A pastor colleague suggested that my first sermon as the pastor of QSBC should be on John the Baptist’s gentle rebuke of “You brood of vipers!” I know that is not appropriate for a first sermon and that is why I have waited until my second Sunday.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that? My thoughts are drawn to street preachers shouting through a megaphone. Or it may be people convinced that the end of the world is coming within days.
Probably repentance is not the way we start a spiritual conversation with a friend or family member. We want to talk about the beauty of God’s creation or the amazing love of Jesus that he would die for us. There are so many things that we can say and repentance is at the bottom of the list.
But is repentance really meant to be such an oppressive topic? Can we just forget about it?
Think about the events of two thousand years ago. Jesus Christ is about to begin his ministry. But before he starts, God the Father sends a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus. God does not do anything by accident so what kind of prophet does he send? God sends John the Baptist with a message of repentance. God saw repentance as so important that it was the message that was needed as preparation.
That sounds like repentance is worth considering and that is what we will do.
John the Baptist
When we think of Jesus, we probably think of those pictures of him with his neatly combed hair and beard, long flowing robe and a child in one arm and a lamb in the other. John the Baptist was the exactly the opposite of that. John the Baptist was a wild man who dressed strange and who screamed out his message. I wonder how many Baptist churches would be willing to have John the Baptist preach in their church?
It would have been easy for John to simply preach repentance but he wanted more, he wanted a response, something tangible that showed there was evidence that they were sincere.
The short-term response was baptism. The Jews were familiar with ritual washing. They used something called a Mikveh. This was used by Jewish men and women for regaining ritual purity. This was not for dealing with sin. For example, women would have to immerse themselves after childbirth to become ritually clean. The Jews also had a type of baptism that was used when Gentiles converted to Judaism. No Jew would require such a baptism because they were born under the covenant. But John had something much more radical. His baptism was not about ritual cleansing so that people could participate in temple activities. John’s baptism was one of repentance and forgiveness of sins. Neither was this baptism a baptism of conversion in the traditional way. John was not calling Gentiles, but was calling Jews to repentance. That was very radical.
The long-term response was to be much more difficult than just having a swim in the Jordan. John expected people to change their lives.
Some people came to him and wanted some concrete examples. John told them that those who have should give to those who don’t have. God’s people were expected to take care of the poor. Many times in the Old Testament, Israel was rebuked for not just ignoring the poor but actually taking advantage of them.
Tax collectors also asked what they should do. First, it was amazing that they were there in the first place as they were not so popular with their fellow Jews. Tax collectors made their money by collecting the taxes for the Romans and then taking some more for themselves. When John told them to not collect more than they required to, he was not setting them up for financial success.
Soldiers came to John as well. I must make clear that these were not Roman soldiers. These were Jews who were hired by either Herod or the Romans. Notice that John does not tell them to quit being soldiers. Rather he tells them to not harm or take advantage of innocents.
This is the message of John the Baptist. Repent! Don’t just feel sorry for things that have been done, actually make changes.
Repentance and the Church
That is wonderful for John the Baptist and all those first century Jews, but what about us? Is repentance still important for today?
One of the reasons that some Christians do not like the idea of repentance, is the protestant focus on faith. If we have to repent of our sins, is that not adding works to the idea of salvation by faith alone. Not at all. The key is that repentance is not an addition to faith, it is a part of faith.
I want you to imagine that you are driving down the highway and you are intending to arrive at a place called God. As you are driving down the highway admiring all the scenery, you notice a sign saying that you are heading instead toward another place called Sin. If we say that the journey toward God is faith, how are you going to get there? You can’t just throw it into reverse and hope to avoid all the cars coming your way. You are going to have to get off the highway and then get back on, this time in the right direct.
That is repentance. Before you can move toward God, you have to move away from sin.
When do we do this? It happens the moment we make Jesus our Lord, at our conversion. Now I realize for many people who are raised in the church, it is difficult to point to one moment when that took place. Childhood in the church seemed to just flow naturally into being a real follower of Jesus. And that is okay. I would just say that if you are currently a follower of Jesus, that repentance happened at some level even if there was no special prayer with the word “repent” in it.
But that is not the end of repentance. As Christians, we continue to sin. We do things that we should not do and don’t thinks we should. We sin in thought, word and deed. When these things happen, we should repent. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t stop being Christians when we commit a sin. We are adopted into God’s family at our conversion and God does not intend to let us go. Repentance as a Christian is not to re-convert but rather to draw closer to our heavenly Father. It is not an oppressive act, it should be a joyful act because we know God is a God of grace. Times of repentance are some of the most intense experiences of God’s presence that I have had.
Individual repentance but there is a place for corporate repentance as a church. Just after the passage we are looking at, Jesus gets baptized. Have you ever wondered why Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only sinless one would receive a baptism of repentance? He did it because he was standing with his people in repentance. This is a theme in Scripture. We are told that Daniel was a righteous man. But how did he pray?
Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes and our ancestors, and to all the people of the land. (Daniel 9:4-6)
Nehemiah did something similar. Nehemiah does not seem to be particularly sinful and yet he prays this way:
Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. (Nehemiah 1:5-7)
If Daniel, Nehemiah and even Jesus participated in repentance, we dare not think that we are above such an act.
What does it mean for us to repent corporately? What do we need to repent of as a church? As Baptists? As Christians? At every level mistakes have been made. Even if we were not directly responsible, it is still important to repent with our people.
Repent! It is not the message we want. But it may be the message we need. God does not want us to feel condemned and oppressed in our weakness. He is not looking desperately to kick out that black sheep of the family. God desires a close and intimate relationship with us through his Son Jesus. Repentance is part of that relationship. Remember it is as simple as turning away from the wrong direction and moving toward the right direction. We all need to make a spiritual U-turn from time to time. It is not something to be embarrassed about. It is something for us to take seriously as we strengthen our relationship with God.