Advent 2a

Preached: December 5, 2010

Repentance: It's Not Just Words;
It's a Complete Change of Heart
Matthew 3:1-12

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts for Jesus is Matthew 3.

In those days, John the Baptizer came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent. For the kingdom of heaven is near.” In fact, he's the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'”

This John was wearing clothes of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food was grasshoppers and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the area around the Jordan kept coming to him. They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? So produce fruit worthy of repentance. And don't think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as [our] father.' For I tell you that from these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax already lies across the root of the trees. So every tree not bearing good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

“As for my part, I baptize you with water for repentance, but the One coming after me is stronger than I am, whose sandals I'm not fit to carry. He's the One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor. He will gather his grain into the barn, but burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)

This is the word of our Lord.

Dear friends in Christ, fellow saints washed clean in the blood of our risen Savior:

“Now tell him you're sorry!” How often haven't those words come out of the mouth of a parent or teacher. But is that what repentance really is, saying that you're sorry? Does adding the threat, “And you better mean it or else!” make it any more sincere? Repentance is not just words, is it? Christian repentance is a complete change of heart.

Only a repentant heart is ready to welcome the Christ Child. We know how to prepare our homes for the Christmas season. But what about your heart? Telling your heart to be repentant doesn't make it so. Saying the right words doesn't mean it's true. How do we prepare our hearts?

Let's listen to God's messenger sent to prepare the way for the Savior -- yes, sent to prepare our hearts. This voice, calling in the wild areas along the Jordan in uninhabited Judean countryside -- this voice was foretold by Isaiah over six hundred years earlier. He comes like Elijah of old, wearing the simplest of clothes, only coarse camel's hair and a leather belt. He lives off the land eating locusts and wild honey. His name is John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. He comes baptizing the people in the Jordan River and preaching: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV).

Dear friends, listen to the voice of John the Baptist. For by the power of the Holy Spirit, his words prepare your heart. His message works genuine repentance in you -- a repentance that's not just words but a complete change of heart.

A. A heart horrified at my sin

1. What sins horrify your heart?

μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite)is the Greek word the Holy Spirit uses here for “Repent!” The base word means your “mindset,” your “attitude,” your “way of thinking,” and the prefix means “change.” The word itself teaches us that repentance is not just words; it's a change of heart. First of all, it changes the way we think about our sin, so that my heart is horrified at my own sin.

Many back in Judea and Jerusalem were troubled by their sins. They walked those miles from their homes to where John was preaching. How much time would you take to hear God's message? No doubt it took them much more than an hour or two, probably more than a full day. But they came to listen, and “[c]onfessing their sins, they were baptized by him” (Matthew 3:6 NIV).

Confessing isn't boasting about your sin and it isn't denying it either. The Pharisees and Sadducees who came did not confess their sin. They were the religious elite. They came to check out this new religious star along the Jordan. If this was going to be a new popular movement, they didn't want to be marginalized. But as far as confessing sin, they figured they did not have anything worth confessing, not like these other people. They denied their sinfulness.

What does your heart think about sin? Yes, we had the confession of sins earlier in the service. But did you merely recite the words or did you examine your heart, horrified at your own sin?

We live in an age that boasts about sin, rather than confessing it. And even as we may shake our finger at those out there who parade their sin in pride, yet examine your own life. “You'll never guess how much I drank Friday night. You gotta' hear the latest gossip I know. He made me so mad I just told him off but good. Here's how to get around those government rules and regulations. I really pulled the wool over my parents' eyes last night. I hope my boss doesn't figure out what I did on my sick day.” Whether it's those specific boasts or others, such bragging is not confession. It's not a heart horrified at my sin. It's not a repentant heart prepared for Jesus.

On the other hand, how dangerous to think that we've cleaned up our lives pretty well by now. O yes, I'm not perfect, but then no one is. Over the years we've learned to control our temper and keep our words in check. We've rationalized our weaknesses and grown accustomed to our pet sins. We sit in our comfortable chairs and wonder what this world is coming to. We feel secure because we're in the right church, much like those Pharisees felt because they were in the right family, Abraham's family. That might be a heart horrified at the sin out there, but it's not a heart horrified at its own sin. That's not a repentant heart prepared for Jesus.

If you think you've cleaned up your heart pretty well, consider this: How much good have you and I left undone, content only to make it through this life as easily as possible? How many prayers do we leave unsaid because we were busy doing something else? How much of our stuff do we selfishly cling too? Look at John's food and clothes. How many of our moments glorify God and how many fail to? Do we even think about his glory and what he says as we make our daily decisions? And even if we've learned to control our outward behavior, what sinful thoughts and attitudes still pass through our hearts, many lingering longer than we care to admit? How many evil desires still make their home in us?

How deadly sin is -- your sin and mine. Sin makes us children of the devil, that ancient serpent. It makes us a brood of vipers, a nest of poisonous snakes. For when we who call ourselves Christians willfully sin or, like the Pharisees, portray ourselves as above sin, we poison the hearts of others. The ax is already at the root of the tree, John warns. Don't imagine you can put off confronting your sin until some later date. Every bad tree is cut down and burnt. Jesus knows the difference between his wheat and the chaff. He's not fooled by words or church membership. The chaff will be burnt, burnt endlessly in the unquenchable fires of hell. That's what sin does. How horrible my sin is! How horrible your sin!

B. A heart rejoicing in Christ's kingdom

1. Why do we rejoice in hearing that Christ's kingdom is near?

But look, dear sinner. See what John does for the heart horrified at its sin. “Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:6 NIV). Their sins were washed away. And in your baptism, dear friend, so were yours. So rejoice. Your repentant heart rejoices, for your sins are washed away.

But how can that be? John was a mere man; he couldn't wash away sins. And how can water, plain H2O, wash the heart clean? John explains, “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11 NIV). John was merely the hand that poured the water. The power wasn't in him, but in the One coming after him. Jesus, then and now, powerfully pours out the Holy Spirit through the water and word of Baptism. That's why baptism washes clean like a cleansing fire. For although John was the greatest of the prophets, Jesus was much more than a prophet. He is the Almighty God, so much more powerful than John or anyone else. He's the one that gives baptism its power because through baptism he pours out his Holy Spirit to wash you clean. No wonder not even John was fit to carry his sandals.

Such divine work meant that the kingdom of heaven was near. What good news for your repentant heart to rejoice in! “[T]he kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV), John heralded. For the King had come to this earth. He hadn't come in his pomp and glory. He had come as a helpless baby with no place to be laid in except an animal's feeding trough. Yet that baby was the Almighty God, the eternal Son of the Father. He grew up in obscurity in the backwater town of Nazareth in Galilee. But as John began preaching and baptizing, soon Jesus, now a grown man, would begin his public ministry.

“[T]he kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV). It was entering the hearts of the people through the word preached by John and through baptism -- those divine means of grace planned out by God in the eternal counsels of heaven. And through them the Father was graciously distributing his heavenly gifts: forgiveness, life, salvation, faith, peace, joy.

“[T]he kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV). For within the next three to four years, the King, Jesus Christ, would redeem his people with his holy, precious blood and win the victory for them, rising from the dead in triumph. He would ascend and pour out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as flames of fire hovered over his apostles' heads. From then on his kingdom goes out into all the world as repentance and the forgiveness of sins is preached in Jesus' name to all creation, bringing the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of sinners -- yes, to change your heart and mine. He has raised our hearts of stone that were once dead in sin, making us true children of Abraham. For like Abraham our hearts believe the Lord's promise of the Savior, fulfilled in Jesus.

“[T]he kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 3:2 NIV). Yes, it is near to you. What good tidings of great joy for you, dear friend. Your King has come. He has ransomed you. He has conquered sin, Satan, and death for you. He reigns in your heart through his means of grace, the Gospel in word and sacraments, through which he pours out his Holy Spirit on you. Your King will bring you, his wheat, safely into his heavenly barn. Your repentant heart rejoices in Christ's kingdom.

C. A heart producing real fruit in my life

1. What fruits can you produce in your life?

Now your heart, dear Christian, which is horrified at your sin and rejoices in Christ's kingdom -- that heart of yours produces real fruit in your life. That's the point John wanted the Pharisees and Saddacees to take home. Just because they said they were believers didn't make it so. For you see, real faith produces real fruit. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8), John preaches. “[E]very good tree bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17 NIV), Jesus would say later.

And what is the fruit that faith produces? In Luke 3:10-14 John gives some specific examples for different groups of people for his day. We could apply his words to our life this way: Show Christian kindness to others, loving your neighbor as yourself. Love one another, fellow Christians, even as Christ loved you and gave himself up for you. Do what is right in God's sight, even if everyone else seems to be doing otherwise and getting away with it. Let your light shine so that others glorify Jesus, who alone brings us to the Father. What opportunities do you have to produce these fruits of faith in your life? What opportunities do you have to let others see what Jesus means for you?

Repentance. It's not just words, is it? It's a complete change of heart that shows itself in our lives. Take time this Advent season as you prepare to celebrate Christmas. Take time to see the horror of your sin. Take time to rejoice in Christ's kingdom, for your sins are washed away. Take time to produce real fruit in your life, fruit that grows out of your repentant heart. Amen.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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