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A young boy, outraged that his little brother had the gall to play with his favorite dinosaur toy, smacks him. As his brother cries, Mom rushes in, sees what happened, and demands that the boy apologize. With his arms crossed, the boy squeezes out through a pouty face, “I’m sorry.” But the minute Mom leaves the room, the boy grabs his toy back and pushes his brother down.
An unfaithful spouse, finally caught in his affair, desperately tries to console his sobbing wife, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” But no sooner has she forgiven him, before he’s out with his mistress once again.
These are rarely joyful occasions, right? For the one apologizing, or being apologized to. Admitting guilt to someone is difficult, especially when although our apology implies, “I’m going to try to not do this again,” deep down we know we’ll do it again.
In our service today, we’re going to be looking at repentance. Repentance is a difficult struggle, because it necessitates that we change our hearts and minds about sin. And honestly, we don’t really want to change. So why, when the service is all about sorrow over sin and repentance, would the church fathers call this Sunday “Gaudete,” a Latin word that means “rejoice”? Because God’s Word is going to show us why we can Repent with Rejoicing.
First, we should define what repentance really is. Literally, it means “changing your mind” about sin. A changing of the mind, which leads to a change of heart and life! That was the message John the Baptist, the man called to prepare the way for Jesus, was preaching. “Repent and turn from your sin! The Savior is coming!” His message brought crowds flocking to hear his message and be baptized by him.
John didn’t exactly welcome the crowds with, “Hey, Happy Advent” though. He said, “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…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.”
Brood of vipers? Yikes! But, God adamantly wanted these people to understand that by nature, they were spiritual offspring of the serpent, Satan. They desperately needed forgiveness! Many of these Israelites thought that since they were descendants of the great patriarch Abraham, they had a “get out of jail free” card. They were more focused on the blood in their veins, than the blood of the Savior. So John warned them that unless they turned from their sins in repentance, the lumberjack was already there, lining up the first swing of his ax to cut them down and throw them into the fires of hell.
The crowds were cut, not by an ax, but by God’s law. They realized their sins, and the urgency with which they needed to repent. They begged John, “What should we do then? What should our repentance look like? John answers, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Fruits of repentance are good works that flow naturally as a result of repentance, indicators of a person’s faith. If a person repents, they’ll produce fruits of repentance, as naturally as an apple tree produces apples. God’s law has cut us also. We’ve been led to repent, confessing our sins to God and asking for his forgiveness, as we did at the beginning of this service. So we too ought to bear fruit!
Why do we sin? Whatever the sin, we do it because we’ve become convinced that it will produce something good for us; pleasure, security, power, satisfaction. Our sinful nature holds up sin on a pedestal as the key to our happiness! But repentance means we change our minds about sin. And that changes the way we look at sin. When we change our minds about the results of sin, we see that it’s not desirable, but destructive. Like you’d change your mind about guzzling down a glass of water on a hot day when you realize it’s actually
saltwater. Instead of seeing the water as refreshing, as you did before, now you see it’s repulsive. When we repent, we see that sin no longer produces pleasure, but pain.
At least, that’s how we should view sin. But do we always keep that mindset and produce fruits of repentance? Or does our fruit turn rotten as we reach for the same sins over and over again?
After you’ve repented for gossiping, do you call your friend and say, “Did you hear about…?” After you’ve repented for verbally abusing your spouse, do you tear them down again the minute they frustrate you? Do we view sin with disgust on Sunday morning, but with desire the other 6 days? Have we turned repentance into a weekly reset button? Has God’s grace become our license to sin?
Kind of like the Israelites who went out to see John, our heads hang, because the truth hurts. We don’t produce perfect fruits of repentance. Yes, there are moments when we toss our pet sins into the fire. But how quickly we burn our hands, reaching in to retrieve them!
Our sinful nature tells us, “You’re fine! As long as you make an appearance in church every once in a while, that’s good enough. But if Satan can lull us into thinking we don’t have to repent, don’t have to struggle against sin, don’t have to care about our spiritual life, then we need to hear that the ax is already at the roots of the tree, because a lack of repentance shows a lack of faith. So, how do we find joy in repentance?
Thank God that John the Baptist didn’t just say, “Produce fruits of repentance. Amen!” If that was the only message we had, and we had to do that perfectly, we’d drown in despair for the rest of our lives. Because we don’t produce perfect fruit! The problem is that repentance requires change, and we can’t change our own hearts. But, as John continued his preaching, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Thankfully, one was coming who would change our hearts for us.
Jesus changed our unrepentant hearts, baptizing with the Holy Spirit, working saving faith in us through his powerful Word, and through the waters of baptism. He made us a new person, a new creation with a changed heart that desires to repent, instead of reaching for sin.
You see, true repentance can only come from faith! Our motivation to repent isn’t fear of punishment, to avoid getting the ax. That motivation will only lead to constant fear, because you’ll never be able to do it perfectly. Luther referred to that as galgenreue, “repentance on the gallows.” The kind of repentance that doesn’t flow from faith, but from regret of having brought something harmful down on ourselves!
Our repentance is one of godly sorrow, not earthly sorrow. Our repentance flows from faith and love for the God who saved us! We repent because God has changed us, so we can see sin for the destruction that it is. Sin offers nothing good. It only separates us from God!
But we still sin, right? Even though we see sin as destructive. Even after we’ve repented and had our hearts changed. Does that mean we aren’t truly repentant? No! If repentance required perfection, then no one this side of Heaven could be repentant. However, our faith and changed hearts mean that we’re going to fight against our sins to stop doing them. It means we’ll now see sin for what it is… dangerous, deadly poison rather than sweet, desirable fruit, as Satan wants us to see it. As Luther said, we’ll struggle every day to drown our old sinful nature with sorrow over sin, and repentance. Maybe you’re worried whether you’re repentant or not. Here’s a good test. Do you care? Do you care whether you’re repentant or not? If you do, then good! If you weren’t repentant of your sins, you wouldn’t care if you were or not!
Repentance is a struggle. But you’re not alone in the struggle! You have a family, a church family, pastors, and teachers to encourage you and hold you accountable. God gives us the strength and the means to fight sin. Most importantly, we will trust in God’s forgiveness! That’s the second part of repentance. Yes, we struggle against sin. Yes, we feel true sorrow when we’ve hurt our God with our sin. But your repentance doesn’t earn your forgiveness. The forgiveness Christ has won for you, and the faith the Holy Spirit has worked in you leads you to repentance! So the times when you fail in the struggle, and you’re cut to the heart, be comforted, because Christ has forgiven your sin!
So what should our gospel motivated fruits of repentance look like? As John tells the crowds, repentance is a matter of changing your mind about sin, not a big elaborate show. John said, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do likewise.” John told some tax collectors, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” John instructed some soldiers, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
The crowds didn’t need to give away everything they had. Their fruits of repentance for overlooking others needs, would be sharing their extras with those who had none. The tax collectors didn’t need to quit their jobs. Their fruits of repentance would be collect honestly and faithfully, instead of cheating people. The soldiers didn’t need to lay down their weapons. Their fruits of repentance would be to use their power and authority to help others, instead of themselves.
What might your fruits of repentance look like? The pornography addict puts accountability software on his computer. The teenager who gets in trouble for underage drinking stops hanging out with the friends who pressure her to do so. The struggling married couple seek to avoid a divorce by attending marriage counseling.
Your fruits of repentance won’t be perfect. But they will be any and every step you take to struggle against sin in order to not fall again. When that’s the case, repentance really is “gaudete.” It really is joy! Because through Christ, knowing your forgiveness is certain, repentance isn’t a burden. It’s joy! Because you know that Christ is coming back, with “his winnowing fork in his hand…to gather the wheat into his barn.” Through Christ, you’re the wheat. Gaudete! Amen.