Repent - December 26, 2021
The sermon John preaches in today’s passage is a call to repentance - why? Because God’s Kingdom is fast approaching. In those days, Israel - the country in which John was preaching - had been conquered by Rome and so was under Roman rule. Indeed, Israel had been occupied and ruled by foreign nations for most of the previous 600 years in no small part because they had rejected and rebelled against God. But God had promised that he would someday send a new king (who we now know to be Jesus, God made flesh) whose reign would never end - and the people in Israel were desperately waiting and hoping for this coming king.
Into this atmosphere of hope and anticipation, John the baptist- a prophet of God - arrives proclaiming that the Kingdom of this King, God’s Kingdom, is close at hand. God’s Kingdom is coming.
Yet, that coming Kingdom was not exactly good news for everyone, or at least not everyone would have seen it as such. If we consider that to sin - to do what God and nature tell us is wrong - is to rebel against God, and to blatantly choose to live in sin is to oppose God, the when God’s Kingdom is established it is only natural that the king would punish or destroy those who stand in opposition to Him - that He would punish or destroy His enemies. Jesus demonstrates this idea in a story he told in Luke 19:27 where a new king says of those who opposed his kingship: “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them - bring them here and kill them in front of me (NIV)”. Likewise, when we choose to live in sin and disobedience to God, we are in effect saying, “We don’t want Jesus to be our king!”
And this wrath is warned about by John. When the religious leaders of his day come out to him, possibly to investigate what was going on and possibly to insincerely participate so as to signal their own virtue, John calls them out: “You writhing bunch of poisonous snakes!” he says. “Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?” This coming wrath of God is compared to trees that a farmer chops down and throws on the fire because they do not produce good fruit. It is also compared to separating the wheat from the chaff: when wheat is harvested, it must be threshed - that is, beaten - to separate the wheat kernels from the rest of the plant. What you wind up with after threshing is wheat kernels mixed in with a lot of inedible plant flakes, which is called “chaff”. The chaff is light, and so by tossing it up into the air, it can be blown away by the wind while the wheat kernels fall to the ground. This process, called “threshing”, leaves you with pure wheat. In his rebuke to the religious leaders, he likens those who are unrepentant to the worthless chaff which is separated from the valuable wheat and then thrown is into the fire.
In the book of Romans, the wrath of God is described as God turning us over to our sin. In my experience, sin is like an all consuming fire - promising much but leaving us feeling dry, empty and gross - a little like how one feels after eating a feast of candy, only worse. And the thought of God completely abandoning me to my sin without any restraint, without His goodness to lessen its effects - I think it would be a lot like being burned alive in a lake of fire of our own making. Whether this is hell itself or is something in addition to hell I cannot say - but it is a terrible, terrifying thing any way you look at it, like God is saying “You like sin? Fine! You can have so much sin that it will come out of your ears and nostrils and you drown in it!”
So, with the coming of the Kingdom of God and the reign of King Jesus, there is also coming God’s wrath for all those who oppose Him.
I believe it is at least partly in light of this that John says “Repent!” The kingdom of God is at hand, and with it comes His wrath against all sin and unrighteousness - so repent!
But what does it mean to repent? The Greek word used here in the original text has the sense of changing one’s mind, and the Hebrew tradition from the old testament around repentance has the sense of confessing, of being sorry for our sins - sorry for what we have done - and turning around or of changing course and moving away from sin and towards God. It is a change in our thinking and actions away from disobeying and rebelling against God and towards seeking to please and honor Him in everything we do.
When John calls out the religious leaders, who are often shown in the Bible to believe themselves to be above needing to repent, even though their hearts and actions show otherwise, he commands them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance”. Repenting is therefore more than an intellectual changing of the mind and mild confession, repentance requires us to reorient ourselves to live differently - rejecting the sinful and godless practices that marked our lives before repentance and taking up a new life in Christ Jesus instead.
And that is where the truly good news comes in: for God is also slow to anger and overflowing with love - sending Jesus not only as King, but also as a perfect sacrifice who bore the wrath and punishment that were rightly the consequences of our sin and our rebellion, in order that any one of us who repent and accept Jesus as king of our lives, living as His allies instead of His enemies - will be spared from that wrath.
Finally, John warns the religious leaders that being descendants of Abraham - the on that many of the first promises for Israel were made to - is not enough to be saved from the coming wrath on its own. If John were preaching to us here today, he might have said “Just because Mom and Dad or Granny and Grandpa are Christians doesn’t mean you are safe from God’s wrath - you have got to dig into the hard work of repentance yourselves!” Put another way, being related to the king won’t be of much use if you commit treason by living in opposition to the king.
King Jesus' kingdom is coming, and in some regards is already here - if you opt to reject His kingship by living in sin, you will be subject to wrath. But, if you will repent, confess your sins and live life in allegiance to King Jesus, accepting His free and generous gift of forgiveness, you will be saved.
So where are you living in rebellion against King Jesus? What sins do you need to confess and repent of? For some of you it will be pride or theft or gluttony, pornography or sex outside of a heterosexual marriage or some other perversion: worship of false gods, worship of money, worship of entertainment or of pleasure, or self; hatred of others or hatred of self or hatred of family. I could go on, but I believe that God’s Holy Spirit will convict us and show each of us what we need to repent of.
So I implore you all: repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!
Almighty God, I thank you for the time you have given us in which we have the opportunity to repent of our sin and to seek after you. I thank you that you loved us so much that you sent your son to die in our place. May you, in your mercy and love, convict our hearts tonight, showing us where we need to repent, and soften our hearts and wills to heed your call to repentance so that we might receive your forgiveness and live according to your ways. Amen.