When I mention repentance as a concept I think some of your thoughts aren’t likely to be happiness and joy. First thought is repentance probably means sulking, frowns, and sadness. Repentance means confronting things we’ve done wrong, for which we must be sorry. It means coming face to face with how we’ve hurt other people. That makes us sad in most cases. So like a kid who just got yelled at we start to lower our heads, maybe even shed some tears. We certainly must show the proper amount of sadness.
At first, that seems like it matches exactly what John the Baptist was going for in the gospel. He started by calling the group of people a brood of vipers. That’s not likely to generate smiles and joy. It was repentance John was speaking to them about and he was serious. Used some tough harsh language. Was the desired result achieved? Did he get some frowns, tears, sad faces? Is that true repentance?
Today, we lit the special pink candle on the Advent wreath. Do you know why it’s not like the others? It stands out because on this third Sunday in Advent, talking about repentance, talking seriously about sin, there needs to be a breath of joy. We need reminding as we march through these days of preparation that we can have joy. It’s found in one place. And it starts with true repentance.
True repentance leads to true joy
Found in forgiveness
Found in changing behavior
John the Baptist acts almost exactly the opposite of what we would expect. The man had huge crowds coming from the city into the wilderness to hear him. Crowds coming to him. Without advertising. His preaching even drew the religious leaders out. They didn’t like what he was preaching, but they couldn’t stay away. So why speak so harshly? “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” The whole crowd got this warning, needed this warning. Because John wasn’t there for fame, to host a party, or win friends. He was preaching repentance.
Everyone in the crowd could be accused of falling into sin. For some, the warning was because they were becoming self-righteous and hypocrites. They attended religious events, like coming out to hear John preach. They listened to him and maybe even participated in getting baptized by him. But it was only an outward ceremony for them. Going through the motions. Saying the right things, but not really believing any of it. Others looked to their heritage for comfort. “We have Abraham as our father.” The Israelite patriarch was their ace in the hole. With him as their lineage, with a religious and faithful giant in their family tree, God couldn’t possibly be angry with them over anything. Essentially they were trying to have joy in two ways. One type of joy was a comfortable feeling, an easiness, that came with good news from God. But they wanted that joy plus the “joy” that came with keeping their sinful ways.
We feel a “joy” when we eat a whole bag of chips or drink a whole bunch of Coke. It’s similar to the feeling of “joy” that comes with some sinful activity. Spending all afternoon gaming when our parents told us to start the laundry. Besting someone in office politics and getting the promotion over them. Letting fly with curses we don’t even think about in a heated moment at work or school. There’s a little bit of “joy” in letting go, getting angry, not being in control of ourselves. For 167 hours per week we don’t have to be so careful about how we live, so long as there’s that one hour we make up for it in church. That’s the other joy we want. We want a God who forgives, who loves, no matter what we do. We want to live in the joy of a guaranteed spot in heaven and enjoy whatever joys this world might provide. So we want the junk food and the slim trim body. We want the joy of eternal life and salvation along with the temporary “joy” that might come from sinful pleasures. We’ll even go through the motions Sunday mornings. Look like we’re listening, shuffle up to receive the sacrament, let our minds wander to the afternoon or weekly schedule, the grocery list, or anything else. Smile at the right times. Sulk at the right times. Isn’t that true repentance? It leads appropriately to sadness.
True repentance leads to true joy found in forgiveness. What repentance John the Baptist calls for actually requires two parts. First is seen and felt most often. The sorrow over sin. God’s Law is really good at making us feel bad and guilty. You don’t just feel sorry for getting caught, but really sorry for offending God. That kind of feeling comes from God. He allows you to feel that way. So he can come with the second part of repentance. It’s a heartfelt trust in Christ Jesus. Turning to the Savior where forgiveness is found. Real joy comes from hearing how sinful you are, but then hearing once again how Jesus takes those sins away. Frees you from them. And not only from the actions of your sins. But relieves you of the guilt of those sins. You’re not guilty because of Jesus. See the Christ in the first Christmas. He took on human flesh not to punish sin in you, but to be punished for your sins. His was a mission for the whole world. His death means there’s not one sin left out. The worst thing you’ve ever done was paid for in the death of Christ. Find joy in that forgiveness. Joy because of the work of your Savior.
Whatever joy we feel plowing through a whole plate of cookies will be temporary. Sure it tastes good initially. The sweet frosting, the cookie crumbling. But that much junk food doesn’t bring good health. To achieve joy behavior has to change. Spiritually, behavior has to change too for true joy. True repentance leads to true joy and joy will be found in changing the behavior of our lives.
After John the Baptist spoke harshly, different people asked, “What should we do then?” God’s grace had cracked the hard sinful shell of their hearts. God’s Word had worked. People were confronted by their sinfulness. But it led to repentance, in both parts. They felt sorrow and forgiveness in Jesus. Now true repentance wanted to live differently. In response, John pointed them to their lives. It wasn’t time to abandon professions. They didn’t have to sell everything. Behavior could change right where they were. Stay away from sin, restore what sin ruins, and amend sinful life. Live life with a changed heart by God’s grace and with changed behavior bringing glory to God.
Marvel at the welcoming arms of the Savior towards you. His mercy lets you rest in his grace. The axe isn’t at the root of your tree, ready to cut you down in judgment. You’re comfortably in the grace of God. You’re here, listening to Scripture, knowing Christ, growing in faith, having your heart changed by God along with your life. Just like a diet actually changes cravings, so God’s Word changes hearts. The question is good, what should I be doing? Where should I change my life?
Jesus encourages you to look at the blessings he’s given. Where you have excess, find ways to share with others. You’ll find joy as you give. Joy in seeing what God gives you help someone else. Even when it causes some pain to give away things, what an example of Christian love and a changed life. Look at your specific role in life. You can have joy in doing your job to the best of your ability. Be the best parent, child, grandma or grandpa, aunt or uncle you can be. Find joy in changing how you are in the community. Not just as a good citizen but a helpful neighbor, a giving volunteer. Wherever God has you, because of Christ, life will change and behavior will too. True repentance will lead to bringing forth fruit in the place you are. Pleasing God, helping others, serving Christ, those are all true joys in changed behavior.
There’s coming wrath. Judgment, unquenchable fire, a winnowing fork. It’s all coming. Hardly signs for joy. But you can have joy. Because of Christ. Jesus came the first time to win this joy for you by his life and death. Jesus will come a second time to make this joy permanent. He will come to deliver you, not destroy you. In that moment, your life will be totally and forever perfect. You wait for Jesus to return. When he does be joyful and thankful. While you wait live in true repentance that leads to true joy because of Christ.