Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. I doubt that John the Baptist is the kind of person you would invite to your holiday party. He’d be a bit of a party pooper. For starters, there is his unkempt appearance: a rough tunic made of camel skin and a smile full of locust legs stuck between his teeth—that is, if John ever smiled. I wouldn’t be surprised if John was a man who hardly ever smiled. After all, he was a serious man and a teetotaler—kind of a buzzkill.
John wasn’t used to polite, friendly conversation. He was used to yelling at large crowds of people through a megaphone. Much of his preaching dealt with fire and snake pits and chopping down trees. He once called his audience a “brood of vipers” (3:7), which was a fancy way to say, “Slimy snakes.” But the worst of it all was his relentless call to repentance. “Repent!” he cried out to anyone who would listen—and to many who didn’t. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2, ESV).
Repentance is a strong word. It’s also one of those “churchy” words that probably requires definition. In Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages John would have read and spoken, repentance means “to turn,” to do a 180°, to turn from sin and turn back to God. Unlike the Greek word for repentance (metanoia), which implies a change of mind or change of heart (the Greeks were always more ethereal than the earthy Hebrews), the Hebrew way of thinking involves the total person: mind, body, and soul. (Hebrew is a holistic language). Turn! Repent! Turn from your old, sinful ways, and return to God before it is too late!
But repentance is difficult and uncomfortable because it requires change. In order to repent, you must first admit that you need to make amends. You must confess that you are a sinner in need of mercy because you have acted and spoken in ways that hurt other people and violate God’s will and command. Left to our own devices, we are doomed. Unless God brings us to repentance, we cannot be saved.
Repentance wasn’t John’s only message. Apparently, he also taught his disciples a thing or two about prayer (Luke 11:1). But repentance was his soap box, his stump speech, his main idea. As Frederick Buechner has it: “Your only hope, he said, was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as sign that you had.”
But, you may ask, how do I repent? How do I turn? How do I clean up my life? That is a very good question. There is no proscribed formula for repentance. It’s more posture than procedure. But here is the basic idea. First, tell God that you are sorry for your sins—not just sorry that you got caught, but sorry for the destruction your sin has caused in your life and the lives of the people around you. “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
Second, ask God to forgive you. “Jesus, I’m sorry. I messed up again. Please forgive me.” God is rich in grace and ready to forgive. Jesus prayed on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). And ever since then, Christ has been our advocate with the Father, urging him to have mercy on our sorry souls (1 John 2:1).
The third step in repentance is to change, to try to do better, to actually turn. This is what John the Baptist meant when he said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). (A better translation is “Bear fruit worthy of or fit for repentance”). What this means in practical terms is to stop doing what you’re doing wrong. Just cut it out! If you’re an alcoholic, stop drinking. If you’re a gossip, bite your tongue. If you’re a thief, stop stealing. If you’re a grumbler, stop complaining and learn how to be content. If you’re impatient and have a nasty temper, just calm down and chill out! STOP!
I recognize, of course, that stopping is a lot easier said than done. After all, “we daily sin much,” as Luther puts it in the Catechism. We’re all sinners, and even despite our best intentions, we will go on sinning until the day we die. Death is the only thing that puts an end to our sin. (Aside: That is why God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after they fell into sin. Can you imagine how terrible and wicked the world would be if we could go on sinning and NEVER die?! It would be a living nightmare of hell on earth!).
No, we will struggle with our Old Adam, our old sinful nature, our entire lives. That is why in the Small Catechism, Martin Luther urges us to repent daily as an indication of the ongoing meaning and significance of our Baptism into Christ:
“…The Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC, 4th Part of Baptism).
We are, at once, both saint and sinner (simul iustus et peccator). None of us is perfect, but that doesn’t let us off the hook.
The only perfect person who ever lived is Jesus, and when he appears, we will finally be like him (1 John 3:2-3). Until then, thanks be to God that he forgives us as many times as we sin and repent! His mercies are new every morning; his love never ceases (Lam. 3:22-23). Were it not for the forgiveness Jesus won for us on the cross when he died for our sins, there would be no hope for any of us. But because Jesus died and rose again, we hope in him. Jesus took our place on the cross and, as we discover in the verses immediately following our Gospel lesson, he also stood in our place at his baptism, the sinless Son of God receiving a baptism of repentance intended for sinners, in order that he might identify with us in our weakness and give us life. “Let it be so now,” Jesus told John when he demurred, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15).
Jesus fulfilled all righteousness for us. He did for us what we could never do for ourselves: live a perfect, obedient life. He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them. And he fulfilled them on the cross, when he declared, “It is finished!” Everything is now accomplished. All of what we have done and left undone is completed and forgiven in Christ.
After John was arrested, Jesus took up the torch and carried forth with John’s proclamation. “Repent,” he declared, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17; cf. 3:2). Jesus’ earliest preaching sounded exactly like John the Baptist’s. What Jesus didn’t say was that the King stood in their very midst. Jesus ushered in the kingdom of God. And Jesus grants us repentance so that we may be saved. Indeed, God’s kindness leads us to repentance in the first place (Rom. 2:4). In the name of the Father and of the Son and + of the Holy Spirit. Amen.