acknowledgement that the way they are living their religious lives is turning others away from God. The Pharisees, by their pseudo-holiness make others think they will never be good enough for God to accept them. The Sadducees with their worldly picking and choosing regarding God’s Word keep people from God’s truth. Given the fact that our denomination continues to shrink each year, if we Presbyterians were to produce fruit in keeping with repentance I believe that fruit would involve a resolve on all of our parts diligently to share the Good News. We need to confess our unwillingness to talk about Jesus with others, and our hesitancy to invite them to receive Him as Savior and Lord.
For John the Baptist ends his sermon with a description of the King who is coming, whose kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is near. And the first thing John says, is that the One who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John’s baptism, immersion in the waters of the Jordan, represents sorrow over sin and a desire to be cleansed. The baptism which the Son of God brings is an immersion in the power and fiery presence of the Holy Spirit, who purifies and makes all things new. John’s baptism was a fitting beginning, a preparation for the coming kingdom. The baptism Jesus calls us to experience in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a spiritual reality, an indwelling of the Triune God, who marks us as sons and daughters, and empowers us to live out our status as citizens of the kingdom.
John goes on, to describe what the Coming One is bent on doing. He says that the King of the kingdom of heaven has His winnowing fork in His hand and He will clear His threshing floor. That image may not be too helpful in our contemporary world, but in Bible times its meaning would have been very clear. When fields had been harvested and the stalks of grain brought in, they were placed on a flat stone surface and crushed so that the grain could be separated from the stalk. After that had taken place a farmer would take an instrument called a winnowing fork and toss all that lay on the threshing floor up into the air. At that point the wind would blow away the chaff and the grain would fall back to the floor to be gathered into the farmer’s barn. The image is one of final judgment, carried out by the Lord of harvest.
At our Thanksgiving Service at the Ken Mawr Church we sang the traditional hymn, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come.” The second verse says, “All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto His praise to yield, wheat and tares together sown, unto joy or sorrow grown. First the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear; Lord of harvest, grant that we wholesome grain and pure may be” The third verse goes on, “For the Lord our God shall come and shall take His harvest home, from His field shall in that day all offenses purge away; give His angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast, but the fruitful ears to store in His garner evermore.” The hymn makes clear what John the Baptist is warning us of: a Day of Judgment is coming, and we need to be ready when it arrives.
When the Season of Advent began it was intended to be a time of preparation, not so much for our celebration of the Lord’s first advent in Bethlehem, but for the Lord’s second advent, His return at the end of the ages. That is why for centuries the liturgical color for the Season of Advent has been purple, which signifies both our repentance and Lord’s the royalty. So perhaps John’s words, “The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire,” ought to have special meaning for us as Presbyterians, and more specifically for you and me. The world is God’s own field, filled with people all around us who need to hear about and receive the forgiveness and love offered to all in Christ. In repentance and love, let us share the Good News with those we know who need it. Amen.