A Season of Repentance
How many times have you heard me say, "Advent is a season of repentance?" Is that true? Isn't it the season of shopping, of cooking, of cookies, of parties, of decorations, and good cheer? Well that's the season out there, but it's a different season in here. The purple on the altar, the dark Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and "O Come Emanuel" speak to us of captivity, mourning, and exile from God, of the Devil's tyranny, the depths of hell, and the grave. These are preaching repentance.
Repentance has been the theme of Advent in the church for centuries. In the 70s, some churches adopted hope as the theme instead and switched the paraments from purple to blue. There's no sin in that, hope is definitely a message of the church this time of year. However, when you're talking about the initial message the church is to proclaim to people, it's not hope but repentance.
John's preaching is summed up here as, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." In Matthew 4:17, Jesus' Galilean ministry is described saying, "From that time on Jesus began to preach saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." On Easter evening Jesus says that repentance is to be preached among all nations. Peter preached to the Jews in Jerusalem, "Repent," and Paul preached to the Gentiles in Athens that God commands all men everywhere to repent.
Repentance is all over our text as well. It's before, during, and after the baptism of John. The church leaders who responded to the commotion and expected to be baptized by John were commanded to repent before. The crowds that respond to his command to repent were baptized by him while confessing, that is repenting, of their sins. And John describes his baptism as one of repentance; it produces repentance after the fact.
Repentance is what the Bible declares to be the proper preparation for the coming Christ, and the church historically began the Church Year with a 4 week season of repentance, so where is repentance in your life? Do you think you are repentant when you say, "I intend or I want to do better next time?" Do you think you're repentant when you say, "I'm sorry; that's just the way I am?" Do you think you're repentant when you say, "I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings, if you took it wrongly, if you feel that way?"
Repentance produces fruit; that's what John said. "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." Though we have no trouble recognizing the fruit of repentance in other people's lives or the lives of our children, we plead ignorance in our own case or in the case of the accepted sins of society. We know the child who splashes water all over the floor for the fifth time in a row after being corrected isn't repentant because his fruits betray him. We don't think the neighbor who blocks our driveway 3 more days in a row is really repentant for doing it the first time. Yet couples can live together without marriage and none dare call it impenitence. People can stay away from preaching and the Word for weeks at a time and none dare say they lack repentance. A man can defend looking at pornography on the internet and none dare say he's doing anything other than surfing porn.
Repentance produces fruit; if it doesn't, it's not repentance. It may be excuses; it may be good excuses; it may be excuses accepted by your friends, family, and society, but it's not repentance. And without the fruit of repentance, your fate is that of a fruitless fruit tree. You will be cut down and thrown into the fires of hell. What's the matter? Don't you do that with a fruitless fruit tree and don't you feel good doing it? I sure do. That miserable good for nothing peach, plum, or pecan tree had it coming. I planted it; I watered it; I fed it; I sprayed it for bugs, and there it sits in my yard producing nothing. Yet you don't think the God who has bestowed upon you life and forgiven your sins countless time should be angry that you don't produce the fruit of repentance?
Cutting down and burning. That's what Christmas brings to impenitence or fake repentance that yields no fruit. Fake repentance is worse than hardened impenitence. Don't you remember the fig tree that had leaves indicating it would have fruit? Remember how quickly Jesus cursed it? To give all the signs of Christianity, to say all the right words, to do all the right things, yet lack the fruit of repentance brings swift judgment.
This is the Pharisees and the Sadducees in our text. They are the leaders in the church. They had pretend repentance and John called them snakes. They thought because they were lifelong Lutherans, because their relatives were in the ministry, because they were fathered by the Missouri Synod, they were guaranteed salvation. Nope fruitless trees get chopped down and burned. That's what Jesus brings to those unprepared to meet Him, to those whose repentance is phony, and that's why Advent is a season of repentance.
So, now you're scurrying round looking for your fruit of repentance. You pick up this or that only to find worms or mold or a nice pecan on the outside but shriveled on the inside. Let me ask you. Would any of you go down to the empty lot the shed is on and look for pecans there? Nope. There's no pecan tree there, so it would be silly to look for pecans. You have to have a tree before you can have fruit.
Jesus is that tree. The Old Testament foretold of a Branch that would sprout from the stump of Jesse. The Messiah, the Savior was to come from the line of David, but it appeared to dead-end in 67 B.C. That's when Rome conquered Judea. Where was David's line now? The once mighty kingdom of David was no more than a dead stump. There was no kingdom left. Then Gabriel came to Mary, a descendant of David, and told her she would give birth to David's Son and David's Lord, and she did. And Jesus grew into a mighty, perfect tree.
Here was a Man who needed no repentance. Here was Man who lived under the same demands of God's laws that we do, yet who never sinned. Where God's laws only expose more and more sin in us in Jesus they exposed more and more righteousness. Upward this mighty Tree grew pleasing to God and men. He had the strength and holiness to grow all the way to heaven itself. But what happened? The holy Jesus was taken and nailed to another tree, the tree of the cross.
Do you want to see what your lack of repentance deserves? Do you want to see what your failure to produce fruit in keeping with repentance should get? Then go to the cross. That's what should happen to you, but it doesn't. It happened to the Son of God and the Son of Mary instead, in your place. Do you want to see what happened to all that anger, wrath, and judgment God the Father has against your sins and sinfulness? Go to the cross. There it is all taken out against the innocent Jesus.
Before you can have fruit you have to have a tree. Jesus is that tree. The crucified Jesus bears fruit. Isn't that what Jesus said in John 12? The Seed that dies produces, not the seed that lives. It's that way in fruit trees. My rancher friend told me that often the tree that won't come back in the spring produces a bumper crop in the fall.
And so it is with Jesus. From His body nailed to a tree John saw water and blood flow. Dripping down these hit the ground like acorns falling off an oak tree. The Water fills baptismal fonts that give birth to Christians. The Blood cleanses people from their sins and up sprouts new creatures created in Jesus' image righteous and holy. Sinners don't come out of that font saints do, new people do, different people do. Impenitent people don't sprout from the blood of Jesus. Penitent ones do. People who want nothing to do with their sins. People who claim no righteousness or holiness of their own but claim Jesus' blood and righteousness as their holiness. Born from Jesus' Water and Blood, they stand clothed, covered, forgiven, and holy before God.
Under the outstretched arms of your crucified God, you have been planted and you grow and flourish. Notice in the text that it is to unbelievers that John preaches, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." That is the message to those who think they have no need of grace. They think are good enough as they are for the kingdom of heaven to come to them. Their life; their works, their faith, their Christianity needs no preparation to celebrate Christmas. They have no need of a season of repentance. To those impenitent John says, "Show me the fruit."
It was different story for those who heard the Advent message, "Repent," and cried, "O Lord how shall I meet Thee?" It was a different story for those who heard the Advent cry, "Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for Him," and confessed, "I can't." The fruit of their repentance was going to Baptism. That's what the text says, "Confessing their sins, that is repenting, they were baptized by John."
The crucified Jesus is the Tree whose fruit is repentant sinners. His Water and Blood sprouts penitent sinners. Those so born are continually repenting back to the Water and Blood from which they came because they have no life apart from contact with these. So each Sunday we start our Divine Service with a reminder of our Baptism in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. And we end it gathered around the Blood of our Savior. Going forth from here reborn by Jesus' Water and covered by His Blood we go forth as good trees made in the image of the Tree that spouted us.
As good fruit trees don't spend time worrying about their fruit, so trees sprouted by Jesus need not. Advent isn't the season to "worry" about repentance; indeed to worry about repentance would need to be repented of. Advent is the season to prepare for our coming king and His kingdom. We prepare to meet Him not by offering Him our repentance or its fruits, but by repenting back to the Water that birthed us and to the Blood that covers our sins. In that Water and in that Blood we fruit trees thrive. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
The Second Sunday in Advent (20101205); Matthew 3: 1-12