Real Repentance - Real Rejoicing
December 17, 2006 Speaker: Rev. Jack Meehan
Topic: Biblical Verse: Luke 3:7–3:18
Third Sunday in Advent
"Real Repentance-Real Rejoicing"
On this Third Sunday in Advent, we have before us two concepts that at first glance seem to be contradictory and in opposition to one another. And yet, they very much support one another, with the one leading to the other. In fact, in order to have the one, we must have the other. I am referring here to repentance and rejoicing. Today's first two Scripture lessons (Zephaniah 3:14-20 and Philippians 4:4-7) both call us to rejoice in the Lord. As we shall see, that rejoicing is not merely celebration for outward prosperity. That rejoicing centers in the presence of the Lord who is among his people, and what the Lord has accomplished for his people. This is not some kind of fake, artificial rejoicing that disappears when adversity strikes. Rather, we have been called to a deep, abiding cause to rejoice-real rejoicing! Today's Gospel lesson (Luke 3:7-18) calls us to real repentance-not just sorrow or wallowing in guilt, but repentance that causes us to make changes how we live. If there is to be real rejoicing, there must be real repentance. May God's rich blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus' sake.
First, we focus on real repentance. Today's Gospel lesson picks up where last week's Gospel lesson (Luke 3:1-6) left off. Again today, we come face-to-face with John the Baptist, who is really more of an Old Testament prophet than a New Testament disciple. Without a doubt, John must have made people very uncomfortable, challenging them, calling them to repentance there on the banks of the River Jordan. People either must have loved John or hated him, but they surely could not have been neutral about him. For the first time in over 400 years, God is again speaking to his people through a prophet who is like one of the prophets of old. John minces no words with those who come to him: "Bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). And what exactly is repentance? I can think of no better description of repentance than what a former Army chaplain told me long ago. He said it means, "About face!" It means walking in a new direction. Repentance is a change of heart that is God-inspired, causing us to walk in a new direction in life. That repentance, that about-face, will by God's almighty power, transform our thinking, our decision-making, our values and priorities in daily life. John tells the people who come out to him that it's not enough to just be baptized in the waters of the Jordan. That baptism for the repentance of sins must translate into sanctified living. And what does that look like? "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise" (Luke 3:11). Why do we make this harder than it has to be? If God has seen fit to give us abundance of food, clothing and other material goods, then let us share with those who are lacking. If we're finding it hard to do this, then the repentance is not real. This repentance, this walking in a new direction, impacts decisions in the workplace as well. The tax collectors come out to John, and they want to know what they should do. Tax collectors were notorious for overcharging people. "Collect no more than the amount prescribe for you" (Luke 3:13), John tells them. No more cheating or dishonest business practices. Soldiers also come out to John-Roman soldiers! These were the hated occupation forces in Judea, who collaborated with the tax collectors in extorting money from people. They want to know what they should do. "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages" (Luke 3:14). Honesty and respect for others are the order of the day. It's a whole new world in that kingdom of God.
Repentance, if it is real, is more than just feeling sorry or guilty. I'm taken back to my own Confirmation days, sitting on Saturday mornings as Pastor E.H. Streufert taught us. And I particularly remember what he taught us about repentance, that it includes the following: 1) realize; 2) admit; 3) sorry; 4) quit. I would add one more thing here, and that is trust-trust that God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, does not desire the death of sinners, but that we turn from our ways and live. Friends in Christ, let our hearts be continually turning to the Lord, that we may live.
Real repentance leads to real rejoicing. Paul the apostle begins today's second Scripture reading like this: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Philippians 4:4). The prophet Zephaniah in today's first lesson calls upon the people of his day to "Rejoice and exult with all your heart" (Zephaniah 3:14). Many would say, "How can you rejoice when there is so much suffering and injustice in the world? How can you rejoice when evil triumphs over good?" I think we may be able to take our cue here from the Whos of Whoville in Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As the Grinch learned, the joy of the Whos was not rooted in external things like presents, decorations, and feasting. Their real joy was not tied to material things. That's our secret, too. Our rejoicing centers in that One for whom John the Baptist prepared the way, Jesus the Messiah. He is the One who has come, who comes now, and who is coming again. Because "the Lord is near" (Philippians 4:5), as Paul says, we have a peace which the world cannot understand. This peace guards our hearts and minds, even in the midst of suffering and injustice. We have this peace because God, who did not spare the life of his only Son, but freely offered him up for us all upon the cross, is at peace with us. We rejoice in God because God rejoices in us! This is what Zephaniah tells us: "The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love" (Zephaniah 3:17). This is real rejoicing!
That's the way it is on this Third Sunday in Advent. May the Lord so work in our hearts that we may be moved continually to repentance that is real, and so rejoice-really rejoice-in Him whose advent is certain, and whose day draws near. Amen.