John is not one to mince words. He grabs the attention of his audience with judgment; calling for a change of heart and urging people to action. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7b-8).
‘Repentance’ means not to just say ‘sorry,’ hoping to be forgiven. The word ‘repent’ (metanoia) means to turn around – to see things in a new way, go a new direction, or change your mind. It is about life-change!
John’s intensity shines through his sense of urgency. He leaves us little wiggle room to escape, explain ourselves or justify our actions. Our credentials and heritage don’t matter. Our position doesn’t matter. Our sinfulness does. He warns that when Messiah comes – the ax is coming to cut down that which is rotten or unfruitful.
Yet, the people keep coming, and look who it is…
The tax collectors.
All of them come to John looking for direction, asking, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10). He is no contemplative. John will not ponder these things in his heart as Mary does. He stands in the wilderness and proclaims an honest, direct and forceful call to action.
John tells the crowd that if you have two coats, give one away to someone who has none, and feed those who are hungry. (Luke 3:11).
“Repentance” (life- change) for the crowd means to look beyond oneself. Be generous. Take care of one another. Be your neighbor’s keeper. We can all learn from this change of perspective. Look to God’s abundance with gratitude as you live with one another. Relate to people with that same generosity, compassion and love.
John tells the tax collectors not to collect more than is prescribed (Luke 3:13). In those days, tax collectors made their income by taking extra than the government asked them to collect. They were wealthy because they exploited people. Since they worked for Rome they were viewed as conspirators, traitors and betrayers of their people; unclean before God because of their wickedness.
“Repentance” (life- change) for the tax collector means to be honest, fair and just – which may cost personal gain. What motivates our work? We can all learn from this change of perspective. Martin Luther said of the commandments against stealing and coveting, “We are to fear and love God so that we neither take our neighbors’ money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them improve and protect their property and income.” and “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not try to trick our neighbors out of their inheritance or property to try to get it for ourselves by claiming to have a legal right to it and the like, but instead be of help and service to them in keeping what is theirs.” (Martin Luther, “Small Catechism (1529),” Evangelical Lutheran Worship. [Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006], 1161.)
John tells the soldiers (the foreign Roman occupiers) not to extort money, threaten or falsely accuse people.
“Repentance” (life- change) for the soldier means being in positions of service, not just positions of power. We can all learn from this change of perspective. It means doing our best job in whatever it is we do; not just to serve ourselves, but with the best interest of others in mind, even in a hostile environment.
What might “repentance” look like for you? In your situation? Job? Status? Lifestyle? Relationships? Impact on those you may not know?
The heart of John’s message is life-change rooted in action. He calls his hearers to honesty, integrity, service and generosity (whatever their background) into a new life worthy of their calling and vocation. He doesn’t tell people to leave their jobs or life-situation, but challenges all who will listen with a new way of seeing, being and acting. While he speaks with authority; he proclaims that One is coming with more power than himself who will come with fire and the Holy Spirit.
Ultimately, John’s appeal is good news:
A life that is worthy of repentance strives for the kingdom of God; but not as the pursuit of personal achievement or by somehow trying to earn God’s favor. Rather, it is bearing fruit (doing good) by responding to God’s undeserved mercy and grace; holding tight to the promise of Christ and sharing that hope, love and peace that surpasses understanding with others in concrete ways.
-Where could you use some life-change right now?
-What are some concrete ways you can share the hope, love and peace of Christ through the relationships you already have?
-How might those actions change you, and prepare the way for others?