Matthew 3:2, 7-8
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.”
“Repentance Means Change”
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Advent is a penitential season. We look for the coming of the Lord, and we prepare ourselves by repenting, just as John the Baptist urged in his day, calling, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”
We hear the call to repentance often, but we don’t often take time to examine it and see what the Bible has to say about it. That is what we will be doing during Advent this year. We won’t focus in our midweek services on the approach of Christmas, or the approach of the end of the world. Instead, we will examine this thing called “repentance” in the light of what the Bible says about it, so that we may be able to wholeheartedly answer the call to repentance which forms the message of Advent.
The approach of this short series will be to hear John the Baptist call for repentance as our representative of the Prophets; then, next week, we will hear Jesus preach repentance, and finally on the third Advent midweek service, we will hear the proclamation of the Christian Church through and after the times of the Apostles, calling us to repentance.
The call to repent is not as frequent as we might expect. The word repent in all of its forms appears only 46 times in the Old Testament, and most of those are describing someone as repenting, not telling them to do so. A good example might be the Old testament prophet Ezekiel. He was one of the prophets who strongly urged that the people of God repent. But he did not always use the word repent.
One of Ezekiel’s familiar cries was not repent, but “Turn Back.” Ezekiel 33:11 is an example of that cry: “Say to them, ‘As I live!’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, 0 house of Israel?’”
Repentance, as such, is not simple sorrow over having done wrong. The word is used that way many times in our world, but when God uses it in His Word, He means something more. After all, a man or a woman might be sorry for having done something simply because they were caught. They might be sorry for doing wrong because of the evil consequences that follow naturally on the heels of that action. They might even be sorry because when all is said and done, it wasn’t as good as it looked like it would be, as satisfying as one might hope, as profitable as it appeared it might be, or once done, the thrill is gone.
Repentance changes things. That is the reason for our Advent focus on repentance, and for looking forward to God’s answer of forgiveness. Scripture speaks of two kinds of sorrow over sins in 2 Corinthians 7, where Paul compares the sorrow that is according to the will of God, which produces repentance, to the sorrow of the world which does not. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. Simply being sorry for doing wrong is inadequate, and may even be harmful. On the one hand, it may sanitize one’s conscience without producing any change in the person, and, on the other hand, it might cause despair and lock the person in unbelief and hopelessness which will bring such a one to eternal death.
True, godly sorrow is the sorrow which says I have sinned against God and done what is evil, and I am ashamed. It says I will not do this thing again. Repentance means turning away from one’s sin. The word “repent” means to have a change of mind. We change our mind about the evil and the sin we have done, and we set our minds on doing what is right.
Tonight we are looking at the reality of repentance which John refers to in his proclamation to the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The reality is that genuine, honest, true repentance changes things. False repentance is all sound and show. Genuine repentance also includes the sincere intention of reformation, the desire to do whatever it is right.
We have all witnessed the kind of repentance and sorrow over something that gets lip service only. “I’m Sorry.” We have all heard someone apologize for something they did with glee, and intended to continue to do. “I’m sorry that this isn’t working out.” the young woman says as she serves divorce papers. “I’m sorry I have to do this,” the young man says as he strikes another in a fight. “I’m really sorry it came to this,” says the businessman as he repossess the family car. Children say “I’m sorry” when they are caught doing something, but as soon as the parents turn their back, they do it again.
If the young wife were genuinely sorry about the divorce, she could not carry it forward. It might ultimately occur, but she could not be the one who filed, the one that made the big decision, the one who asked the other to leave – not if she was sorry first. And if she repented later, she would purposefully try to put things back together. No one could administer a beating to another unless they wanted to hit them. You cannot punch another person if you are unwilling to do so. The repossession would not happen unless the man with the authority to do it wanted to do it. In each example, they may find the circumstances of their actions regrettable, but if they were truly sorry they would not continue – regardless of the cost to them.
Genuine repentance changes things by changing the actions of the person. Repentance will turn one away from the sinful behavior. If there is no change outwardly, the sorrow is not repentance -- at least not the godly sorrow Paul mentioned in 2 Corinthians. It may be simply regret that the circumstance demand this or that behavior in the mind of the one who is doing the deed.
Genuine repentance doesn’t merely change things, but it changes things for the right reason. John was witness to the fact that the Pharisees and the Sadducees were behaving as though repentant. They had come to hear him, and even possibly to be baptized for the remission of sins. But that wasn’t enough.
What the words of the Baptist reveal is the motivation of their hearts. They had come to John out of fear. They apparently understood the results of their behavior in terms of divine justice. John said, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Those Pharisees and Sadducees had come for fear of what would one day happen to them, not because they were repentant. They were not sorry that they had done the evil they had done. They were afraid of the consequences. They were sorry that they had gotten caught, so to speak. They wanted fire insurance. They wanted to sanitize their consciences and insure that they would not have to suffer for what they did. But they were not repentant for what they had done.
We cannot read the hearts of another person, so we would not have been able to tell. But the text tells us, and the Holy Spirit told John. These men had come to John to fraudulently acquire forgiveness. They were not sorry for their actions. Their only interest was in escaping the coming response of God to their sins. That is not repentance.
Repentance changes things, inside and out. We cannot really repent only the consequences of our sins. If we are not sorry for the evil, we are not repentant. Such sorrow, and even a change in behavior, may be outwardly effective and socially useful, but it has no spiritual value whatsoever. It has no value because it doesn’t really deal with sin.
Sin is the flight from all that is right and good. Unchecked and unrepented, sin has the power to drag even believers like us away from life and blessings and God, just as it had those to whom John preached so harshly. Advent is a season of repentance. It is the time to get honest with ourselves and examine our lives and see our sins for what they are. They are real, they are willful, and they are deadly. They place someone else in the role of God in our life - pleasure, greed, pride, fear, ambition, ourselves, or whatever.
Look into yourselves. Sin is there, even when you pretend it is not, and when you want to feel so righteous and so much better than the notorious and open sinners around you. The truly wicked also deceive themselves by excusing their sins by saying that they are, at least, not like the great hypocrites they see crowding into the churches. Of course, they only come on those rare days when the church is actually crowded.
Repentance means turning away from your sins. You don’t hide them. You don’t continue in them. You leave them behind. You change your mind and heart and do what is right instead. You need to do that with your sins - daily!
Genuine repentance sees sin as real and evil and deadly and destructive. Genuine repentance regrets the deed, and the desire for the deed, and the sin of the deed which separates the sinner from God. If one still appreciates or profits from the sin or its effects, then that one is not repenting of the sin, only of the trouble that sin can later cause him or her.
Jesus died for all sins. He didn’t die just because of the consequences of sin for us, but because of the evil nature of sin. He had to become one of us, and had to die to lift the consequences of our sins off of us, but He died because sin is sin, not simply because death is depressing, or eternal damnation is painful and unpleasant.
Remember, Sin is rejection of God. Sin is turning away from life. Sin is ignoring the will of God, thwarting the plan of God, spitting in the face of God. Sin is denying Him who created you and rejecting His love. It doesn’t have to feel like that to be like that. God saw our plight in sin, and our powerlessness to do anything about it, and while we were still such enemies, He did what needed to be done to rescue us from sin.
God demonstrated His love for us by lifting the consequences of our sin off of us, and giving us life in Jesus. He poured out His Holy Spirit upon us so that we might love Him and turn away from sin, because sin stands between us and God, not simply because it has unpleasant side effects. He wants to make us lovers of God. He doesn’t want us to be merely those who cower in fear of His wrath but to change us into those who delight in the confidence of His blessing.
That is why repentance changes things. It isn’t running from danger, but being genuinely sorry for the sin, for the denial of God and rejection of His love and of His benevolent will for us. Repentance is not only sorry, but earnestly determined to put sin away and live in the light and the will of God, the one who loves them so deeply, and the one they also love.
God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son. It is to that love that the heart of the penitent is responding with sorrow and the earnest intention to change. Because we also wrestle with the flesh, we do not always fully succeed in our intention not sin again – but we do live in and from that intention to amend our lives out of love for God.
So, repentance does change things. It changes the outward conduct and speech by changing the inner man and the motivation for behaving this way and that. The Advent call to repent is not the call to merely regretting that such behavior was necessary, or that the unpleasantries occurred. It is a call to horror over the nature of our sins, and the depth of them, so that we cry out to God for forgiveness and help and strength that we might sin against Him no more. Advent prepares us to joyfully receive our Savior, and the forgiveness He won, and the blessings He brings, and the power He gives to bring forth the fruit of repentance.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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