Sunday, December 6, 2009

Is the Preaching of Repentance Relevant for Today?

Second Sunday in Advent
December 6, 2009
Luke 3:1-20

Before we get to Christ, we get John. That guy who was out there in the desert preaching a thing called repentance.

Before we celebrate the birth of Christ we observe a strange man who’s telling us about our sins.

Before we sing those beloved Christmas hymns and carols of peace on earth and goodwill toward men we are struck by the nature of John the Baptist’s preaching: loaded with Law and Judgment and Exhortation of how to live.

Is any of this relevant today? Can we just skip all that and think about how Jesus was born in a stable? The answer to the first question is that the Law and repentance are as relevant today as they were on the day John preached in today’s Gospel reading. The answer to the second is that we cannot just go straight to the manger and baby Jesus. Even though John is here preparing the way for Jesus in His three year ministry, before Jesus was born God was paving the way for it with the coming of John as a baby.

You can’t get to Jesus without going through John. Another way of saying it is that you can’t get to Jesus without going through the Law. That doesn’t mean, though, that John was all Law. He was very much a preacher of the Gospel, as Luke makes clear in the Gospel reading: at the beginning saying that he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, in the middle when he quotes Isaiah that John would be preaching so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” and at the end where we’re told that “he preached good news to the people.”

We see from this that John was a preacher of the Gospel. What we see is that you can’t preach the Gospel without preaching repentance. The Gospel can only be received if the Law has done its work. John preached the Law because it was the only way people could be prepared for the one for whom he was preparing the way. If anyone thinks repentance is not relevant today then they’re saying that the Gospel is not relevant. While the unbelieving world may not see the Gospel as relevant, Christians know the truth: salvation from sin and hell is very relevant. So we have to have the Law. We must repent otherwise there is no Gospel that can save us.

We can’t just be happy about Jesus being born in a stable and bringing peace on earth. He was born in order to die for the sins of the world. The peace He brings is peace of the forgiveness of sins. He has a funny way of bringing it about though. At least, it seems odd to us. All this Law and judgment and talk of eternal punishment. Do people want to hear this: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Or this, John’s words about Jesus: “I baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Maybe the reason people don’t think this preaching of repentance is relevant today is because they don’t want to hear it. They’ll hear the call to repentance as an ancient one that doesn’t speak to us today in our enlightened age. We can look all around us and see many well meaning people doing many humanitarian acts even though they aren’t Christians. Why would they need to repent?

And how about us Christians? We can easily rest on our laurels. When was the last time you asked what those baptized by John asked: “What shall we do?” When was the last time you admitted you have fallen short of God’s glory rather than patting yourself on the back for obeying His commandments? How often do you shrink in terror at what you rightfully deserve, eternal separation and punishment from God? What will it take for you to see that you keep falling into the same temptations and committing the same sins that you try so desperately to stop doing?

You don’t want to find out on Judgment Day that you are weighed in the balance and found wanting. You need to know now. That is why the Lord calls you to repentance. It’s as relevant as ever. He wants you in eternity with Him, not without. Here’s the way Paul describes it in the Epistle reading: “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” How is it that you can be found pure and blameless for the Day of Christ—Judgment Day? Because you have been called to repentance and have seen that your only hope is in Christ.

When someone tells you what to do, does it dig under your skin? Who are they to tell you what to do? When you are called to repentance are you wondering why anyone has the right to condemn you as a sinner? There are plenty of people in our lives who take it upon themselves to tell others how to live. They may genuinely be trying to help you, they may simply be convinced they know better than you. But when God tells us what to do it’s even harder to take to heart. Because it means repentance.

But don’t look at repentance as something that is bad. It is good for you. This changing of your mind and heart and life, this looking to Christ and His cross, is something He does require of you—but it’s also something He brings about in you through His holy and eternal and effective Word. Paul also says in the Epistle reading: “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

There is hope because God is the one who makes it all possible. The repentance, the turning from sin, the being forgiven and being saved, and even the good works to which He has called you—they’re all from Him, of Him, by Him, and on account of Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection. There is no Gospel without Law, no forgiveness without repentance. It may rub us the wrong way to be called to repentance, but God loves us too much to leave us in our sin.

So flee temptation, turn from sin, and know that He has Baptized you, given you salvation in that being born again. Come to His Table and partake of the salvation offered into your mouth and for your body and soul, His very Body, His very Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins, for your life, your hope, your help. That’s His gift to you. It’s relevant and it’s for you, forever. Amen.


1 comment:

Peter said...

Great sermon, Paul. Your words brought to mind how important our divine services are grounded in the law and the gospel. Too often we are tempted to take repentance forgranted or just say the words from memory without "thinking" about what we are saying in the liturgy. As you pointed out: John makes us take sin and repentance seriously so that we properly appreciate Christ and the gospel.