Repentance to Prepare the Way

I recently preached a sermon on Luke 3:7–20 for the third week of Advent. Here is the text of the sermon.


I have one goal this morning, and that is for you to leave here believing that God is for you, even though you are not perfect. Wouldn’t that be good news? In light of all the ways you mess up and all your imperfections, God is still for you. You can be broken and still be a part of God’s people. In fact, that’s the only option.

We do, however, have a bit of an obstacle to overcome. Did you hear how our passage starts? “You bunch of snakes! Who told you to come here?” Who is John calling snakes? Is he speaking to you? Is that what God thinks of you? I wonder if you ever believe that this is God’s posture towards you. How we imagine God’s posture towards us impacts our posture towards God. Why would John call people snakes? Let’s start there.

Snakes

Well, if you know anything about “John the Baptist,” it’s that he is a prophet, living in the desert, eating grasshoppers — he’s a rough guy with a life or death type agenda. He is aware that his job is serious. He’s not cruising. He has to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is passionate about his purpose.

Have you ever had something you really want people to hear and they treat you like a carnival side-show? I’ve been a teacher for about a decade, so of course I have. You walk into a room ready to share something so important to you, and people would rather talk about TikTok. Surely, you can imagine what that feels like. John speaks harshly to those who come to him for a carnival, but if you come to God knowing you are broken, you aren’t the one he is calling a snake.

In Matthew’s Gospel, it says John spoke these words to the religious leaders. Luke is not quite as specific. In our passage it just says John was speaking to the crowds coming to him. Matthew says it was was specifically the religious leaders of the day John was talking to, the people Jesus calls “white-washed tombs.” These are people who live like they have it all together, but they don’t. On the inside they are filled with pride and jealously. They love attention much more than they love people.

Just a few chapters later in Luke, Jesus turns to the crowds and provides commentary on how some people approached John. He looks at the crowds and says,

“What did you go out to see? A stick shaken by the wind?”

I think of those twenty foot tall, plastic, blow-up creatures flopping in the wind outside cell phone stores. Did you go out to see a crazy guy? I think the implication is some did.

“Or did you go to see a prince? Someone all dressed up and nice to look at?”

John’s not Hallmark handsome, and he’s not a side-show. He’s trying to prepare people for the coming of God’s Messiah, and he’s treated like the next episode of a cartoon.

If that is the way you approach God this morning, as a joke, then yes, John is talking to you. But I’m telling you, John doesn’t speak this way to people that know they are broken and want help.

In verse 7 of our passage, John himself explains what’s going on:

“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

The posture of some people before God was to point to their heritage, their family and the country they belong to, rather than embracing the posture of repentance. This is who John calls snakes.

Do you remember the first glance we get of Satan in scripture? He’s a snake, right? According to John, acting like you have it all together when you don’t means you are a child of the Snake. Those are strong words for a posture strong enough to keep you from God. Jesus came to seek and save those that are broken and lost, not those who have it together. If you know you don’t have it all together, John is not calling you a snake.

Repentance is not perfection

So what then was John looking for? If his goal is to prepare a people for the Messiah, what did he want from people?

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

Did you notice what John didn’t say? He didn’t say be perfect. Get it together! He didn’t say be flawless! He didn’t say you can’t be the type of person who looks back on his life and sees really embarrassing years or decades. He didn’t say any of that! He simply asks them to take steps, to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Repentance is the core issue, not perfection.

Never expected

In fact, think about this with me: Perfection has never been expected. You might say, well ok, I hear you. The New Testament is about grace and forgiveness, but most of the Bible is the Old Testament, and in that part of the Bible you had to be perfect. No! The whole sacrificial system was put in place to deal with sin, with imperfection and brokenness! That whole massive chunk of the Old Testament that you try to read and get bogged down in — all that was put in place to deal with brokenness. God knows we are broken, he’s always known that, and he has always made provision for it.

Good life

You might say, but isn’t perfection required in light of God’s righteousness? Yes, perfection is required, but just because perfection is required does not mean it is expected of us in this life.

So does that mean it doesn’t matter how we live? Of course it matters! Living in the way God commands is something we strive for because every step we take in that path leads to a better life. That’s what we believe. We don’t strive for holiness because we have to be perfect in order to be included. We pursue it because it’s good.

When you repent, you are considered to be “in Christ.” What is true of Christ is true of us. You think Jesus is acceptable to God? Yeah, well, that means we are, too, and your current state of imperfection can’t undo the power of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

You can be broken—imperfect—and be a good Christian. In fact, that’s the only option.

Flawed heros

Have you ever thought about how broken the “heroes” of scripture are? Adam and Eve messed up so badly they broke the whole world. God saved Noah and his family from the flood, and he got drunk, and all sorts of family disfunction ensued.

Abraham said his wife was his sister because he was scared someone might kill him, and another man took her as his own. Jacob exploited his brother Esau when Esau was at his weakest, twice! The era of the Judges was debauchery and chaos, but God had mercy and he did not give up on his people. David killed Uriah so that he could have Uriah’s wife. The kings were all broken, and so the prophets constantly called the people to repentance.

Even at at the end of John’s life he didn’t have his theology straight. He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask if he really is the Messiah. Even John had doubts! Peter denied Jesus three times, cussing and cursing all the way until after the rooster crowed he made eye contact with Jesus. Paul? He just seems like an irritable guy. Remember the conflict over John Mark? He couldn’t get over how John Mark had gone home during one of their missionary journeys, and this grudge led to Paul and Barnabas parting ways. They couldn’t work together.

Scripture just gives us snapshots of these people’s lives. It doesn’t get into the daily failures and struggles. What’s the point? Even “the best” characters of scripture were broken. The posture we need is not perfection, but repentance.

Repentance is good news

We talked about what it’s not, but what is repentance? Repentance is “mere Christianity.” It is the core of it all, and it is good news. Towards the end of our passage, despite John’s snake-talk and warnings about fiery, axe-to-the-tree type judgment, Luke writes, “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.”

What was good news about John’s message? It’s, in part, the fact that he called for repentance. Repentance is good news; it’s gospel.

Repentance is as simple as genuinely saying I’m sorry. This is something we teach our youngest children. It’s something we teach them and expect from them. I’ve been telling Beau his whole life that the most important thing in the world is being the type of person who is willing to say I’m sorry. Why? Because genuinely saying I’m sorry can reconcile you to people and it can reconcile you to God.

Liturgy

It’s right there in our liturgy. Every week as we confess sin together we say,

We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent

Those are not two separate things. They mutually explain each other. To repent is to be truly sorry. We all know that people can say the words “I’m sorry” and not mean it, but at the same time can’t you think of times you have said “I’m sorry” and really meant it? Or times when people have said those words to you and meant it with everything in them? Being truly sorry is the root of all repentance, and there is no repentance apart from being truly sorry. How hard is it to be sorry?

Repentant heroes

Those flawed heroes we pulled off pedestals earlier knew a thing or two about repentance. Perhaps none of them more so than Peter. Peter didn’t wallow in his sorrow. He wept bitterly, scripture says, for at least a night, but when he saw the resurrected Jesus on the beach, do you know what he did? Do you remember? He didn’t hide from God, he didn’t protest and try to make out like he was innocent, he just said, “IT’S THE LORD!” and he jumped out of the boat, right into the water, leaving his co-workers behind and swam to Jesus.

Peter knew what David knew. If I have one verse I’m going to the grave clutching it’s Psalm 51: 17. David wrote this after the debacle with Uriah and Bathsheba as an expression of his own repentance:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

What does it mean that a broken spirit are the sacrifices of God? Sacrifices have always been the safety net for God’s people, but David says, it’s not really about bulls and blood. It’s about brokenness. This is the true strength of his people! This is how we know we are not snakes. Admitting our brokenness and looking to Jesus doesn’t make us weak! It’s where we stand and boast, “I’m broken! I know it! Jesus knows it! And ultimately he’ll fix me!”

What does it look like?

What does this sort of repentance look like? For Peter, it looked like jumping out of a boat and swimming to Jesus. It was that simple.

There is another portrait I love so much. The thief on the cross shows just how simple this whole thing is. How quickly it can happen, and how few the words need to be.

At the end of the Gospel of Luke, as one of the criminals hanging next to Jesus railed on him for not saving himself, the other criminal was like, “Are you kidding me?” And he turned to Jesus and said,

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

He recognized that he was broken, and he looked to Jesus. That’s it. He knew he need help, he knew Jesus could help, and he asked for help. Can you believe it could be that simple? Can you believe that it can still be that simple? Even now for those of you that have been following the Lord for so many years and even decades?

Fruit-bearing as steps

The thief on the cross died that day, but given time his life would have inevitably born fruit in keeping with repentance. This is what John calls the crowds to. True repentance leads to taking steps in the right direction — whatever that means for you.

In verse 11, John says if you see someone in need, help them. Don’t exploit people. Don’t cheat people financially. Does that sound like “have no flaws?” These are super basic things in one sense, but in another they are frontier work. Even though they are super basic, how rampant is exploitation and financial cheating and overlooking of others to lift yourself up? This is the fruit God calls for, not perfection, but repentance that leads to simple steps in the right direction. Come on, doesn’t that sound doable? Isn’t that good news?

I don’t doubt that some of you are thinking of things right now that you know the Lord has been calling you to, and these things aren’t quite as easy to say goodbye to as a vague notion of “not exploiting people.” You might say, I just don’t think I can do it.

My story

This was a critical issue in my life as a teenager. I knew I couldn’t live the life I was called to. There were some complicating factors, too. I grew up in a church that taught that you could never lose your salvation, and at the same time I went to a Church-of-God school that taught in chapel and Bible classes that you could, in fact, lose your salvation if you sinned.

This tension actually turned out to be a good thing because I had to work it out. How can I actually live the Christian life if I lose it every time I mess up? I knew I was going to mess up, and so for the longest time I couldn’t figure it out. It didn’t seem doable. On the other side of things, the “once saved always saved” idea seemed too good to be true as well.

The lights came on for me with Ephesians 2:8–9. “For by grace are you saved through faith; it’s not of yourselves. It is the gift of God. It’s not by works so that no one can boast.” With that passage the light came on. That passage shows the reasoning behind salvation being a gift given to broken people who know they won’t ever be perfect in this life. If it is not based on our works, then all the praise goes to God! If it’s not based on works, we can’t boast in ourselves. I get forgiveness and salvation, and he gets the praise — win, win.

The night I confessed my faith for the first time, I was on the back deck at my parents house with a friend. This was about six months after I graduated from high school. The way I said it that night was this: “Matt, I’m going to start following the Lord. I’m going to mess up, and when I do I’m going to get back up and keep walking, trusting that what Jesus did was enough for that sin, too.” That’s the way I would say it today, as well.

Repentance as fruit

Repentance really is a simple concept, but in another sense it is something you never grow beyond. I realized that night on the back deck that scripture calls us to a life of repentance, and this is the point I want to close with. The very first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses says, to paraphrase just a bit, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, in saying “repent,” wanted the entire life of the faithful to be one of repentance.” John in this passage is calling us to a life of repentance, not a single act. You never grow out of it, you can’t get tired of it. It is the Christian life. It is the main fruit. Repentance is the seed and the main fruit.

That’s why I love to say that the most important thing in the world is being the type of person that is willing to say “I’m sorry.” Take a step, fall, say “I’m sorry! Lord, help me!” get up, trust Jesus’ work is enough for that too, and take another step. Repent your way all the way to Jesus himself knowing that whether you are standing, falling, or face first on the ground, you are his and he is for you. The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

The Spirit of God will not allow you ultimately to fail. Trust God! He’s for you. God promises that he will indwell you and cause you to want and to work in a way that makes him smile. Jesus, the Son, is our advocate! He can sympathize with our weakness, and he doesn’t have to twist the arm of his father. They are one! Jesus loves weak people. You know this is true, the tax collectors and sinners liked being with him, and if Jesus loves broken people so does the Father. The very best fathers on earth are just a reflection of what he is for us. He didn’t put us into a cruel game we can’t win. Just say “I’m sorry” in your own way and take your own first step in the right direction.

Let’s pray.

Merciful God, you desire not the death of sinners, but rather that we would all continually turn to you and live; and through your only Son you have revealed yourself as the God who pardons sin. Have mercy on the unrepentant and we who cry, “I believe, Lord, help my unbelief!” Awaken in us, by your word and Holy Spirit, a deep sense of our sinfulness and peril and the hope we have in you. Take from us all ignorance, hardness of heart, and contempt for your Word. Grant us to know and feel that there is no other Name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved, but only the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so bring us home and number us among your children made whole that we may be yours forever; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever. Amen.

adapted from the Book of Common Prayer 2019, p. 665