Real Repenting

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Luke 3:7-9

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit 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 to 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.”

Luke 3:7-9 rsv

In most of our churches today, he would not have been a popular preacher. The man had no tact. He called the most distinguished church people of his day a brood of snakes! His message wasn’t very positive, either. He talked about trees being cut down and thrown into the fire, and about the wrath to come. He was stern, forbidding, Elijah-like. And his message, day in and day out, was a call no one wanted to hear: Repent!

The preacher was John the Baptist, a man of the wilderness, wandering about in animal skins, living on insects and wild honey. He had none of the refinements of polite society, but he did have a fire burning in his soul. He got people’s attention.

When we meet him today, he’s speaking to a large crowd that has assembled from far and near to be baptized in the Jordan River. You would think that he would be elated at such an impressive response, but his words are hard-bitten, tough. Listen. I’m reading from Luke, chapter 3, beginning at verse 7:

He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit 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 to 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.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “and we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Quite a sermon, eh? How would that go over on Sunday morning at the church nearest your house? The message is forbidding, but unquestionably in dead earnest. John is passionately concerned that people should really repent.

WHAT IS IT TO REPENT?

In the Old Testament, to repent meant “to turn,” to turn away from sin and evil of every kind and to turn back to God. It was a reversal of direction, a right about-face, a conversion. The Greek word to repent added the idea of a change of mind – not something casual or capricious, but a deep, radical change.

Remember Nicholas Copernicus? He was the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer who first came out with the idea that the sun was the center of the solar system. Under the old Ptolemaic astronomy the earth was considered to be the center. The view of Copernicus, which has since been confirmed by modern science, brought about a revolution in our way of thinking. From imagining that the earth was the center of everything, with all the heavenly bodies revolving around it, we came to see that the earth is simply one tiny planet circling the sun, in one local galaxy among billions.

Repentance is a change of mind like that: radical, revolutionary, transforming the way we look at things. That’s what John the Baptist was after, that kind of altered outlook, that kind of turning from sin and self-centeredness to God.

The preacher was troubled because he felt that many who stood before him were not ready for that. They were prepared to go through the motions, to make a token gesture, but not to repent, not to be changed people. That’s why he called them a bunch of snakes. It seemed like vipers slithering frantically to escape a forest fire. He felt that many of his hearers were doing something like that, trying to save their own skins without abandoning their old ways. Maybe they feared that judgment was indeed coming. That was a plus, but they had no heart for genuine repentance.

INADEQUATE SUBSTITUTES

They were presenting themselves for baptism, but what did that mean? It seemed a fairly drastic action on their part. John’s summons marked the first time the Israelites, God’s covenant people, had been called themselves to submit to baptism. They knew all about proselyte baptism, the washing administered to strangers and foreigners who wanted to join themselves to Israel. They obviously needed to be purified and to adopt a new style of life, but why should that be required for the seed of Abraham? These Israelites must have been profoundly affected by John’s preaching if they were willing to be baptized, to be treated as though they were beginning all over again in their commitment to the Lord.

But John was afraid that they would be content with the outward ceremony. When he called them to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, many of them apparently imagined that this ritual in the Jordan was the only requirement. They would receive the rite and all would be well with them. They would be safe, they assumed, then, from the judgments of which John was preaching.

So the preacher, even though baptism was a large part of his message (the act that gave him the name “John the Baptizer”), didn’t want to leave anyone under the illusion that that was enough. Baptism was only a sign of something deeper, more inward. It was no substitute for repentance.

Others in the crowd, though they may not have depended on baptism to save them, were sure that their religious heritage could. Were they not the children of Abraham? Had they not descended, each of them, from one of the twelve tribes? They were the people of the covenant, heirs of God’s promises, the chosen ones, the holy nation. Didn’t that count for something? They were willing to accept baptism if this new prophet for the Lord said that that was the thing to do, but their confidence was in their spiritual pedigree.

John saw this as another perilous substitute. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father!’” In other words, don’t start to rely on that merely racial identity. “I tell you,” John continued, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” God doesn’t need this lineage of which they boast to carry on His work in this world. He can raise up genuine believers from the stones if He chooses to do that. Descent from Abraham was a good thing but this gift and grace was a snare when people depended upon it and used it to excuse a godless life. Without repentance, it meant nothing.

Is John speaking to you in these burning words? Are you trusting today in the fact that at some time in the past you were baptized, even though you may be living far from God right now? Or does the fact that you had a praying mother or a godly grandfather giving you a feeling of security now, even though you’re living in a way that you know God cannot approve? Then let this preacher’s word sink down deep. Outward forms and family connections are no substitutes for real repentance. You need a change of heart and life. Nothing else will save you from the judgment that hangs over all of us, that is, from what John called “the wrath to come.”

REALITY TESTING

“Well, how will we know?” someone asks, “if our repentance is real?” John says, “Bear fruits that befit repentance.” It’s not enough to go through an outward ceremony or to “talk a good game.” Your daily living needs to give some evidence that you’ve really had a change of mind and heart. Fruit, of course, is what identifies a tree for what it is. Citrus trees bear oranges, grapefruit and lemons. Nut trees bear pecans and walnuts. Jesus applies it ethically, “A good tree brings forth good fruit. An evil tree brings forth evil fruit. You shall know them by their fruits.” You say that you have repented? You claim to be born again? Where is the evidence? What signs can you point to that your life has truly been turned around?

Some of John’s hearers that day were getting the message. They were asking the right question, “What then shall we do?” They weren’t going to just go through baptism and then forget it. They were realizing that change was needed. They were searching to know just what kind of fruit was expected.

John has a general word for all of them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” One sign that people have turned from sin and selfishness to God is that they’re ready to share what they have with others in need. John isn’t saying that this is the only sign. He’s saying, in effect, “Do you want an example? Here’s one. Show yourselves generous, concerned about a neighbor’s need.” That’s not complicated or mysterious, is it? Anyone can begin to share. And that will be at least a hint that you mean business about repenting.

There were tax collectors in the crowd. They were wealthy citizens, but despised by most of their countrymen. They collected taxes for the hated Romans and made enormous profits by requiring more than they passed on to Rome. But they were thoughtful. They were under conviction. They asked, “Teacher, what shall we do?” John put it to them straight, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” That was pretty radical. If they only collected what the law required, they would never get rich in this business. But if they were serious about a new way of life, it would have to start here. No more exorbitant taxation to enrich themselves. That would certainly indicate a change, wouldn’t it?

Some soldiers were smitten in conscience, also. And we, what shall we do? Their profession was looked down on too. Was there any way that they could lead a changed life as military men? Yes. John had a word for them, “Rob no one by violence or false accusation and be content with your wages.” John is saying, “Stop using your authority and your weaponry to take advantage of people.” That would be something new among the troops, wouldn’t it?

Is John the Baptist striking close to home here with us? Are there business practices you’re involved in that enrich you handsomely at the expense of others? Or are we using some position or power of ours to intimidate people and exploit their weakness? We hear a lot about Wall Street predators and about police brutality. Is something akin to that going on with us? And are we ready, like these other groups, to spread our profession before the Lord, our lifestyle, our ways of relating to people, and say, “Lord, what shall I do?” That to John, to Jesus, to the just judge of all the earth, is real repenting.

PREPARING THE WAY OF THE LORD

But remember, John the Baptist is more than a moralizer. He’s not aiming merely at attitude change and behavior modification, vital as those are. His central function is to prepare the way of the Lord, announce the coming of an infinitely greater one whose sandals he’s not worthy to stoop down and untie. There’s a mighty one coming, he says, who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John identifies himself with Isaiah’s “voice crying in the wilderness: `Prepare the way of the Lord.’” People are to repent because the Lord is about to visit them. He’s coming, and their change of heart and life is to be related to that. They need to be like road builders in an undeveloped wilderness. They’re to level the mountains and hills, smooth out the rough places, straighten the crooked terrain. They’re to make an open road, a highway for the Lord to come to their homes and hearts.

His coming will be something truly awesome. It will be a time of judgment when the axe is laid to the root of the trees, when every tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It will be a crisis time. Where there’s no fruit of repentance, no evidence of change, no opening of heart to the coming king, judgment will fall swiftly and certainly.

But that’s the shadow side of it. The Lord is coming to bring forgiveness to His people, to declare the gracious reign of God. He is “good and ready to forgive and plenteous in mercy to all who call upon Him.”

More, He will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. He will give them new life and make their bodies the temples of the living God. Blessings will abound where ‘ere He reigns.

And make no mistake about it, John insists. The only appropriate response to the Lord’s coming in judgment and grace is repentance. Turn, turn, turn to Him is the cry, for why will you die? Open the doors to the king of glory. Open your hearts to your Savior and Lord. You open the door and you welcome the king when, with a heart trusting in His great mercy, you deeply and truly repent.