(If you prefer would prefer to listen to this sermon, you can find a link at the bottom of the page.)
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? 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. 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.” “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 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.” (Luke 3:7-14)
V. 8: “Produce fruit in keeping with (or worthy of) repentance.” When I read this in preparation for today’s message, I couldn’t help but wonder why fruit production isn’t automatic in people who have repented. Why should John have to tell them to produce fruit? If they’ve repented, shouldn’t that just happen?
The answer has to do with the nature of repentance: it isn’t a one-and-done thing. Repentance – a rethinking of your life in the light of previously unrealized truth – takes time to process. Repentance is like a sunrise. It brings light to a mind that was previously dark, but the mind is a vast, undulating landscape. Repentance won’t shine on it all at once. Today the sun rose at 7:14 in New York City, but not until 8:02 in Coldwater. It takes time for the earth to turn into its light. It is the same for the human mind, with all its vast reaches. It takes time for the light of repentance to reach across it or, rather, for the mind to turn fully into the light.
Let me illustrate it differently. Larry Knapp and I were in a taxi in Dakar, Senegal, a metropolitan area of two-and-a-half million people, with hundreds of thousands of cars and hardly any traffic lights. There were hundreds of intersections with neither traffic light or stop sign. Then there were intersections with more lights than seems possible. Larry and I were in the last car in a caravan of taxis, taking us back to the place we were staying, but we got separated from the others in a roundabout. When our driver finally got out of the roundabout the other taxis had vanished. He entered a narrow alley and stopped. (We didn’t know what he was doing.) He rolled down the windows and pulled in the side mirrors, then he hit the gas. The G-force was like the Demon Drop at Cedar Point.
About a half an hour later, I had a repentance moment; that is, the light of a previously unrecognized truth began to shine: it became apparent to me that our taxi driver, who didn’t speak English or even French, had no idea where he was supposed to be taking us. That truth dawned on me our third time down the same street. Repentance happens when one realizes one’s true position in the dawning light of truth. I was granted repentance. I knew we were lost. But I didn’t know what to do about it; didn’t know how to produce fruit worthy of repentance.
John did not think of fruit production as automatic. It is something he told people to do, which means there must be some intent on our part. It is not all up to us – thank God, or we would have no hope – but we do have a part to play. We must bring our lives into line with our beliefs. When we realize – and this happens to repentant people repeatedly, across the years, from spiritual nativity through spiritual maturity – that our practice doesn’t match our profession, our life doesn’t match our doctrine, our walk doesn’t match our talk, we take steps to change. An unchanging Christian is an oxymoron. Christians must always be in the process of change for, as St. Paul says, we are being changed into the image of Christ, from glory to glory. We cannot be set in our ways and expect to know his ways. We can’t be stationary and follow Jesus at the same time. It takes a lifetime to take a life and make it fully God’s.
That’s not what we want to hear. We want a shortcut: religion or church or some spiritual practice that we can do and be done. People in John’s day felt the same thing. They wanted to rely on something else, something easier – in their case, their Jewish heritage – to make things right. So John says to them: “Don’t even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father.’”
Many Jewish people believed they would be “grandfathered in” to the Kingdom of God through their connection to Abraham. They thought that admittance into God’s kingdom – being accepted by God onto his side – hinged on one’s ethnic heritage. If you were a Jew, you were in, unless you did something stupid and became a heretic. But John would have none of that. People were counting on the fact that they were Abraham’s children, but John told them they were the children of vipers – of snakes. Now God will even accept snakes if they are willing to become real men and women, but he will not run a DNA test to decide if they’ll get in. He doesn’t accept people on the basis of race or ethnicity.
Of course, people in our day already know that. The idea that acceptance with God could be race-based is anathema to us. But do we substitute some other identity marker in the place of Jewish ethnicity? We might. We might think, “I’ll be alright because I am a church member.” Or because I am a preacher’s kid. Or because I’ve gone to church all my life. God will take me in because I’m a Calvinist or an Arminian, a Presbyterian or a Free-will Baptist.
Listen: God will take you in because you are blood-bought. Because Jesus died for you. You don’t get into God’s kingdom – you’re not accepted onto his side – because you’re religious or because you are a church member. God doesn’t check to see if you’re good looking, or rich, or poor, or smart, or Catholic, or Protestant, or white, or black. Stop depending on such things. Depend on God who gave his Son Jesus Christ so that you could join him. Trust him.
The people John was talking to thought, “We’re alright the way we are. We don’t have to do anything.” John says: “Think again. The axe is already laying against the tree trunk. It’s just a matter of time before the Woodcutter goes to chopping.”
John is letting them know a time is coming when it will be too late to make changes. The time for change is now. Later may be too late.
John was like the guy we used to see regularly in TV shows and movies and comic strips – the guy who wore the sandwich board sign that read, “The End Is Near.” The guy was always a comic relief figure. He was a joke, a crazy person, and we all knew it. The end is near … that’s just nuts.
But it’s not nuts; it’s biblical. John the Baptist believed it. So did Jesus. So did the Apostles Peter and Paul. They all believed a day is coming when it will be too late to change sides. Call it “the end” or call it “the judgment”—call it what you will; it’s coming, and John was ringing the fire alarm. He urged people to rethink their lives in the light of it.
And people in John’s day connected to that message. They felt it was true, but that’s not always been the case. It was in John’s day; the message it home. The same was true in St. Francis’s day and Martin Luther’s day. It was so in the 1830s through the turn of the century in our country. But at other times and in other places that same message has failed to connect. In Malachi’s day, people dismissed it. Toward the end of St. Peter’s life, people scoffed at it. People living in Rome when St. Thomas Aquinas was on the scene, made light of it. And that message certainly does not connect with most Americans in the early years of the 21st century.
There seems to be a time when the Lord may be found and a time when he may not be. Remember what the prophet said: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6). There have been historical eras when many people sought and found the Lord; when he was near, and many people turned to him. There also have been eras when that was not the case, though even then there are personal moments when God draws near and individuals realize the message is true.
The people who heard John understood he was telling the truth, but they didn’t know what to do about it. The sun was rising but they didn’t recognize the landscape or know how to travel it. They chose to align themselves with God and his cause, but they didn’t know how to go about it. So they asked John (verse 10), “What should we do then?”
John’s response has implications for us. It helps us understand how to produce fruit worthy of repentance. He told the people, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” In case you’re wondering, John is not advocating socialism. If he were, he would say, “Force the man with two tunics give up one.” But he is not talking to the state here; he’s talking to people.
But neither is this capitalism. John does not say, “Let him who has two tunics recognize a financial opportunity in the limited supply and high demand.” It is not eastern bloc socialism nor Western-style capitalism John wants; it is kingdom of God love. Repentance – the rethinking of your life in the light of God – opens your eyes and heart to the people around you and to the God who watches over you.
Notice that John didn’t give people some traditionally “religious” thing to do. When they asked, “What should we do?” he didn’t answer, “Fast for a week, spend the night in contemplation, read the Bible through, light a candle, say a prayer.” John understood that repentance doesn’t lead us to go somewhere else to do something religious. It causes us to live differently right where we are. If John were talking to us, and we asked, “What should we do?” he would tailor his response to our setting. He probably wouldn’t say, “Go to a monastery and take holy orders.” He’d say to kids, “Treat your parents with respect. Let your sister borrow your clothes.” He’d tell adults, “Use your bonus to help your neighbor who is unemployed. Drive your aunt to the doctor. Spend time loving and interacting with your family.” Repentance works itself out right where we are as it moves us to where we should be.
Verse 12 is surprising. The last people we would expect to connect to John’s message, the most despised people in Israel, the tax collectors, came asking for guidance: “What should we do?” 99 out of a 100 people in Israel in John’s time would have said, “Quit working for the Roman government. Give up being a tax collector.” But that is not what John said. He told them, verse 13, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” Once again, he understands that repentance tales place where a person is, not where he ought to be. Repentance is the most practical thing in the world.
Verse 14 is just as surprising as verse 12: “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.’” These soldiers may have been Jews. Herod had some troops stationed in Judea and, if these were his troops, they might have been some of the same men who would soon be sent to capture John and detain him in Herod’s prison. But they may also have been regular Roman army, Gentiles from the Syrian garrison.
Once again, John met them right where they were. He didn’t tell them to do anything that was too difficult for them. He didn’t tell them to leave the military, for example. They were soldiers, and it was as soldiers that they would produce fruit worthy of repentance.
In those days, as in ours, most soldiers were stationed far from home and had no connections to the people living around them. Soldiers often bullied locals and some even extorted money from them. If locals didn’t pay “protection” money, soldiers would report them for anti-government activities, which was a capital offence. Soldiers frequently complained about their pay. At the beginning of Tiberius’ reign, there was the famous “frontier mutiny,” that began as a protest by soldiers over their pay but turned ugly and led to many deaths.
So, John tells them to stop strong-arming people and be satisfied with their pay. Again, repentance works itself out where people are, in their daily lives. John didn’t demand anything that was impossible to do, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. If you have two tunics and you give one away, you’re going to have to do the wash twice as often, and your wife may be mad at you. Your friends may make fun of you. If you’re the only tax collector who isn’t getting rich, who is not doing what everyone else does, your peers won’t want anything to do with you. If you’re a soldier who doesn’t act like the other guys, you’ll get mocked and harassed.
There is a cost to joining God’s side but there is also gain. You get a much simpler life. You get hope. You find friends who are real.
Repentance helps us rethink our lives in the light of the God who sees us and not just through the eyes of the people around us. If you only see yourself through the eyes of the people around you, you will never be free. You’ll never be yourself. Without repentance you cannot become your true self. May God give us the blessed gift of repentance!
If I see myself through your eyes, I will be limited by your expectations. If I see myself through God’s eyes – even though that reveals all the bad stuff – I will be stretched by his plans for me. I will become more than I could ever be without repentance. God, give us the blessed gift of repentance!
But even when we see previously unrecognized truth, we may not respond in the best way—we may not produce fruit worthy of repentance. The fire alarm may wake us up, but we may go back to sleep or head back to familiar paths. Research shows most people don’t respond when a fire alarm rings. Instead of leaving a building immediately, they stand around and wait for more information. In 1985, a fire broke out in the stands of a soccer match in England. When the television footage was examined, it showed fans took a long time to react. They didn’t move towards the exits until it was too late. 56 people died.
Research also shows that when we do move, we tend to follow old habits. For example, most people try to exit through the same door they entered, even when a nearer exit is available. A fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Kentucky left 177 people dead. Forensic experts believed that many of the victims tried to go out the way they came in, even though there were fire exits. They got caught in a bottleneck and couldn’t get out it time.
What is there for us today in this strange prophet’s ancient message? I’ll mention three things. First, there is a fire coming, a fire of judgment and a time of change, and John sounds the alarm. That warning is at the heart of the Christian gospel and our hearts tell us it is true. Don’t try to escape it by going back the way you came. There is a nearer door, the only one that works: Jesus. Go through him. He once said, “I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved…” (John 10:9). Go to him. Join him. Ask him to take you in.
Then ask God for the blessed gift of repentance for yourself and for your friends. You can’t manufacture it, any more than you can manufacture the sunrise, but you can enter it. You can see what to do in its light. If you think there is nothing for you to do, that is proof positive you need to ask God for repentance.
Finally, start where you are, otherwise you’ll never start at all. Start living out what you know in your home, in your closest relationships, and where you work. If your faith doesn’t even make it home with you today, it’s not realistic to think you’ll make it to heaven with it someday.
(Click here to listen: http://lockwoodchurch.org/media/131783-505499-1673658/religion-in-real-life-luke-3-8-18 )
 Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life (W.W Norton & Company, 2013), pp. 122-123