~ Luke 3:7-18 ~
Repent, I say, repent!
Not a word one warms up to, is it? Street preachers, sweaty tent-meeting revivalists, “fire and brimstone” bible-thumpers all come to mind. Yet, here comes John the Baptizer telling people to repent. They didn’t warm up to the call for repentance any more than we do. Repentance means acknowledging that we need repentance; that we’ve messed up, fallen short – that we’ve sinned, dog gone it.
If we truly and honestly hear the call to repentance, if we hear it correctly, it’s like an arrow piercing very near to the core of who we are as humans. The call to repentance is not a call to be merely sorry for a few imperfections in an otherwise fine existence. If that were the case, repentance would be easy, since everyone has a few flaws to be sorry for – OK, some more than others. Nor is it a call to repent once and be done with it, so we can get on to other matters.
But that is not the kind of repentance John, nor later on, Jesus, preached. What was the repentance John preached?
John the Baptist came, preaching hard stuff. It got people’s attention, with his outrageous rhetoric. He was not afraid to get into people’s faces. He was not afraid to provoke. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” That is certainly not an approach that will get people to like you. Rhetoric of getting chopped down with an ax and thrown into the fire? Not a positive approach to winning people over. Outrageous rhetoric, indeed.
We live in a time of outrageous rhetoric, a time of dangerous rhetoric. Intended to provoke, rile up, get people downright angry – we hear it everywhere. TV and radio talk show hosts, politicians, the president, especially the president. The more outrageous the talk the more attention he gets and the more people get worked up. Dangerous rhetoric, indeed.
However, unlike the xenophobic, racist demagoguery we hear these days, John’s rhetoric was actually good news. I mean, it says it right there: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Unlike the empty words of current political rhetoric, with no real policy strategy included, John’s speech actually had a very specific policy action. Instead of pandering to fear he gave the people a specific action step they could take. Repent! Metanoia! Turn around! Instead of continuing in the same direction, he said, turn yourself around and go a different direction. That’s the good news!
And, you know what? Despite the in-your-face harshness of his rhetorical approach, it worked. People came. They came to hear and John baptized them. Baptism represented their commitment to this new-direction repentance John was preaching. The baptism of repentence. They came wanting John to explain what this repentance looked like. “What then should we do?” they asked. However, before I get into John’s answers let’s step back and look at what’s going on here and who these people are.
John is out in the wilderness, roaming up and down the banks of the River Jordan. He has heard the call of God to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He is fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…” He is the voice in the wilderness, far away from civilization, from the city, from the establishment. Indeed, John was anti-establishment to the max. The people who seek John out have to come to the wilderness to find him. They come from the civilized world, from the cities and towns, indeed, from Jerusalem. And, for the most part, the people who come are well situated. Now, when Luke uses the term “crowds” it can certainly be implied that includes the poor and dispossessed. But John’s rhetoric is primarily directed at those who are relatively financially secure. His call to repentance was aimed at people who had good paying jobs. They might not have been the wealthy elites of Jewish society, but they were pretty well off. They were people who were quite secure in their religious standing.
So, what does John tell them? “Bear fruits worthy of repentance,” he says. Don’t think that your religiosity gives you any standing. Just being religious won’t get you anywhere. That religion will just be “cut down and thrown into the fire,” John says.
Unfortunately, religion often encourages smugness, a I-have-it-made attitude, an I-do-the-right-religious-things posture. Indeed, religion can create a most self-righteous spirituality that induces pride and self-accomplishment. Repentance? I’ve no need of that. Or, as part of a religious ritual, maybe a fake repentance, just for show. Like maybe most of us, they considered their religion a boost to their self-esteem. John will have nothing to do with that kind of religion, that kind of repentance. It’s almost as if he has come to destroy religion.
Repentance, says John, is not merely a religious act. It is not just a change in attitude. It is not, even, just developing sympathetic feelings towards others. Repentance, for John, is about changed behavior. If you are sincere about repenting, then you will show fruit, behavioral fruit. It will be worthy fruit. If your repentance is sincere, your behavior will show it. Fruit worthy of repentance.
What is the fruit worthy of repentance? Simply, it is being just in your dealings with other people. Or, to put it into a three-point sermon outline: 1) to live generously, 2) live ethically, and 3) live contentedly. Let’s look at how John answers the question, “what should we do?” But also note that it wasn’t the religious folk who were asking the question; it was the people who knew they need to repent. It says, “even the tax collectors came to be baptized.” They are the ones who ask, “what should we do?”
John’s first point: Live generously. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Now, someone with two coats was considered quite well off. Think of it as disposable income. One does not wear two coats at the same time (unless it’s really, really cold). Now, again, John is not speaking to the poor to be generous. He is speaking to people of means to be generous. His message is: To you who have much a worthy fruit of repentance is to be generous with your goods. That is a just way to live.
John’s second point? Live ethically. To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Now tax collecting in the ancient world was an unsavory business. Paying taxes was fraught with extortion and fraud. Tax collectors, hired by the empire, were allowed, indeed, expected to keep a portion of what they collected. That was their pay. However, it was common practice for tax collectors to extort considerably more than was allowed. John’s point is simple: To you who have the responsibility of collecting taxes for the empire, a worthy fruit of repentance is to deal ethically with your clients, taking no more than is allowed. That is a just way to live.
John’s third point: Live contentedly. To the soldiers who came to be baptized he said, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” Soldiers (and police) have incredible power due to the authority bestowed on them. The temptation is to take advantage of that authority for one’s own personal gain. We all know that with power comes the temptation to abuse that power at the expense of the people for whom it is supposed to serve. John’s point is simple: To you who have such authority, a worthy fruit of repentance is to be content with what you have so you won’t be tempted to extort. You are paid well, be content with that. That is a just way to live.
So, John’s message is simple yet profound. A life of repentance, of turning around, is a life lived justly. It is a life lived justly in relationship to other people. More to the point, if you live a privileged life, living justly means providing for those who don’t live privileged lives. For people of means, bearing fruits worthy of repentance is to change your mind about those who are not people of means. It means to change your behavior towards those without.
The good news is that people can participate in God’s kingdom justice by just turning around. Instead of living selfishly and greedily, you can live lives of generosity, ethical integrity, and contentedness. And you will be blessed. You will find salvation. And, I guess I should add, as John puts it, you won’t get thrown into the unquenchable fire. That is good news, isn’t it?
If you’ve been around religion for any length of time, one of the things you’ve probably heard about the Christmas story is this: “Jesus was born to die.” It’s as if the entire purpose of his life was to die. You may have heard Christmas sermons about it. We even find it in Christmas carols. One of the verses of What Child Is This says this:
Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you.
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.
“The silent Word is pleading?” It’s as if the baby Jesus laying there in the manger is already anticipating his crucifixion and praying for all us sinners. But was dying the reason Jesus was born?
The entire premise behind Jesus coming to die is that God is angry and needed Jesus to die to assuage his wrath. This is why street preachers often start with “sin” and “judgment” before they move on to the birth of Jesus.
But that’s not how the Christmas story begins. In the Bible, the birth announcement of the Christ-child is made by angels to shepherds. And instead of hearing a message about God’s anger and wrath, we hear this: “Fear not! For behold we bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day a savior, who is the Christ…” And then all the angels join, singing: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!” Did you hear that? God sent Jesus because we are favored. Nothing here about coming to die so God’s wrath can be avenged.
Listen, I know the whole idea of “Jesus came to die” is embedded deeply in our Christmas bones. I know that’s probably what your childhood pastor taught. But they got this one wrong. Jesus didn’t come to die – he came to show us how to live.
So, you might be saying: “But pastor, John the Baptist sounds angry. He talks of the “wrath to come.” He talks of trees getting “cut down and thrown into the fire.” Doesn’t that speak of an angry God?
Well, I’ll grant you that. He does sound angry. He was an earnest-kind of guy. But notice the purpose of his strong rhetoric. Notice what’s behind his earnest appeal. It is not so much about judgment. It is not about death. It is about life. John’s call to repent was to help people understand how to live. And then, Jesus showed us how to live.
I say it again: the message is simple yet profound. A life of repentance, of turning around, is a life lived justly. It is a life lived justly in relationship to other people. Instead of living selfishly and greedily, we are to live lives of generosity, ethical integrity, and contentedness. And we will be blessed. We will find salvation. And that is Good News, isn’t it? Amen.