This blog post was originally written as a sermon for Sunday 3rd November 2019 at St Peter’s Church, Old Woking, as part of our months sermon series: ‘Repentance, Forgiveness & Reconciliation’. The readings for this service were: Luke 3:1-14 and Psalm 51.
This is a big theme we’re looking at this month: such an integral part of the gospel, it’s in our creeds and declarations of faith, we have a time of confession every Sunday, it’s part of the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s important because of the eternal consequences it has for each of us.
So, let’s jump into our reading here in the book of Luke, where we meet John the Baptist, travelling around the country, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is where he begins, and in many ways is the crux of his whole ministry; and we can see why by looking at the prophecy that he is fulfilling from the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation”.Luke 3:4-6
John’s aim here, his ministry, is to prepare the people for the coming salvation that Jesus would be preaching to them. He is preparing them so that their hearts are open to hear Jesus’ message. Can you imagine this picture that Isaiah has created? John is pushing down the mountains until they lay flat, he is straightening the winding paths, leveling them and smoothing them. He is removing the obstacles, so that all people can see God’s salvation.
And his tool to achieve this smoothening, this removal of obstacles, is to preach about repentance. By teaching the people about repentance, he is preparing their hearts to be open to the message Jesus had to share: the message of salvation; because repentance is that first stepping stone on this journey towards salvation.
So, what actually is repentance?
The Greek word used by John in his preaching, is the word ‘metanoeo’ which means “to think differently about something or to have a change of mind”. However, in many places in the Old Testament, we see the Hebrew word: ‘shub’ is used. This word is used a lot by the prophets, calling the people of Israel to turn to the Lord – it stresses the importance of a conscious separation, a forsaking of sin, and of entering into fellowship with God.
And if we take the understanding of both of these words, we can see repentance as a change of mind, a choosing to turn away from sin, and turn towards God.
But if we go back to our reading, John reveals more about what repentance is and what it looks like. From verse 7 we read:
“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?”Luke 3:7
John is likening the people to snakes in the desert, fleeing from a fire. This coming wrath that he talks of, is Jesus’ message of salvation. Because, with this salvation comes judgement, and John knows that the natural response of these people, is to flee: to hide and to run away. And this goes right back to the very first sins in Genesis 3: once Adam and Eve had eaten from the forbidden tree, their response when they hear God coming, is to hide from him. They are fearful and ashamed.
But John is calling them not to flee. In the beginning of verse 8, he commands them:
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”Luke 3:8
Instead of fleeing, John wants to people to repent, so that they will produce good fruit. Imagine you have a tree, and it is sat in an empty pot: no soil, no water, nothing. It won’t be producing fruit; in fact, it will probably quite quickly begin to wilt and to die.
But, if you were to take your tree and place it in the ground, with plenty of soil and water and nutrients, you would see it flourish, producing fruit and leaves and flowers.
By making a change, at root level, we see a visible change in the whole tree, and it what it is able to produce. In the same way, John is telling us that when we repent, there should be a visible change. It should affect our actions, our relationships with other people, the fruit that we produce.
As we read on, it says:
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”. For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”Luke 3:8-9
And here we see the urgency within John’s message; why he wants them to repent. Because every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. If we do not choose to repent, to turn away from our sin, and turn to God; then that axe, the wrath and judgment of God, will cut us down and throw us into that fire – separated from God for all eternity. This decision has eternal consequences for all of us.
And John has made it clear that there is no way around this. He warns the people that their inheritance, the fact that they are descendants of Abraham, does not guarantee them salvation. They can’t take that shortcut, because repentance is this vitally important first step, which leads to forgiveness, and then to reconciliation as we will be exploring in the coming weeks.
So, how to the crowd respond? They’ve heard John’s call to repentance, and the consequences if they do not choose to repent. And their response is a question: “What should we do then?”.
John’s response is a list of actions: they are to share with the poor and the hungry. Tax collectors are to only collect what they should. Soldiers are not to extort money. In summary they are to be generous and not to abuse their positions of power, as was so common in this time. John is calling them to turn away from the sins they have been committing: greed, theft, false accusations; and to turn to God. But as we saw before, this is not just a mind-set change, but mental turning which results in a change to the way they live their lives.
Largely, I think this passage in Luke, is talking about this first repentance; when we first turn to God. And this is crucially important as this journey of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation leads us to salvation, and eternity with God.
But we are not quite like our tree. Once we are planted, we do not necessarily stay planted. Even though Jesus has won, we are still living in a world where sin exists. Maybe we are more like a bird, eating from the good fruit of the planted tree; but our human nature, and selfish ways, pull us back to the wilting tree, separated from God because of the mistakes we make throughout our lives, starving and growing weak.
We have to continually choose to repent, to turn away from our sins, and turn towards God. This doesn’t mean that we can just keep doing things wrong, and then simply repenting afterwards, because this doesn’t reflect true repentance because we are not actually turning away from our sins, rather simply brushing them under a rug.
In our Psalm reading, we see a great example of true repentance from David, after he has committed adultery. Verses 3 and 4 say:
“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only have I sinned ad done what is evil in your sight; so, you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge.”Psalm 51:3-4
David knows what he has done is sinful, and he knows that it would be perfectly just and fair for God to punish him. He knows that and he knows that that is what he deserves. He is not trying to justify what he has done, or make it seem like no big deal.
Then, in verses 10-12 he says:
“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me”.Psalm 51:10-12
So, David recognises his sinful ways, and knows that he deserves punishment. But he also desires change. He wants to be a better person, a person with a pure heart, a steadfast spirit and a willing spirit. We can clearly see him turning away from his sin, rejecting those actions, and turning towards God in prayer and for sustenance.
Now John isn’t here anymore, but we are still called to repent. Some of you may never have repented before – maybe there is that one sin you are still clinging on to, not quite able to bring yourself to turn away. But, to enjoy the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation that we will hear about over the coming weeks, you cannot ignore this vital first step of repentance.
Or maybe you have repented before, but you find yourself as that bird, drawn back to the dying, empty tree. You also need to recognise this sin, and choose to turn away, choose to turn back to God and reject those past mistakes.
We all need to have turned away from sin, we need to have turned to God. And I want us all to take that opportunity today, so that we can receive God’s forgiveness, and be reconciled to him.