7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
There was a little old pastor who had a little old church in the little old mountains of Virginia. The church building was looking about as worn as the pastor, so he decided that he would try to spruce things up a bit with a coat of paint. The problem was that there was no money in the budget for such an expense. As you know, times are tough. So the pastor went to the storage room and there he found a single gallon of white paint and several gallons of paint thinner.
“If I just thin it out a bit, I can make this gallon cover the entire building,” said the pastor to himself. So that is what he did. He dumped the gallon of paint into a bucket and he dumped a gallon of thinner into the bucket as well. He began painting and he even though of the story of the feeding of the 5,000. If Jesus could feed that many people from just a few loaves and fish, surely this endeavor would work as well.
The pastor finished up the paint job and he stood back to inspect his work. Just then, out of nowhere a thunder storm came and dropped about an inch of rain. As the clouds dissipated, the pastor could see that all of his work had washed away. Out of frustration, the old man looked to the sky, and he heard a voice saying, “Repaint, and thin no more.”
Repent and sin no more. We hear that all of the time, usually in a rather accusatory tone, in a “holier-than-thou” manner. Perhaps it comes from a man wearing a sandwich board sign and it is accompanied by a prediction of the end times – which I want to remind you, is only five days away. Usually it is meant to scare us straight. But what does it really mean to “repent?”
Our text for today comes to us from Luke chapter 3. Luke chapter 3 starts with the beginning of the ministry of our friend John the Baptist. I like John. He spent a lot of time camping in the wilderness, eating honey and wearing clothes that he made himself. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, John was a bit strange. But people were taking notice of him. They were coming to him to be baptized, to be associated with this new movement within Judaism that John came proclaiming.
And like the prophets of the Old Testament, John did not come to just give everyone a pat on the back and ensure them that they were doing a wonderful job. No, John didn’t give them a pat on the back as much as a kick in the pants. And the people know that John is offering what they need. In verse ten the people ask, “What then should we do?”
John then responds to the people according to the sins that he sees them committing as a group. John told them if you have two coats, give one to someone who has zero coats. Whoever has food must do likewise (v. 11). John would probably be called a socialist today. To the tax collectors he said to not take more money from the people than they were required to give (v.13). To the soldiers he said not to extort money through threats or false accusations and to be satisfied with their wages (v. 14). John wasn’t just pulling these things out of a hat. Evidently these are ways that the people are failing to live up to God’s will. Many of these sins involve the love of money. It is clear that sins, our shortcomings, can be personal, social, communal and corporate. Anytime we miss the mark of perfection, we are sinning. Everybody does it and we always will sin (always, but not continuously). But we are called to try to live as Jesus lived. That is what we call “discipleship.”
So this is what John is doing. He is calling people to make corrections in their life to prepare them for a life of following Jesus.
I want to go back a few verses in chapter three to verse three. In this verse we are given John’s mission statement: “He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I want to spend the rest of our time on one word, “repentance.” I know, please control your excitement.
I am very aware that I am running out of time before my children start to get embarrassed when I use them in sermon illustrations, so here goes one more. As we come to the end of the “terrible twos” and near the beginning of the terrific threes, Paxton has entered into a period of his development where he likes to throw things. He is a mess maker, and as his arm strength improves, he is able to manifest his mess-making abilities all the more. Blocks are among his favorite things to throw.
The problem is that he has a little sister, who though she is as tough as nails, does not really enjoy playing catch with her older brother. It seems like at least once a day we are telling Paxton, “Don’t throw blocks at Hadley.” He always replies, “Okay.” What do you think happens next? We have an 8-month-old girl crying because her brother hit her in the head with a block. We soothe the baby girl and do the whole “time out” thing. Then we make Paxton go up to Hadley and say that he is sorry, which he is very willing to do! “I’m sorry, Ha-wee.” There are hugs exchanged, Paxton promises he will never do it again, and there is a proud father looking on, patting himself on the back for his awesome parenting skills…for a few minutes anyway. Because Paxton eventually goes back to throwing blocks at/to his sister.
I think that there is an old saying that sums this experience up pretty well. Paxton isn’t sorry he hit Hadley with a block. He is sorry he got caught. Because if he was really sorry, he would stop throwing blocks at her.
What Paxton is doing is not repentance. Paxton is apologizing. Apologizing may be a part of repentance, but it is not in itself repentance. They are not synonyms. To repent means that you are sorry for doing what you have done and making a conscience effort to not do it again. So for those people that John the Baptist is telling to give their second coat away and give food to the hungry, John isn’t saying that they should just go and tell the hungry and the cold that they are sorry. Repentance requires action or change.
I think that it is important to remember that our English-language Bibles are a few degrees removed from the original text and the original way of thinking for the people living in Jesus’s day. Our English New Testaments were originally written in Greek by people who spoke Aramaic and thought in Hebrew terms. The Greek word that we traditionally translate as “repent” is μετάνοια, or metanoia. Metanoia literally means to “think differently after.” We might say this is to change one’s mind. This is something that is clear in Luke 15, the story of the Prodigal Son. The son who went off and spent all of his father’s money changed his mind and went back to the father.
But to change one’s mind still doesn’t fully capture the essence of repentance because this morning I was going to wear a red shirt and I changed my mind. Did I “repent” for my desires to wear red? No, let’s go deeper.
Since the New Testament was written by Jewish people, I feel that it would be helpful to understand repentance from a Hebrew perspective. And they repented, the Hebrew people not only changed their minds, they embodied that change. One of the words that we commonly translate as repentance from the Hebrew language is “shuv.” Shuv literally means “to turn.” The easy way to remember this is if I give you a little “shuv” (pronounced like shoov) you will turn.
So repentance is not simply saying that you are sorry and it is not simply changing your mind. It is an embodied change; it is changing your trajectory.
Many of us enjoy athletic competitions. We are now well into December – though it is hard to tell based on the weather – and basketball season is underway. In basketball there are a few different ways that you can score. You get one point for hitting a free-throw, which is an un-guarded shot that you get to take from 15 feet away when someone fouls you. You get two points when you make a basket from point-blank range out to about 20 feet away from the rim during regular play (the exact distance depends on what level you are playing). But if you make a basket from further-than 20(ish) feet, you are rewarded with three points.
An easy question: Why are you given three points when you make a basket from 20+ feet and only two when you make a basket from within the three point line? Because the further away you get, the more difficult it is to make a basket.
There are a number of reasons why this is true and I want to look at the physics and geometry behind it. If you shoot from 1 foot away from the basket, the ball needs to travel about x feet vertically and horizontally to hit the target. And because you are only one foot away, there is a lot of grace in how you shoot the ball. If the trajectory is off by 5%, the ball will only miss the exact center of the hoop by y feet. Now if you back up and shoot from 20 feet, being off by that same 5% will cause the ball to miss the center of the rim by a significantly larger distance. The further away you are from the hoop, the more you will see the effects of being off, even by a small amount. The further away you are, the more difficult the shot becomes.
When John the Baptist begins his public ministry, he calls the people to repent, to ask forgiveness, to change their minds, and to embody that change by turning. Because if they continue on at this trajectory, even if it is only off by a few degrees, they will continue to get further and further away from the goal.
Sure, you can be off the mark for a little bit and still be okay. Nobody will notice; nobody will get hurt. But even being the slightest bit off will eventually lead to being very far off.
As we seek to follow Jesus, we want to make sure that our trajectory is as accurate as possible because the longer we are off the target, even if it is only a small amount off, the further we get from Jesus.
So we turn, we shuv, we repent. We get back on target and follow Jesus.
Now here is the challenge for you all today: I believe that we are not call to repent, but called to live repentance. That embodiment of change is something that we are called to every day.
Let’s go back to the basketball court. If I shoot the ball and miss, as it usually the result, the next time I shoot the ball, I am going to make a few adjustments to try to hit my target. But just because I hit that target once, I am not guaranteed to make every shot after that. No, every shot that I take requires adjustment. It is an on-going adjustment. I adjust the distance, the trajectory, I adjust left or right. Just because you get it right once, doesn’t mean that you are done.
As we come closer and closer to celebrating the birth of Jesus, I want us all to remember that our life is to be the embodiment of repentance. We make changes each and every day, seeking to follow our Lord all the better.