Summary: Focusing on the preaching of John the Baptist, this sermon notes what he lays out as elementary fruits of repentence.
Fourth Sunday in Advent
“Elementary Fruits of Repentance”
By this time during Advent – barely a week away from Christmas, I think everyone will understand something about preparing for the holidays. I know that at our house, we have been getting ready for visitors for well over a month. Children gone away to college are returning, in our case one of them bringing a new son-in-law with her. My brother and his family of six probably arrived at my father’s house in the past hour, and they’ll be joining us for our fellowship time after worship. A lot of work has gone into getting ready to receive them. If your holiday preparations haven’t been exactly like ours, I expect you’ll know what I’m talking about anyway.
And, so it is that you will also have an insight into the ministry of John the Baptist. All of today’s appointed Scripture shows us something about the ministry of John the Baptist. Even the Psalm – while it does not prophesy the coming of John the Baptist – nevertheless it shows us the heart of the people of Israel, not only at the time of that the Psalm was composed, but also at the time of John the Baptist – a time when everyone knew that things were badly off the rails as far as the nation’s relationship to God is concerned.
That is why people were flocking out of the cities and into the wilderness to hear John’s preaching. In one sense, he wasn’t telling them anything they did not already know. The religious hypocrisy, the religious infighting, the religious arrogance and pride, the religious venality – it was all there for anyone to see, including the religious leadership who also were coming out into the wilderness to hear what John would say. These people did not come out into the wilderness to learn how bad things were spiritually for the nation Israel. They already knew that. What they went to the wilderness to hear was John’s message of repentance, his warning that repentance was necessary if they were to escape judgment, and to learn from John some simple, straightforward, and blunt instructions on how to repent. This message was something new, and it was a message foretold by the Prophet Isaiah hundreds of years prior to John the Baptist, in the Old Testament lesson we heard read a short while ago.
Repentance is sometimes a confusing concept, and it doesn’t need to be. I know a lot of people who think that repentance is the same thing as feeling sorry for sinful things they have done. I suppose some of this confusion comes from a sloppy of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians chapter 7, where he tells the Corinthians this: 9 … your sorrow led to repentance. … 10For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, …” In these words, however, it is clear that sorrow and repentance are not the same thing. Instead sorrow in the Corinthians was one of the things that led to their repentance, but sorrow is not the same thing as repentance.
There have been, from time to time, fashions in preaching that attempt to wring the hearts of the hearers, to make them feel exceptionally sorrowful, as if that state of mind were necessary for repentance. But, while sorrow may lead to repentance, it is not the same thing. It is not even the only thing that can lead to repentance – in the case of John’s preaching, it was probably not so much sorrow that produced repentance, but fear – fear of the coming judgment that John was warning them about.
I have read many sermons dealing with repentance that try to get to the meaning of the word by focusing on its etymology – the historical development of the word as shown by its basic elements, its earliest known uses, and the changes in its form and meaning. This approach to repentance yields the idea that repentance is a turning away, or a turning back, in literal terms a change of mind. And these ideas are accurate as far as they go. But, again, changing one’s mind about one’s own sin is not the whole story about repentance. The missing element is a change of behavior as well as a change of mind. Both are needed for repentances to be genuine and complete.
Consider, for example, the people who came to listen to John. I have already mentioned that they had some minimal agreement with John about the spiritual rottenness in Israel. They were willing to agree with him on that, and to change their minds about their own participation in the climate of sin that enveloped them. But John gave them two warnings:
First of all, he warned them that they needed to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Second, he warned them not to trust in their status as the children of Abraham. Mere physical descent from Abraham was not enough. If God wanted children from Abraham, he could generate them from the very rocks if he needed to.