The meaning of repentance

St Michael’s 4th December 2016

Readings – Isaiah 11:1-9; Matthew 3:1-12

This is an old joke and I apologise to all those who have heard it before:

There once was a painter and decorator who made a lot of money. He went round doing lots of jobs for churches, and he increased his profits by watering down his paints. This went on for a few years and he became richer and richer. That is, until one day he was in a church, slopping on the runny paint as usual, and suddenly a bright light from heaven shone down on him. “Is that you, God?” asked the painter. “Yes, my son”, the voice replied. “And do you have a message for me?” “Yes, my son. Repaint, repaint and thin no more!”

Today we are coming to a baptism service and one of the questions I will ask the parents and godparents is this: “Do you repent of your sins?” The model answer is, “I repent of my sins” but that begs the question, what does it mean to repent? It’s not a word you hear that much outside of churches, and in my experience it’s one that is often misunderstood.

So what does it mean to repent? Perhaps a little illustration will help. How many of you have visitors coming to stay this Christmas? And how many of you have already got the spare room ready? By definition, spare rooms are places where you tend to store all your bits and pieces that don’t have a home, or things you will one day eventually maybe take to the charity shop. You know you really ought to sort them all out, but somehow you never quite get round to it. Not, that is, until you know you are about to have a visitor, and you can’t put it off any longer.

Now in our reading from Matthew’s gospel we meet a man called John who is telling the people of Israel to get ready for a special visitor called the Lord. Verses 1-3:

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”

To understand fully what John is saying, we need to know that the people of Israel had been waiting for someone to come and rescue them for many, many years. They didn’t know when this person would come, or exactly who he would be, only that that he would in some way represent the Lord, God Himself, and restore their fortunes. So John’s message to the people was to tell them this visitor was now on His way. And in order to be ready, they had to get rid of the rubbish in their lives. Not the physical junk like the sort we find in our spare rooms. But the unkind words, the wrong attitudes, the unclean desires of their hearts.

To repent, you see, is about doing serious business before God so that when He comes into our lives, we are ready to meet with Him. And what exactly does that involve?

Three things come out this passage.

First of all, repentance is about action.

One thing John did not do was go round people’s homes knocking on doors. No, he went out into the desert to preach his message. That may sound like a strange thing to do. If we wanted to go out and share the good news of Jesus, I guess we’d much rather choose a prime location like Armada Way than go out onto the moors. But there was a point behind John’s rather odd choice of location. If people wanted to hear his message, they had to take time out of their busy lives in order to go and see him. They had to show they were serious about doing business with God by rearranging appointments, putting off customers until the next day, maybe even postponing a family celebration.

What might we need to do to get serious with God? Time after time, I come across people who are sort of half interested in the Christian faith. They do believe in Jesus and they accept in theory the need to get real with Him. But we all live such busy lives, don’t we? So while they may to plan to come to church, for example, somehow they never quite get round to it. There is always something more important to do – although I would argue getting right with the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth, should probably be at the top of our to do list.

It may be there’s someone here this morning who sort of believes in Jesus, but hasn’t ever really made the time to do anything about it. Well, part of the meaning of baptism is joining the family of God. Not in the sense of being able to tick on a form, “Church of England” or coming back to the church for a wedding or a funeral, but actively joining in with the life of God’s people.

Next week we have six people who are going to be confirmed at St Michael’s. All of them have got involved with the church over the past couple of years, and now they are making a real commitment of faith in Jesus Christ. I think it fair to say all of them have had to make sacrifices of time and energy, but if you talk to them, every single one of them would say the effort has been worth it. Plus, there has been an awful lot of fun and laughter on the way. The thing is, despite what so many people think, when you invest in your relationship with Jesus, you find more joy and love and peace than you can ever possibly imagine. So what action do you need to take?

Repentance involves action

Repentance involves lifestyle

So here is John the Baptist out in the desert preaching his message. He’s telling everyone that the Lord is coming, and for those who are willing to accept what he’s saying he’s dunking them in the river Jordan, as a sign God will forgive all who truly turn to Him.

Clearly something rather special is going on, and so it’s not too surprising that the religious teachers turn up to see for themselves what all the fuss is all about. Now you might have thought John the Baptist would have been pleased to see a load of vicars show up at his gig, but what are the first words he says to them? You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?

That’s quite a welcome, isn’t it? At the moment we’re training a new team of welcomers to greet people as they arrive on a Sunday morning. We want newcomers to feel at ease, able to join in with the worship, without worrying too much about where they should sit, or whether they can read. Certainly John the Baptist had never done our training, and he clearly didn’t want these people around. But why exactly was he so harsh on them?

John the Baptist goes on to tell them in verse 8: Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. You see, talk is cheap. It’s all very easy to go out into the desert or up to the front of church and say “I repent of my sins” but repentance is about living a new kind of life. The religious leaders thought they could turn up, say the words and then carry on living exactly as before. But the reason why God wants to remove the rubbish from our lives is so that from we begin to live for Him and learn to do His will. That’s the point these vicars had forgotten. And in fact for all their learning, they had overlooked one very basic and very important point, that the Lord already knows our hearts and knows whether we are being sincere or not.

In a moment I will ask parents and godparents, “Do you turn to Christ as Lord and Saviour?” Calling Jesus (or Christ) Lord means recognising He has authority over our lives. Or to put it another way, what He says goes. So turning to Christ involves learning to find out His will, by reading the Bible, by prayer, by attending public worship. And calling Jesus Saviour means recognising that Jesus died in our place on the cross for all the wrong we have ever thought or said or done, and responding by living thankful lives focused on Him.

Now to say these words doesn’t involve having a high level of education, or coming from the right background, or even having your life all nice and sorted. One of the reasons why the Christian faith is such good news is that it is for everyone, for ordinary people, no matter who you are or where you’ve come from. The only condition on saying these words is that with the Lord’s help you are willing to let your words change how you live – maybe in a small way, maybe in a dramatic way. Because repentance involves action, and it involves lifestyle.

And thirdly, repentance also involves receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Listen to these words John the Baptist says in verse 11: I baptise you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. What is he talking about here? Well, there’s a clue in some more words we say later on in the service. When we stand to affirm our faith, I will ask, “Do you believe and trust in God the Holy Spirit, who gives lives to the people of God and makes Christ known in the world”?

The Holy Spirit, you see, is the personal presence of the living Lord Jesus in our lives. He is the special gift of Jesus which turns our faith from words into real, lived experience. And indeed, the test of whether we have truly repented is whether we have the Holy Spirit living in our hearts. Later on in the Bible, the apostle Paul writes these words: If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ (Rom 8:9).

Of course it’s not down for me or anyone else to judge who has received the gift of the Holy Spirit. But the Lord knows. And so does the person who has received that gift. Because although we may sometimes struggle to explain exactly how the Holy Spirit works, when we become aware of His presence in our lives we realise that from now on we belong to Jesus, not just for a season, but for the rest of our life, and into eternity. And if that fact doesn’t thrill and warm our hearts, and make us well up with joy, then I am not quite sure what will.

So how do you or I receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer is simple – just ask. Jesus tells us we have a Heavenly Father who loves to give good gifts to His children. And the greatest gift of all is the gift of His presence, the gift of the Holy Spirit. In John 14:23 Jesus says these words:

If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

Aren’t those wonderful words? And the thing is, they are words for you. But of course before God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, makes His home in our hearts we have to clear out the rubbish. We have to take positive action. We have to be willing to change our lifestyle. We have to want Jesus to take control of our lives. Because our God is a God of grace. He will only come into our hearts if we are serious about doing business with Him. Otherwise He will leave us alone, quite possibly for all eternity.

So today are you ready to repent? To clear out the rubbish and say I repent of my sins? Is there a particular step you need to take to get ready to welcome Jesus as your Lord and your Saviour? And be willing to live for Him and Him alone?

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