John the Baptist came to prepare the way for the Messiah: his message is very simple: 'Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near'. (Matthew 3:1-12)
[As an aside, it is significant that John was in the wilderness. We look for God in the powerful places of this world, in the magnificent buildings, in the big events. But actually the place where most of us meet with God is when we put those things aside and come to him in brokenness and with nothing. Many of the early Christians, when the empire officially became Christian, chose to leave the centres of power and went into the desert. And the people of God speak with far more authority and effectiveness when we speak from the wilderness, from the edge, rather than from the centre.]
a. So what is repentance?
Repentance is not just about saying sorry for the bad stuff that we do.
It comes from the Greek word metanoia, and means literally ‘a change of mind’.
When John calls us to repent he is calling us to change our mind about God, to live for God not against God, with God not without God.
What we are talking about is a complete reorientation of our life. It is about turning from living in a self-centred direction to living in a God-direction. It is about saying that we are no longer going to try and shape God in our image, but that we will allow God to shape us in his image. It is about recognising that God does not exist for me, but that I exist for him; that God is not someone who is going to schedule his calendar around me, but I that need to schedule my calendar around him.
When we repent we are saying that we will not live for either ourselves or the stuff of this world, but for the one who gives us life and who gives us the stuff.
In our real world and in the virtual worlds that we create, we place ourselves in the centre. We arrange the furniture around ourselves. When we repent we are saying to God that we choose to remove ourselves from the centre and ask Him to rearrange the furniture so that he is in the centre.
Repentance is a one off moment that has an eternal significance. It is that moment when a person recognises that they have been living for self and living against God – and they choose to repent, and turn to God. That is the moment when a person becomes a Christian, when they were born again. Some of you remember when that moment was. Some of you won’t, because it happened deep down inside of you, and you are living repentance now. But some of us here will not remember a moment, because there never has been a moment. It is to you that I am particularly speaking today.
b. Why should we repent?
John gives us three reasons
1. Because the Kingdom of God, the rule of God is coming:
‘Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near’.
When John talks about the Kingdom of God he is speaking about a time in the future when the kingdom of God will be established.
The prophets did speak of a future time when God’s kingdom will come. There will be a new heaven and earth: it is unimagineable to our minds which are so blinded by sin. We’re looking at Isaiah 25 this evening, which speaks of the kingdom as a time of feasting, of abundance, of joy and of life. There will be no suffering. There will be no death, no fear, no sin.
We’re not talking about an eternity of sitting on clouds playing harps: who wants to go there?! I’m talking about a very solid creation, where, for instance, we will be able to visit what is now Norway and see the fiords but as the fiords were always meant to be. And I imagine that there will be constant discovery and wonder and adventure in this future kingdom. It will be a place of deep fr..endship (where the ‘i’ has been taken out), of laughter and music and astonishing beauty; of space, creativity and freedom; and of unutterable joy. The currency of the Kingdom of heaven will be love; and the values of the Kingdom of heaven will be right-ness, graciousness, truth, mercy and justice.
Imagine that this kingdom is like a physical city, surrounded by high walls. You are on the outside. The many gates are closed and locked, but there is one way in. It is very obvious. There is an open door. But it is tiny. To go in, you need to kneel down and go in on your knees.
But in your own eyes you are too big for that door. So at times you turn your back on the city and pretend it is not there; at other times you go up to the other doors and demand right of entrance because of how good, or cool, or clever or big you are.
But there is only one way in. Repentance is when we give up trying to do it by ourselves, when we stop trying to justify ourselves, and recognise that we will never be good enough, or big enough or cool enough or strong enough to get in to this city - and when we are prepared to get down on our knees.
Why should we repent? Because the Kingdom of heaven is close, and God wants you to be part of it.
2. Because the King is coming.
Matthew tells us that John has come to, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord’ (v3).
John has come to say that the King of this Kingdom is coming.
In the Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn enters the fortified city of Mina Tirith for the first time as king, the city's steward proclaims Aragorn's royal pedigree for all the citizens to hear: "Here is Aragorn son of Arathorn, .. Captain of the Host of the West, bearer of the Star of the North, wielder of the Sword Reforged, victorious in battle, whose hands bring healing, .. Shall he be king and enter into the City and dwell there?"
So John calls to the people. He says, ‘Here comes the King, God’s King, the Messiah, the Christ, the Second Adam, the Bright and Morning Star, the First and the Last, victorious in battle, Son of David, Son of Man, Word of God, Immanuel, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Shall he be king?
The King did come. He was born in that stable 2000 years ago. He died on the cross to open that door into his kingdom. And we believe that one day King Jesus will come back in glory – and we will see him, whether we have died or are still living.
John calls us to receive the king. He urges us, ‘Repent because you have lived as if you have no king; you have been trying to pretend that you are the ruler of your own life. Turn to him; throw yourself upon his mercy and allow him to reign over you’.
Why should you repent? Because the king has come and will come, and you are called to welcome him.
3. Because Judgement is coming.
When God’s king comes, he brings God’s judgement with him.
‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will .. gather his wheat into the barn and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’ (v12)
Judgement is important.
It tells us that there is something, a standard, that is bigger than us. It tells us that you and what you do really matters.
Apparently in one episode in Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman, who is a drug pusher, commits murder. He then attends a Narcotics Anonymous meeting to try and find some relief. After Jesse shares a thinly veiled version of his crime, the group leader counsels self-acceptance. "We're not here to sit in judgment," he says.
Jesse explodes: ‘Why not? Why not? … If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? … So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just—what, do an inventory, and accept?’
The creator of the show, Vince Gilligan believes in hell and judgment for human sin. He said, "I want to believe there's a heaven. But I can't not believe there's a hell."
Most of us, I suspect, would agree. There must be a hell for the people who do really bad things – but not for good people, or people who try hard, like me!
But if John is right, and sin is not simply about what we do, but about a wrong attitude to God, his kingdom and his king, then we are in trouble. Jesus told several stories about the judgement. Most of them tell that story of a ruler who was rejected by his servants. They tell of how he will come and bring devastating judgement on those rebellious servants.
So John urges us to repent.
c. What are the marks of repentance?
1. There is confession of sins (v6)
When we confess our sins we admit that God is right and we are wrong. That is what happens at each of our services when we use the general confession.
But often confession needs to be more specific.
I like the story told of the preacher who stood up in the pulpit and said, ‘Someone in this congregation has stolen a goose. If you have stolen a hen .. a turkey .. a goose, stand up.’ Nobody stood up, but at the end of the service, a large man with sweat pouring off his face said as he was going out, ‘Pastor, if you had said ‘Duck’ I was a gonna!’
It is desperately hard, especially when we need to confess in front of other people. We become vulnerable.
But it is also extremely powerful. It allows God to work in us.
The fifth century Christian spiritual leader John Cassian claimed that "as soon as a wicked thought has been revealed [to God and at least one other Christian] it loses its power." The demonic stronghold of sin is "drawn out as it were into the light from its dark and [deep] cave by the power of the confession …. For [Satan's] harmful counsels hold sway in us as they lie concealed in our heart."
2. They are baptised
I’m not going to go into much detail on this.
Most organisations require you to do something before you can become a member: you might have to meet the qualifying criteria, be voted in at a meeting, take a test, or undergo some ritual, or pay some money.
What do you need to do to become a Christian, and a member of God's organisation, the church? Pay your money; be really good; show evidence of serious repentance?
The only thing Jesus asks of you is that you have to be willing to allow someone else throw water over you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!
3. They bear the fruit of repentance
Twice John challenges the Pharisees and Sadducees to live lives that bear the good fruit of repentance (v8,10).
That would have astonished those people who were watching. They would have assumed that if anybody qualified, then the Pharisees would.
But John realises that you can live a good life and still be closed to God and self-centred. This is one of the big things that I have discovered. We live ‘good’ lives from self-centred motives. Many of us live good, moral lives because we are trying to prove that we are something to ourselves, or to others or even to God. We live good lives because we have discovered that that is the way to get on and to succeed in life. But good lives, even saint-like lives, are not necessarily a sign of repentance.
Martin Luther would counsel people, and it was only half tongue in cheek, to go and do some really big sin – because only then will they discover the true pain that sin causes, and the true overwhelming nature of the forgiveness and mercy of God.
And what is the fruit of repentance? What is the fruit of someone who knows that they are a sinner but that they have been forgiven by the mercy of God?
It is shown when we forgive others; it is shown when we have deep mercy and love for those who sin – even before they repent. That is the way of God. 'It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.'
I know that we passionately want to stand for biblical standards in society, but when it becomes our primary message, and we end up preaching morality, then we are in danger of becoming like the Pharisees. It makes us seem so far away from the Jesus who had such mercy on us.
d. Repentance is the first essential step to receiving the Spirit of God
John says, ‘I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who ... will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’ (v11)
This is the Spirit of God that Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Joel clearly talked about. They spoke of the day when God would give the Spirit who would come and live in us, so that the law of God – which was something out there that had to be obeyed, becomes something in here that we delight in with all our heart;
it is the Spirit which will change our cold frozen stone-like heart into a heart which deeply and profoundly loves God and which loves other people;
it is the Spirit who will transform us from being self-obsessed,or obsessed about what others think of us, to becoming God-obsessed.
It is the Spirit who will help us to live as citizens of the kingdom, for the king.
And when Jesus did send the Spirit on his followers for the first time, it was something very visible. Tongues of fire came down and rested on each of the disciples. You see this Spirit is the spirit of fire. He brings passion and purity. He burns up everything in us that is not of God, if we allow him, and he sets us on fire for God.
The story is told of Spurgeon who interviewed a candidate for the ministry. The candidate was telling him all the reasons why he should not be a minister. Spurgeon interrupted and said to him, ‘Young man. I don’t want to hear all about what you are weak at. What I want to know is this: if I threw you into the Thames, would it sizzle?!’
I finish with the parable of the upturned bowl. We are like this bowl. We are closed to God. Repentance is the admission that our bowls are turned the wrong way round, and the turning of the bowl to God. And then, we are ready to receive from him. And he will give us the most precious gift that he can possibly give us. He will give us Himself; he will give us his Spirit.