The Gift of Repentance, but for Whom?
SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT [a] December 4, 2016
10 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 10 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.
We have a Lord who wants no conscience troubled, no heart in despair; who wants the sinner to go to sleep at night commending himself to the Lord in all confidence and peace, who wants each person to wake up in the morning with the confidence that he or she belongs to the Lord.
To have a conscience untroubled, to have a heart with no despair, the Lord bestows this upon the sinner by his gift of repentance and forgiveness.
So the Lord sent out his prophet to bestow that repentance upon the sinner; he sent into the wilderness John the Baptist: “Repent,” said John, “for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
Who will hear this word from the Lord, who will be given repentance?
The Lord brings the sinner into his gift of repentance by bringing down the hammer of the Law. “Is not my Word,” says the Lord, “like a hammer breaking rock to pieces?” [Jeremiah 23:29] This is God’s hammer striking into shards not just the obvious sinners, but also the false saints, those who look not like sinners according to their works, not on the outside, but inside, the works are all being done for self-justification—it’s a tomb.
With his hammer, God declares no one to be in the right, but he drives us all together in fear and despair. [SA III]
This is the office of the Law, the task the Lord sends his Law to accomplish, so that the Law always accuses, and the sinner is broken to pieces.
That’s what it is to have a troubled conscience—to have heard the Law, and for that Law to have done its job on you.
Then, it’s the office of the Gospel, it’s the gift the Lord sends forth his Gospel to bestow upon the troubled conscience: The Gospel brings consolation and forgiveness. It brings all the gifts of Jesus, so that the once-terrified sinner is now comforted in the knowledge that Jesus became Man in order to suffer on our behalf, that Jesus gave his life on the cross in order to shed the atoning blood for us, that Jesus rose from the dead in order to conquer sin, death, and the devil, and to bring the sinner along with him in the resurrection, and that Jesus ascended to Heaven in order to intercede to his Father for the sinner, to bestow his gifts upon the sinners of every generation by sending forth his Word from the heavenly Throne, and to prepare in eternity a place for us.
If the Law is a hammer, the Gospel is a hospital, a healing unto life-everlasting, a cleansing of the troubled conscience.
So John the Baptist is out in the wilderness proclaiming the Kingdom of God, calling all sinners to repentance. All Jerusalem is going out to hear him, and all the surrounding region of Judea.
We can imagine who is out there at the Jordan to hear the prophet.
There are surely some tax-collectors, having cheated their neighbors out of wealth; they are confessing their sin and being cleansed by the Lord’s prophet. There are surely farmers, guilty for not having trusted the Lord’s provision, maybe even for cheating their neighbors as they sold their animals and crops; they are confessing their sins and being cleansed by the word of the prophet. There would be also the prostitutes, not knowing if a holy God can find a place for them; some Samaritans, perhaps, who have blasphemed the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem; there are wives who feel shame for not respecting their husbands, others for not being true to their wedding vows; some husbands who know they have treated their wives not as treasured brides but as possessions, others who have chased after other women. They’re all going out to John sinners of every sort and of every conceit and shame and lust that can be named. They have been called out by John, welcomed by the prophet of God—they are confessing their sin and being cleansed, as he takes them to the water, baptizes them by the instruction of the Lord, and cleanses them, granting repentance.
So it’s actually a beautiful scene out in that wilderness: God’s prophet, John, gathering all manner of sinners to himself, those who have let down their own families, those who have hurt their neighbors, those who have been stingy the Lord’s gifts—John gathering them to himself and cleansing them of all sin, sending them away with consciences cleansed by the Lord’s Gospel.
There is no sin, no guilt, no shame that John is not able to wash away into the waters of the Jordan River. In the eyes of God, there is no scene more beautiful than this—even the angels in Heaven are rejoicing as John washes clean these sinners.
Then the scene turns ugly. Enter the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees who control the Temple in Jerusalem and keep everything looking clean, and the Pharisees who go out teaching the Law, making sure people live well-ordered lives. Then go out the Sadducees and Pharisees, they want to be baptized too. But to be baptized, you are baptized into something you are not. If you are a sinner, you are baptized into being holy. Sinners walk away from the water bearing the righteousness they did not have on their own. If you are Jesus, who comes out later to be baptized by John, he is holy, so he is baptized into being a sinner. He walks away from the water bearing the sin of all those whom John baptized, having washed their sins into the waters of the Jordan.
So the Sadducees and Pharisees come out to be baptized, but they are already happy with who they are. So why be baptized? Why repent? Baptism and repentance do no good for the person who already thinks he’s cleaner than others. Matthew 3:7:
7 But when [John] he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
That’s the way the prophet John gives gifts from God. To the one who wants to live without repentance before God, John hammers with the Law, to break down the pride, the self-righteousness, the willingness to judge others, to break down attempt to justify self. Because, John would have repentance to be given not just to the obvious sinners which everyone can see, but also to the false saints, those who are clean on the outside, but inwardly they’re whitewashed tombs.
So we hear the voice of the prophet. For us, it’s not John the Baptist. John completed his task. He accomplished that which he was sent to do. He gathered to himself the obvious sinners, those looking for relief from shame, their despair, their hopelessness, and he publicly cleansed them of their sin and brought peace to their troubled consciences. He gathered to himself also the false saints, the Pharisees and Sadducees, in order to break them down with God’s Law, so that they, too, would look no longer to their own righteousness, but would, instead, rejoice in the Lord’s forgiveness of all sin.
John has done his job. And then he was martyred by Herod.
For us, it’s Jesus—the one for whom John was preparing the way. We hear his voice; it is the voice of One who has shed his own blood to atone for our sin, who has spoken forgiveness not only to the adulterous woman, to the cheating tax-collector, to the denying disciple, to the Roman soldiers and all the rest, but has spoken forgiveness also to us and our families.
He gathers to himself the obvious sinners, those who have cheated at work, those with conflict in their marriages, those who harbor bitterness against their neighbor, but he gathers also the false saints, those who have thought to justify themselves by living outwardly clean lives.
For all of us, it is the gift of repentance and forgiveness.
For we have a Lord who wants no conscience troubled, no heart in despair; who wants the sinner to go to sleep at night commending himself or herself to the Lord in all confidence and peace; who wants each of us to wake up in the morning with the confidence that we belong to the Lord.
To have this conscience untroubled, to have this heart with no despair, we hear the Lord’s word bringing us into repentance and forgiving our sin.
IN THE NAME OF JESUS.