During the season of Advent, he always makes his appearance. We wait with bated breath as the readings of the church year turn our focus from the promised end of all things and the coming of the new heavens and new earth to the voice of John the Baptist. His voice, though, is not sweet and calming. It does not fit with the joyful theme of this time of year. There is no peace on earth and goodwill toward men. No, John is like a bull in a China shop. He shakes things up with an urgent call for repentance. “Repent,” he says, “for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” John is on a mission. He is the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy from Isaiah, the voice crying in the wilderness, the one preparing the way for the Lord. He stands in a long line of prophets calling God’s wayward children back to His Word, so they are ready for the Son of God to come. He is not out there wearing a camel hair garment and leather belt, eating locus and wild honey for the health and beauty properties. No, he is driven by an urgent task and will not be deterred.
I have often thought we ought to include a John the Baptist character in our manger scenes. You know, the ones the children enact in the church on Christmas Eve. Imagine it, all the parents watching their little darlings reenact the travels of Mary and Joseph and the announcement of the angels to the shepherds tending their flock by night. There are the cute costumes and always that one kid who is more fascinated with waving to mom than reciting his rehearsed lines. And just as they are about to sweetly sing, “Away in a Manger,” he appears. Perhaps he jumps out from behind the pulpit, but he is the little, disheveled kid with holes in the knees of his pants and messy hair. On his appearance he immediately starts yelling at everyone, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” He begins to point to the manger and say, “Here it is, here is the Kingdom. Repent before it is too late!” Oh, it would be awesome, well, memorable at least.
John is memorable. His message is simple and clear. You need to repent. But what does it mean to repent? When you repent what is it you do? Is it simply to say you are sorry? Is there regret in repentance? Are you to have sorrow for what you have done? Do you muster up repentance by seeing your failures, shortcomings and, out of fear of punishment, confess all you have done? Linguistically repentance is rooted in the idea of doing an about-face; you literally turn from what you were doing and go in the opposite direction. So, you turn from the ways of the world and cling to the promises of God. You turn from sin and pursue righteousness. You turn from your own self and cling to your Lord. Repentance like this is not a moment in time but a daily reality, a constant thing. I have often thought this repentance does not flow from fear but from love. You repent because someone loves you without anything making you worthy of their love. It is terrifying and this changes things.
Now, John as a preacher of repentance, does not pull any punches or let anyone off easy. We are told everyone is heading out to the Jordan to repent and be baptized by him as a sign of their turn back to God and His love. In doing so, they are getting ready for the arrival of the Messiah. And among the crowds turning out are some of the Pharisees and Sadducees. John’s words for them are harsh, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume 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” (Matthew 3:7-9). John does not tolerate a shallow repentance or allow them to just go through the motions. What he demands of them is fruit.
Now this, I think, ought to shake us up a little bit as well. Repentance cannot just be our words, emotions, or thoughts. Whether it flows from a fear of the wrath of God or His terrifying love, which is underserved and arriving in our midst, repentance must bear fruit. It is without a doubt a whole life thing, a true turning that will not just happen once, but daily, over and over again. Repentance is a much bigger thing than we tend to think it is. It cannot be compartmentalized as some small piece of your life. It is your life.
You are to bear the good fruit of repentance, for trees which do not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire. In fact, the warning John the Baptist gives is that the axe is even now laid at the root of the tree, ready to fall, ready to chop away. I told you John was a bit of a wakeup call during our Christmas preparations. And our response to this is what? What will you do? Well, usually we want a nice list of the fruit we need to get to producing. We want to know what we need to do to be fruit bearing trees. Perhaps you need to spend more time praying. Perhaps you need to read your Bible a bit more. Maybe, just maybe, you need to think more about how you support the work of the Lord with the resources you have. Or possibly you need to love more, care more, and forgive more.
The difficulty is, as we begin to make our lists and you set out to be fruit bearing penitents, you will soon find you are never sure if it is enough. You will never know if you have loved enough or been faithful enough or righteous enough. This means you can never have assurance and never have the confidence you will not be cut down and thrown into the fire. It means there is only despair. But before you give up, before you just walk away, perhaps there is a blessing to this despair. For to despair in yourself is not to lose all hope. There is hope which lies outside of you. This hope comes from perfect love, perfect forgiveness, and perfect righteousness. Or, as John the Baptist says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” It is here, in the arrival of Christ your Lord.
John says this Coming One will bring a greater baptism. Then he describes our Lord’s work as one who clears a threshing floor. A threshing floor is a place where grain is brought in and then crushed under a great weight separating the wheat from the chaff or the protective casing around the wheat. A winnowing fork is used to loft the newly cracked grain into the air allowing the heavier wheat to fall back to the ground and the lighter chaff to blow off to the side. Thus, the two parts are separated and, being separated, the wheat is gathered into the storehouse and the chaff burned in the fire. This is the process of your faith. This is what is happening to you right now. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. It has come to those who despair in themselves, confess their sins and hope in the righteousness of another.
God loves those who are unworthy of love. He loves the broken and the hurting, the lowly and the sinful. He loves you and calls you into a whole new life with Him. This is a life of repentance, which bears the fruit of faith. It flows from you, from trust in the gifts of Christ alone, and from hope in the promises of God. It is a constant turning, a daily rhythm to your life. You are God’s own children, heirs of eternal life made so by His love through His life, death and resurrection; the coming Kingdom of Heaven.
So, you cling to Jesus. You hold to Him as the only sure source of eternal life. You find the chaff is being separated from you, by Him, and the threshing floor is being swept clean. You are forgiven in Christ your Lord and will be brought into His heavenly home.