St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 12th January 2014
Reading – Luke 3:2-22
So the usual question at this time of year – how many people here have made a New Year’s resolution? And how many people have still managed to keep it?
Every year we start out the New Year with the best of intentions. We see the opportunity to take up a new challenge, or maybe break an old, persistent habit. But somehow the optimism we feel on 1 January doesn’t actually last that long. In a moment of stress we find our hand is already inside the biscuit barrel, or when we’re out with our friends we suddenly remember we weren’t supposed to be drinking that hot chocolate after all. We’ve all been there and done that. That’s why maybe for some of us our resolution this year is to give up making resolutions, because our experience tells us they just don’t seem to work.
The basic issue seems to be that no matter how hard we want to change, somehow we seem unable to break our innermost desires. Now I’m not sure the apostle Paul ever made a New Year’s resolution, but I am sure we can all identify with the struggle he describes in Romans 7 where he talks about not doing the good he wants to do, but rather the evil he does not want to do. This conflict is one reason why Sunday by Sunday confession is at the heart of our worship. Not because us Anglicans enjoy revelling in our sins or we want to spoil other people’s fun, but rather because we take seriously the gap between the demands of a just and holy God, and the reality of our own daily lives, and we rejoice all the more in the wonder that this same God still loves us and calls us His own through Jesus Christ.
That’s why this morning I want to take as my theme the whole subject of repentance because if we really are serious about changing our ways we need to understand what it is and how can it make a difference. Now I realise that repentance is not a popular topic. It’s not the sort of stuff that gets people rolling in the aisles, and maybe that’s why we don’t talk about it that much. We want our worship to be fun, to be entertaining – and yet if we really want to live as God’s people we need to learn how to walk in God’s ways, and that will sometimes involve facing up to the painful truth we need to change.
So what is repentance? Well, first and foremost, it involves hearing the word of God and acting on it. In this respect repentance is completely different from making something like a New Year’s resolution. We generally make a resolution when we decide something needs to happen and we usually set our own terms and conditions: “I won’t eat chocolate – except of course when I’m with friends, or I’m watching Downton, or there’s an “r” in the month”. The motive for repentance comes however from God. We hear God’s word, we realise it is God speaking to us and we act.
In John the Baptist’s day the people were very familiar with the words of Isaiah the prophet. They had been waiting for many hundreds of years for: A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’. (Luke 3:4). So when John the Baptist appeared in the desert preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3) it is not surprising many people recognised that Isaiah’s words were being fulfilled. That’s why they went out into the desert to hear him and why they were prepared to be baptised, even though as far as we can tell, baptism had not generally been practised up until this point.
Of course I realise that none of us are in position to hear a prophet like John the Baptist today. Yet this does not mean we cannot hear God speak to us. God’s word still comes to us in many different forms – through our Sunday services, through the reading of our Bible, or through listening to it online, to name but a few different ways. The question is: are we listening? I realise on my own part that even though I faithfully read my Scripture most days, there are times when I just let it wash over me and I don’t really engage with what the Lord is telling me. Or again, sometimes I can read what someone else has written about the passage without asking what the Lord’s message might be for me. And then I wonder why I sometimes don’t see the change in my life I would like to see. If we’re serious about repentance, about making a fresh start with God, then there really is no short cut to taking time out to listen to Him.
Repentance, you see, is a process which flows out of a living, growing relationship with our Lord. But sadly that was a point which the crowds flocking out into the desert singularly failed to grasp. They thought that so long as they were baptised, they were OK. They had said sorry, they had been washed clean in the river Jordan and they thought they could simply go back to their towns and villages and carry on living exactly the same old kind of lives. Because as far as they were concerned, now they were “done” they were ready to meet their Messiah. Just like people today who consider themselves Christians merely because at some point they happened to be baptised or made some public confession of faith.
Now, as I hope you realise, I am not in any way downplaying the importance of baptism. But I guess another good reason why a word like “repentance” has fallen so much out of fashion is precisely because it seems just such a specialised religious word, far removed from the practical reality of paying the bills, or earning your daily bread. Somehow we have turned the whole subject into a spiritual exercise for the faithful few, rather than put it at the very heart of what it means to love and serve our Lord day by day.
And as John the Baptist makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth. His challenge to the madding crowds is simple and it is stark: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Because if repentance is the result of hearing God’s word, then repentance itself needs to result in a real, concrete change in the way we lead our lives day by day.
So, think for a moment of the stuff you have in your wardrobe, or the food you store in your kitchen. Maybe that seems quite an odd thing to talk about in church. Maybe that makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable. But if John is right, and if repentance involves every part of our lives, then perhaps we need to listen more carefully to his words in verse 11: “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Because the danger is with this kind of verse is that we can agree with it, but somehow decide it’s not really for us. It’s a verse for other people, or it’s a sort of general principle we can accept. Well, John is clear: if God really is Lord over our lives, then He is Lord over every part of our lives, and we need to let Him decide how much we really need, and how much we can give away, or share with others.
Or think about how much money you have in your bank account. The tax collectors in John’s day used to get rich by adding their own percentage to the amount they brought in. It wasn’t necessarily they were greedy and dishonest, it was just something that everyone else was doing. So why not join in? Again John is clear: “Don’t collect any more than you are required to”. Your role, he tells them, is to be honest and to act with integrity, even at cost to yourselves. The path of blessing does not lie in lining your own pockets, but in trusting God to provide. Do we, I wonder, really believe this?
Or again think about the wages you receive at the end of each month. Now I guess for many people our first reaction is, it isn’t enough, that we should be getting more for all the long hours we put in. I am sure that’s exactly how the soldiers felt who came streaming along to hear John the Baptist. But again his message is stark: “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.” Of course there is a time and a place to stand against poverty and injustice, but let’s not also forget the Bible teaches us much about the danger of grumbling and failing to recognise the Lord’s provision.
Now I guess there’s much, much more than could be said about John’s teaching in these verses. But I hope you can at least begin to see that repentance involves nothing less than living by a completely different set of values – through self-giving love, through honesty and integrity, through contentment and trust in the Lord’s provision. And I know that even as I have gone these verses I have found them deeply, deeply challenging. Because, although they are very simple to understand, the real challenge is to actually put them into practice. None of us finds it easy to share, and to trust, and to be content – regularly, constantly, sacrificially. It’s just not part of our human nature to do so. We like to keep and to strive and to worry, and see all the things we lack and we still need.
Which is, why thirdly, all this stuff about repentance can in the end only be the deep, deep work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the baptisms which John performed in the river Jordan were important. They were a sign that people were prepared to do serious business with God. But they were only preparation for a much greater event – the coming of the Messiah Himself. Because no matter our good intentions, no matter the steps we plan to take, the reality is, we all need a Saviour who can touch and change the basic desires of our hearts.
That’s why even as the crowds flocked out into the desert to be baptised, John constantly drew attention away from himself to the one who was to come. What the people needed was more than just another ritual and another set of empty promises. They needed a Saviour who would purify their thoughts and their attitudes, and fill them with the power and peace necessary to do God’s will. And so John’s message is clear: I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
So how do John’s words relate to us and to this whole business of repentance? Well, one thing I always want to make clear in my preaching and teaching is that the moment you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, you have been baptised with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is not the gift of a few Christians who happen to have a certain background or tradition or temperament. The Holy Spirit is nothing less than the presence of the living Lord Jesus who comes to live in the hearts of all who believe and trust in Him.
Of course this does not mean that we will always live with the awareness of the Holy Spirit alive and working in our lives. It is possible to get out of step with the Spirit as we decide to follow our plans and our own choices, rather than do the will of God. It is possible to grieve the Spirit by our own sin and wrongdoing. It is possible to put out the Spirit’s fire as we refuse to listen to His still, small voice guiding and directing our lives. Yet God’s grace and love is so strong and so powerful that He has promised not to leave us and forsake us. Even though it may even be many years since we last felt we were walking closely with the Lord, the fact remains that if at some point we believed and trusted in the Lord we were baptised with the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is still there to lead us back to God’s light and goodness and truth.
And this is where repentance comes in. Because repentance at its most basic level is about turning back to God. It’s about doing serious business with God’s word and being prepared to act on it, whatever the cost. It’s about looking at our whole lives and seeing the direct practical action He wants us to take. And above all it’s about coming back to Jesus, recognising our need for a fresh touch of His grace, His forgiveness, His peace.
And the wonderful truth is, that when we come back to Jesus we discover more love and more mercy than we ever thought possible. You see, the beautiful climax of this passage is that when the Messiah does appear, He does not come in the first instance as the conquering hero ready to judge or to punish. He comes as one of the crowd, ready to be baptised, ready to identify at the deepest level with us in our faults and failings. Why? Because He is the Son of God who longs more than anything else than people come to Him, wants more than anything else for you to come to Him – without fear, ready to make a fresh start of trust and loving obedience.
So today will you come? Will you listen? Will you act?