Sunday, January 06, 2013

Sermon: Luke 3: 1-14 Prepare The Way: Repentance

2013 is shaping up to be a big year in Fermanagh. We’re waiting for the G8 leaders to arrive in town, holding their conference for the world’s richest 8 nations in Enniskillen at the Lough Erne Resort. Preparations are already under way. You can expect it to get a lot more noticeable as we come closer to June, with security, media, protesters, and the curious wanting to catch a glimpse of Barack Obama, David Cameron and all the rest.

At the start of our reading today, we find a similar list of the political VIPs in the land of Israel about two thousand years ago. Tiberius is emperor, Pilate is governor of Judea and Herod (not the same Herod of last week’s child-slaughtering reading) is in Galilee. All attention appears to be focused on them - the sky news cameras would be following them around, reporting on their pronouncements.

Yet Luke draws our attention away from the centres of power, away from the parliaments and throne rooms of Westminster or Stormont or the White House, and instead points us to the wilderness. Something is happening there which is of much greater significance. There, we find the preparations beginning for the coming of the Lord.

Now, I know that we’ve already been thinking about the coming of the Lord at Christmas - and Luke has done that in his first two chapters (which we looked at a year ago). But we’ve moved on thirty years since the manger and the stable (23), thirty years of ordinary life have occurred. We only know of that one incident when Jesus got left behind at the temple in Jerusalem at the age of twelve.

The rest of that time fades into obscurity. Jesus lived an ordinary life (although one without sin). There are all sorts of later false gospels which make up stories about Jesus’ childhood, but Luke doesn’t go in for that. You see, he’s writing history - he has interviewed the eye-witnesses - ‘so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.’ (1:4)

Out in the wilderness, we see the preparations for the coming of the Lord. In the Old Testament verses quoted, we find some plans for a new road - a highway for the Lord. It’s not going to be a humpy, bumpy road up hills and down valleys, but a straight, level road. Think the new A4 dual carriageway, only even better!

But we don’t see any diggers or lorries. There’s a sound, but not of heavy plant machinery. Rather, it’s a voice - ‘the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.’ You see, it’s not an actual road that’s being prepared, but rather the people are being prepared for the coming of the Lord.

So how did the people need to be prepared? What is it the voice is crying out? Look with me at verse two: ‘the word of God came to John...’ So what is the word God gives John? What is it he calls out? He is ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’

Now if I was to ask you what we know about John, the top answer would probably be that he is the Baptiser (or Baptist). While Luke mentions the baptism, he actually spends more time (and verses) telling us what John was saying, rather than what he was doing. John prepares the way of the Lord by proclaiming repentance - symbolised in the washing of John’s baptism. We’ll see what repentance is as we think about his message - that repentance is essential.

What do you make of John’s words in verse 7? It’s clear that he’s not out to please people; he doesn’t have an eye on the opinion polls in the way some of the politicians might be worried about how their speeches are coming across; it’s definitely not ‘How to win friends and influence people.’ Look what he calls the people: ‘You brood of vipers!’ That’s hardly an endearing term of affection, is it?

But it’s a sign of the need for repentance, to turn away from sin, to be finished with it, to go in a different direction. There is a wrath to come, from which we need to flee (even if it sounds as if John is disappointed that people are fleeing the wrath!). John says (9) that the axe is lying ready to cut down any tree not producing good fruit. Judgement is coming.

It’s a call to take stock, to honestly think - am I producing good fruit? Even five minutes alone with ourselves will remind us that we are in need of repentance, that we aren’t producing good fruit; that in our heart we are sin sick, caught in the endless cycle. There is hardly a few minutes (let alone an hour or a day or a week), when i find myself straying and (not even) struggling with sin.

Repentance is essential - especially for religious people. John’s hearers thought that they might not need to bother with repentance, after all, they were already children of Abraham. If they’re part of the people of God, maybe they were ok? But John says that they can’t rest on their position - God could raise up children to Abraham from the stones at their feet.

Repentance is essential - we are more sinful than we have ever imagined. Repentance is essential - the judge is on his way. Repentance is essential - especially for religious people. John tells us one more thing: Repentance is essential - and practical.

Verse 8: ‘Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’ It’s not enough to just say that you’ve repented; to just make a decision to turn away from sin. It has to be seen in your life - repentance should make a practical difference to the way we live.

That’s why the question that comes from the crowd is so important. (It’s also the question that we always try to answer in the sermons, and it’s the question we should be asking as he read or hear God’s word and try to apply it). ‘What then should we do?’ (10, 12, 14). How will we be changed as we repent and turn from our sins? What will we do differently as a result of hearing God’s word?

For the crowd as a whole, it will mean not being selfish, but sharing with those in need - whether it’s coats or food. Have we a concern for the poor? Or are we only concerned about ourselves?

For the tax collectors (‘even’ the tax collectors!), it means being honest and not exploiting people for greedy gain. For the soldiers, it means honesty and contentment.

For you, what is it? What are the strongholds of sin that you need to turn from; and what will that look like in your life? How will others notice a difference in your life as you bear fruit in keeping with your repentance?

As we meet around the table today, we remember that the King is coming - the King who is also judge; who is pure and holy and righteous. Repentance is essential - we are more sinful than we have imagined (but we are more loved than we could ever have imagined). Repentance is essential - and practical. As we repent, turn from our sins, so we turn to the loving King, who gave himself for our sins, so that the rough will be made smooth, ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ May we know his grace as we are transformed by his word into his likeness for his glory.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 6th January 2013.

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