It Still Begins with Repentance (Luke 3:1-20)
Rev. David French
One of the things about Luke’s gospel that many don’t usually notice unless someone points it out is the symmetry. For example, Luke begins with the account of Zechariah serving in the temple. It ends with the disciples in the temple. The next event is the descent of the Son of God into the womb of the virgin. The second last event in Luke’s gospel is the ascent of the Son of God back into heaven.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, we heard that John the Baptist “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). On the day of resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46–47).
So, we have Zechariah in the temple matching the disciples in the temple; the descent of the Son of God matching the ascent of the Son of God; and the proclamation of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins matching the proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There are several reasons for this symmetry, but perhaps the most important one is that neither John nor Jesus is introducing anything new with their teachings. Both John and Jesus draw their authority from the writings of Holy Scripture. This is especially noteworthy in Jesus’s case since Jesus actually is God. And yet, even being God, Jesus constantly based His teachings on the Holy Scriptures using phrases such as “Have you not read” and “It is written” over seventy times in the gospels.
John’s authority comes straight from the prophet Isaiah where it is written, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Luke 3:4). That is, we see John’s calling is a calling of preparation. He was to prepare God’s people for the coming of the Holy One, the Christ. And as we know, our Lord also instructed His apostles after He rose from the dead to continue preparing God’s children. Now, however, it’s for His return, but the preparation remains the same. It still begins with repentance.
The Lutheran Confessions describe repentance in this way, “Now, strictly speaking, repentance consists of two parts. One part is contrition, that is, terrors striking the conscience through the knowledge of sin. The other part is faith, which is born of the Gospel or the Absolution and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven. It comforts the conscience and delivers it from terror. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruit of repentance.”
Before God works repentance, and yes, it is God alone who works repentance in us human-beings, we make our way through life pretty pleased with ourselves. We certainly don’t think of ourselves as perfect, but we do believe we’re not that bad either. There are certainly a lot of people in this world who are far worse. We figure that the good in us outweighs the bad, so in the end, we’ll be OK. My friends, such a person is in denial about his or her true status before God.
John the Baptist had a rather startling way of shocking people out of their complacent self-deception. He said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!” (Luke 3:7). This rebuke points to the fall of Adam and Eve where satan [sic] appeared as a serpent. By calling them a brood of vipers, John the Baptist was calling them the children of satan [sic]. And he then continued His warning by asking, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). Clearly John is warning them that, if nothing changed, they were destined for the eternal flames of hell.
Although today’s text doesn’t say anything about the crowd’s reaction to this rebuke, his next words give us a clue. “And do not begin 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” (Luke 3:8). Apparently, at least some in the crowd objected to John’s rebuke by saying something like, “You can’t talk to us that way. We are circumcised child of Abraham.” To which John quickly responds that there is no valid claim to salvation based on genetics … not even being a descend of Abraham.
The only true preparation for the coming judgment, John says, is repentance. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” That is, acknowledge your sin. Admit that you have earned both temporal and eternal punishment. Confess that you would still be under the power of satan [sic] if it were not for the work of the Holly Spirit and the promise of God to send His Son to rescue you. And understand that word of judgment has not changed, because God’s Word does not change. His Word still teaches us that we are all conceived and born sinful and are under the power of the devil [sic] until Christ claims us as His own. As we freely acknowledged earlier in the service, we remain poor, miserable sinners who have offended God and deserve both His temporal and eternal punishment.
As you well know, we are living in the days after the Christ came to save us from the condemnation of sin, but still, at this time of year, we do often try to imagine what it was like for the Old Testament Christians who looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior. Today’s text tells us that the people were in a state of expectation. They were wondering who John was and whether he might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). John made it clear that He was not the Christ. He also made it clear that the Christ was close at hand.
You and all who have been baptized according to Christ’s command have been joined to Christ as the Holy Spirit reveals through the apostle Paul, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3f). Through God’s gift of baptism, we have been united or literally grafted into Christ. That means what happened to Christ has happened to you. And so, you and all who have been united with Christ have already died the only death that matters and have been raised with Christ. He has already taken your sins away and replaced them with His righteousness.
During the season of Advent, we think of Christ’s three comings. Christ has already come to take away our sins. Repentance was the way to prepare for that coming. Christ will return to judge the living and the dead on the Last Day. Repentance is the way to prepare for that coming. And Christ comes to us now as we gather with Him so that we, with repentant hearts, might hear His word and take His Holy body and blood into our mouths, receiving the forgiveness that God the Father promised, Jesus His son has earned, and the Holy Spirit the comforter delivers to you again this day.
In His holy name, Amen.