The Importance of Repentance

Sunday the 4th of December 2016

Matthew 3: 1-12

The season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, is a season where we often look forward to what is to come. We often focus on the hope that we have because of Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Advent often brings with it a sense of longing and waiting for the promised return of Jesus. But at the same time, it is not only about what will happen in the future. And today’s reading from Mathew chapter 3 reminds us of reminds us of this.

God our Father through his Son Jesus Christ was about to change the direction of history. Through Jesus Christ, the reign of God was coming near. The reading begins: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Things were about to change. Jesus was about to start his earthly ministry that would eventually lead him to his death on the cross and his resurrection. Our triune God was about to act in this world. But before he did he sent his prophet John to prepare the way. And how did he prepare the way, but preaching and requiring repentance.

But why start with repentance? I believe that it was necessary for this to happen, in order that they might receive what was about to come, the ministry of Jesus. In our reading today it tells us that the ordinary people flocked out to hear John and that many people received his baptism of repentance. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that many ordinary people responded to Jesus, when he spoke and taught.

The religious elite on the other hand, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the ones who had the power and thought that they had the control over God’s people, were the very ones who struggled to accept Jesus. Why because their hearts were hardened and they refused to repent.

Repentance is something that is not very well understood in our church culture. If I were to ask what it means to repent from our sins, I suspect that I would receive many different answers. Repentance includes feeling sorry for our personal sins against God; and a feeling of not wanting sin against him. Whilst these are a part of repentance, repentance is much more that these.

The challenge that John the Baptist puts to these Pharisees and Sadducees shows us that repentance is about not only behaviour, but our hearts. It says “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax 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”

Repentance literally means to change your mind. The bible tells us that as sinful humans we naturally have a mindset and a heart that is against God. One that is rebellious towards him. So it means that when we repent we change our mind and turn our lives back to him, we make a decision not to deliberately keep going down a path that we know that God does not want us to. This usually involves us checking our hearts, making sure that our hearts in the right place. If it is not in the right place then we will not produce the fruit of repentance in our lives. This is the point that John was making to these religious leaders, repentance comes from your heart and mind, not only your actions.

Johns’ challenge to these religious leaders also indicates to us that to repent, means taking a clear minded look at the ways in which our lives can be shaped by the assumptions and behaviours of the culture around us. It means to turn way from being complicit with the world and our own worldly values, and to turn towards God, so that our attitudes and actions reflect what he is doing in this world. God through Jesus changed the way that we relate to God forever, but the Pharisees and Sadducees could not look beyond their own assumptions and ways of doing things to see God working, because they were so focused on themselves and their own world.

So John offers them a choice. They could repent, and join the movement toward what God was doing in his kingdom, or they could continue to collude with the old age and face eternal condemnation at the final judgment. It was that clear.

As Christians, our repentance is the same but different, because we are the ones who have been baptized and received the Holy Spirit, the ones who comes after Jesus death and resurrection, repentance requires that we also accept what Jesus has done for us by forgiving us; that we listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading through the Word. For us repentance is a change of mind in terms of not wanting to rebel against God, but also a change of mind that says that we will listen to the truth he tells us and live accordingly.

As Christians it is important for us, particularly as we live 2000 years later, to recognise that Jesus came in to a sinful, broken and rebellious world, and he came into it to bring about a new reign, a new way of being in relationship with God that is based on his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins. As Christians we are to see to world around us through this lens, not through the world around us that lives as if Jesus never came.

And this starts with repentance. As Matthew’s gospel unfolds, Jesus will reinforce the importance of making this choice. But he goes a step farther. Jesus teaches his disciples that the life of following him needs to embody the qualities of the new way of seeing the world, while still living in the period of transition between old and new. In other words while we wait for his second coming. You see repentance is just the first step.

As Christians it is important for us to have a sense of our time and location in the plan of God for the world. God in Jesus, through the Spirit and his means, is still at work in the world even as that world continues in its blatant rebellion.  Where Jesus is present—in the gospel and the sacraments—God is reigning to call a people together as a community to be salt and light for the world (5:13–16). The Last Day is coming near, when all will finally be put right—God’s repentant people will be known and his stubborn enemies will be turned away into the hell of judgment.

John the Baptist’s proclamation is needed as much now in our time as when he said to the Jews then. What is John’s message? I it is that we need to repent and to embrace Jesus in faith.

As Christians we acknowledge again the need for God to reign over and repair this chaotic world; but not only that we acknowledge that he needs to reign over and repair our own lives. As Christians we can rejoice over God’s unexpected reign in Jesus. As Matthew, and the whole NT proclaim, God’s mighty agent of judgment has come in astonishing and unexpected ways—to be baptized in the place of sinners (3:13–17) and ultimately to suffer and die for their sins. God vindicated his Son, and now the Son’s work continues in the world— and in our small congregation here today—as we as God’s people wait for the day he returns.

John the Baptist’s proclamation was only the beginning. God is the Lord of history and he has called each of us here as a part of his body at this time in history to walk with him as he has about working his kingdom in this world, which began with the coming of Jesus, but is not complete until he returns again.

So Advent is about looking forward to the future with hope, but it is also recognizing that while we wait for Jesus return, God is at work in our lives and in our church community. The focus on repentance is important because through it, it helps us to have eyes to see what God is doing in us, it helps us to see where the world is influencing us, but most importantly it brings us back to listening to God and what he says to us, so the we live our lives according to how he would like us to.