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(Chp 7) The Grace of Repentance: Life Can Begin All Over Again

February 11, 2008, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Pastor Daniel Tan (Luke 3:1-20) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: The Jesus Creed
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Jesus Creed, Luke

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Sermon based on Chapter 23 of Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed

Passage: Luke 3:1-20

From this Sunday onwards we are starting a new series of our pulpit’s message focusing on the various Gospel stories. We want to start off with the ministry of John the Baptist as told by Luke’s Gospel in the verses we read just now. It is because John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ. He forms a link between the Old and the New Testaments, for he is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first of the saints of the New Testament. Thus he represents times past and more importantly he is the herald of the new era to come. In other words, the ministry of John the Baptist ushers in a new beginning for humankind. As we are told in today’s reading, he started off his ministry by the call of God: the word of God came to John in the desert and he went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. If we can recall the Israelite history, they were brought out of Egypt, the land of slavery, through the Red Sea, through the Sinai wilderness, then through the Jordan into the promised land. It is the river Jordan that the children of Israel entered the water to cross in order to enter the promised land. So, John is in fact saying that if Israel wants to enjoy the blessings of God, they need to go back to the river of Jordan and begin again. John wants his audience to see that life can begin all over again. In the Jordan River region, John wants to give his people the opportunity to start over a new leaf of life. But how? The first word out of John’s mouth is “Repent!” So, we see calling his people to repentance is the key role that characterizes John’s ministry. It is therefore essential for us to understand the nature of repentance and what constitutes action of repentance that John is talking about, in order to benefit from his teaching. For John the goal of repentance is directed towards the forgiveness of sins. In fact, to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations is also the great commission given by Jesus to His disciples before He was taken up into heaven (24:47). I therefore entitled my today sermon: The Grace of Repentance—Life Can Begin All Over Again. Let us now see what is the nature of repentance. Firstly, repentance means we must tell God the truth.

(1) Repentance as Truth Telling
Though the Greek word for “repentance” means “a change of mind”, the concept of repentance has Old Testament roots in the idea of turning to God (1 Ki 8:47; 2 Ki 23:25; Ps 78:34; Isa 6:10; Eze 3:19).

Turning to God means a reorientation of one’s perspective from sin to God. In other words, we confess to God who we really are. We tell God the truth about our present misery, our rebellious acts against God and with a contrite heart we come to Him for forgiveness. For the Jews, they were proud of their heritage, to be the children of Abraham. They thought such a heritage would bring protection from God since judgment would only come on other nations, not on the children of Abraham. John however warns them that at an individual level, their heritage linked to Abraham guarantees them nothing before God. The best religious pedigree by itself is not an adequate source of protection before God. If they continue to ignore God’s warning to turn back to Him, God is able to raise up any race to be His Children out of stones to replace them. Therefore, each individual must assess himself or herself aright. So, instead of calling his Jewish audience as the chosen people or children of Abraham, John addresses them as the offspring of poisonous snakes—you brood of vipers. To be born of something or someone is to share its character by nature. For John, the crowds may claim to be children of Abraham, but their behavior deviates radically from that of Abraham. Their actions and their ways of living suggest the influence of the vipers. So, John is in fact asking his people to tell God the truth about their present sinful ways of living, to confess to God and change their behavior. Failing which they are to face the wrath of God. In fact, the axe is sitting at the tree’s root, ready to cut down those trees that lack fruits. Those trees, once felled, will be sent to fire. John here uses the imagery of the Old Testament—the axe’s falling on the fruitless trees and the fire to prepare his people for the new era. By labeling the crowds as brood of vipers, John underscores their hopeless situation apart from the way of repentance he presents to them.

So, John’s message is clear: religious heritage guarantees nothing before God. Some Christians today may think similarly, that one can be born a Christian or that attendance at church makes one a saved child of God. John warns that such thoughts of inherited salvation should not even cross their minds. Inherited salvation is no salvation at all.

To come to God we must come on His terms, not through a pedigree or by association with a certain organization. In John’s view, all must repent and come to God. Becoming a child of God is a matter of responding to God on His terms, terms that involve repentance. And repentance means we assess ourselves aright before God. We must face the reality and reflect where we are with Him and to take corrective action, if necessary. Someone once said that “ we all exist on at least three levels: there is the person as he or she appears in public; the person as he or she is known to intimates, which include family and dear friends; and that person, deepest of all, who is only known to himself or herself, where all the aspirations, resentments, fantasies, desires, and much else that is not ready for public knowledge reside.”
Assessing ourselves and facing reality is telling the truth about each of our levels to God. Who are we really as we exist on these three levels, and how do we think about others as we interact with them? First, on our public front, are we wearing a mask to disguise our true self or are we only present to the public the best part of ourselves? Secondly, on our family or friendly circus, do we sincerely care for their welfare or we only want them to care for us? Very often we are prone to take their kindness and love for us for granted. Thirdly, on our inner-self level, do we dare to bring our resentment, bitterness, aspirations, fantasies or desires to God and ask God to examine us closely and to set us free from undesirable motives or behavior? Or are we always trying to run away or hide from God so as to live our lives independently from Him? It takes utter honesty to tell the truth, the real self of us even to God. Pope John Paul II has said it well: “To acknowledge one’s misery in the sight of God is not to abase oneself, but to live the truth of one’s own condition… The truth thus lived is the only thing in the human condition that makes us free”.
Perhaps the following story will serve to illustrate the importance of knowing the misery condition of one self and telling it to God. Once upon a time, a weary traveler was wandering down a dark and scary road. Suddenly there appeared before him a bright and marvelous castle with a welcome sign over the entrance. Knowing he had reached rest and safety at last, the traveler felt relieved. Approaching the open gate he saw a strange sight. Other lost travelers were walking right past the castle as if it wasn’t there. He asked a castle resident about this strange behavior and heard this reply: “This is a magic castle. It can be seen only by those who realize and admit they have lost their way. The castle can’t appear to persons who pretend to know where they are going, who demand their own way. Your own self-honesty made the castle appear to you. Enter, for all its riches are now yours”.

(2) Repentance as a Possibility of a New Life
Yes, brothers and sisters in Christ, repentance means we tell God the real truth about our whole self, about our present condition and to admit to God that we are truly lost. It means we come to God on His terms, terms that require us to confess to Him our sins, our rebellious acts against Him. God has already prepared salvation for us, but it requires personal repentance of one’s sins. This is also the second point I want to highlight in John’s message to his people which is: repentance as a possibility of a new beginning, a new life.

By quoting Isaiah 40:3-5, Luke wants to inform us that John’s ministry means God is at work again to save His people. In other words, John’s ministry is a continuation of salvation history. Luke sees the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3-5 being fulfilled with John as the forerunner to prepare the people for the coming of Christ. Thus, John’s ministry in the Jordan River region is designed to get people ready for the arrival of God’s salvation and to have their hearts opened to respond to the coming Messiah. That is why in citing this Isaiah text, Luke mentions the leveling of obstacles in the way of God’s arrival. If the creation bows to God’s coming, surely human hearts should as well. This leveling would thus include the removal of our moral obstacles to God’s arrival. Luke also wants us to see the universality of the gospel by citing the Isaiah text again that “all mankind will see God’s salvation”. So, we see that God’s salvation is not only restricted to the Israel nation, but from the very beginning embraces all other nations as well.

John’s message is so powerful that leads some people to speculate that perhaps John is the Christ, the Messiah. This speculation is logical, since John has spoken of the coming Day of the Lord, God’s judgment and the approach of God’s deliverance. Many Jews at that time expected that God would crush His enemies decisively with the coming of the Messiah. So maybe John is this figure. But John is only a pointer, not the center of God’s plan. He therefore distinguishes himself from the Christ in three ways. First, Jesus has a higher position than John. John is not worthy even to be a slave of this Mightier One, to even untie His sandals. Secondly, this Mightier One will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Thirdly, this Mightier One will bring judgment. The second and third points of Jesus’ superiority over John should be viewed together in order to understand the meaning of Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit and fire. View in this context, “Spirit and fire” can also be interpreted as “wind and fire”, to provide a double meaning to John’s saying. Wind and fire are symbols for the Holy Spirit, the powerful presence of God (Acts 2:1-4), but also of judgment. In harvest time, farmers poured wheat from one container to another on a windy day, or tossed the wheat into the air with a fork so that the chaff would be blown away, leaving the grain clean and retained for storage. The chaff would then be gathered and burned with fire. John’s picture of Jesus’ ministry in terms of harvest time is clearly one of judgment, just as in the earlier image, “The axe is laid to the root of the trees”. Thus, in the baptism of Spirit and fire there are two sides to Jesus’ offer of God’s promise. It divides people into two groups. Those who accept it, by acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah, are purged and taken in. Those who do not are thrown to the wind, gathered and burned. Thus, the baptism of Spirit and fire means the Mightier One comes to gather and to divide.

Given the direct, challenging and harsh tone of John’s message, it is however not without redemptive content. Luke notes that there is much more to John’s teaching as he exhorts the people with the good news. When repentance and forgiveness are available, judgment is good news. The primary aim of God’s salvation is to save the wheat, not to burn the chaff. So, where there is judgment, there is offer of mercy through repentance. Our problem is our failure to appreciate what John is offering. John is not a preacher of gloom and doom but as a preacher of hope and encouragement. The hope and encouragement that John brings is that repentance will deliver people from the wrath to come, and that repentance is available to all people. Repentance will reunite us with God because it unleashes His forgiveness. This is the essence of John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Recognizing that we are accountable to God can be either suffocating or liberating. It suffocates us when we insist on continuing to sin. It liberates us when we turn to God for forgiveness and experience the blessing of being forgiven. So, let us remember that as we look honestly at ourselves, we can always trust Jesus for forgiveness through repentance. Jesus is the Mightier One John pointed to as bringing the salvation of God. Through repentance we can claim the reality of the forgiveness Jesus has made available at the cross once for all. And our lives can begin all over again.

(3) Repentance as a Responsibility to Bear Fruits
Thus, we see that John is not simply screaming rebukes, trying to reduce a crowd to a pool of guilt and fear, he has a message of hope and encouragement: turn to God for the forgiveness of sins through repentance. In addition, John wants his people to see baptism by itself is meaningless unless they bear fruits that attest to their repentance. For John, repentance is a change in thinking that must be accompanied by a change in behavior. So, bearing fruits in one’s life authenticates and renders visible the change in thinking and in behavior involved in repentance. This is the third message John wants to bring across to his people: Repentance as a responsibility to bear fruits.

From the preaching of John, the crowds realize that they can no longer trust in their ancestral heritage linked to Abraham to escape the impending judgment of God. They also recognize that they have to bear fruits worthy of repentance. They therefore ask John, “What then shall we do?” The crowds are asking in effect, “What is the product that reflects true repentance?” John’s reply about the product of repentance is exceedingly practical. He does not call the crowds to their ascetic lifestyle, nor does he call for a commitment to a series of ritual religious acts. Rather, he points to meeting the needs of others. John is asking them to share their excess food and clothing with those who have nothing. John is not simply addressing the wealthy; he is addressing everyone. In other words, everyone has a responsibility to share his or her substance with those who have nothing. What John requires are concrete actions of selfless concern for the well being of others. Such actions reflect compassion and mercy towards all people, so as to enable diverse individuals to live together as a caring community of people of God. The sharing of basic needs with one’s neighbor is thus the proper fruit that grows out of repentance.
After addressing how repentance should be manifested by people in general, Luke next reports two specific classes of people asking the same question. They are the tax collectors and the soldiers, the least popular groups in Jewish society. To the tax collectors, John’s reply is: Don’t collect any more than you are required to! Taxes in the Roman Empire were a complex affair. There were different ranks of collectors, and there were different taxes to collect. Because of this multiple layers of collectors, each of whom could add his own surcharge at his own discretion, thus creating great abuse. The bulk of their wealth usually resulted from collecting more than the specified amount. The fact that tax collectors are often paired with sinners in the New Testament shows how much disdain Jewish society had for them. So, John’s command that they collect no more than the amount prescribed is a radical one. It entails a total rejection of their former way of life. They have to reject and abandon their unjust practices that made them rich. Without this fundamental change in the unjust practices, it is impossible for them and tax-paying Jews to live together as a community of God’s people.

Finally, to the soldiers, John’s command is: Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely –be content with your pay! It is generally agreed that these soldiers are Jewish rather than Roman. They are assigned by a Roman sanctioned Jewish leader to assist tax collectors in the gathering of taxes. These soldiers, therefore, belong in the same corrupt social system as the tax collectors. The soldiers, like the tax collectors, are also commanded not to exploit their positions in order to obtain money by violence or false accusations. Since the soldiers are serving the needs of tax collectors or other corrupt forces who demanded violence be used in order to receive monies, they have to disobey them in order to obey John’s command. So, John is telling these soldiers to challenge the very foundations of the social order and to treat others fairly and justly even when those whom they serve command them to do otherwise. By commanding them, “be satisfied with your wages”, John is also telling them not to allow greed to cause them to be like the tax collectors, who use their power and authority for their own personal gain.

So, by having both the tax collectors and the soldiers approaching John to ask what they must do in order to bear fruits, Luke wants to demonstrates to us that repentance is available to everyone—even to the most socially despised segments of the population at that time. No one is doomed merely on the basis of who they are, but everyone is capable of receiving forgiveness and escaping the impending judgment of God. So, we should never consider anyone unworthy to participate in the community of God’s people established by Christ, the Mightier One. We are all forgiven persons through the grace of repentance, thus we must also become forgiving persons. That is why in the Lord’s Prayer we pray to have our sins forgiven as we forgive others.

Nevertheless, we do have King Herod as a negative demonstration not to respond to John’s call to repent. He found John’s preaching too direct and too indicting. Herod’s response to the exposure of his sin is to lock John in prison. Given the choice of repenting or denying sin, he uses his authority to silence the messenger and to remove the source of accountability. Thus, we see that sin confronted but unchecked often becomes sin multiplied and magnified, and eventually leads us to self-destruction. We always face a choice when God’s will is revealed. We may seek to accomplish God’s desire, or we may reject it out of hand by trying to ignore or remove the message preached to us.

So, in this festive season as we celebrate the Chinese New Year, let us not forget also to seek renewal in our walk with God. A walk with God means submission to Him and a change of direction. God has already provided us the grace of repentance through the work of His Son, Jesus Christ. So, are we being honest with God about who we are? Do we associate repentance with changed behavior? Furthermore, the awareness of our accountability to God should make us more sensitive to how we treat others. Thus, the social and ethical acts of selfless concern for others, which represent “fruits worthy of repentance”, should be reflected in our personal and professional lives! What pleases God is responding to Him and showing concrete kindness to others. May the grace of God be with you all!

Luke 3:1–20 (Listen)

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet,

  “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
  Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
  and the crooked shall become straight,
    and the rough places shall become level ways,
  and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap 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 the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother's wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

(ESV)