Tuesday, December 10, 2013
Do not presume. . .
Today we heard the unmistakable call to repentance from the voice of John. It is abrupt and uncomfortable today as it was then. It was issued not to the strangers who knew not God but to those who had His Word, who knew both God's holiness and His mercy but who had become callous to the sound of His voice and whose works had become a perfunctory righteousness empty of faith. But just when it seemed that the call was working and even Pharisees and Sadducees were coming forth to baptism, John stops them short, insisting that they dare not presume that heritage or their works were enough to define genuine repentance. Presumption is, at its root, arrogance and idolatry.
The great German poet and philosopher Goethe said that there is nothing on the outside that is not an expression of what is on the inside... AND there is nothing inside that is not expressed on the outside. Perhaps he learned it from John the Baptist. This is John's very point. Your works mean nothing unless they are born of repentance and faith and your repentance and faith mean are revealed by the good works that accompany them.
The great temptation of every generation is to believe that God will be satisfied with a little tidying up on the outside instead of genuine repentance from a heart of faith. Or the equally pernicious lie that a right heart can ignore the call to order your life according to God's will. So we find ourselves being called not only to repentance and faith but also to bear the good works, the fruits of this repentance and faith, in the high calling of our daily lives.
If repentance begins with the fear of God's all seeing eye or the fear of punishment, it is not genuine. Such repentance will change behavior but will leave the heart unchanged. Every parent knows that fear and punishment will work in the short term to make a child behave but they cannot and will not impart the desire to be good. Genuine repentance always begins internally, with the heart and this is the domain of the Spirit’s work. The work of the Spirit is to strip us of all pretense, all excuse, and all justification and leave us naked with all our sins exposed. Such honest confession is the fruit of the Spirit's work through the Word.
When all pretense, excuse, denial, and justification are swept aside, the Spirit works repentance. Repentance owns up to our sins and accepts whatever we are due because of those sins. Repentance does not compare our sins to others or assign some higher or lower value to what we have done. Honest confession and honest repentance are the work of the Spirit in us. We sorrow and grieve our sins not for fear of being found out or punished but because we want to be righteous and holy and because sin is as abhorrent to us as it is to the Lord. Yet this repentance does not end with our sin. It moves to Christ's mercy.
When the Spirit has swept away all our illusions of repairing what is wrong, of paying the price for our sins, and of making amends for our sin and its consequences, the Spirit frames this repentance against the backdrop of God's mercy in Christ. With nothing left in ourselves to trust, the Spirit leads us to trust in Christ who had full atonement made and in whom we are rescued from our sin, guilt, and its punishment forever.
All of this is not what we do on our own but the fruit of the Spirit working through the means of grace. But there is more. The works that cannot make us righteous give way to the works born of Christ and His righteousness at work within us. The internal has external consequences. Repentance shows itself in the external fruits or good works that go with faith. Stripped of all presumption about ourselves and our lives, the Spirit leads us to live honest lives by faith and of faith and in faith. These lives are directed not inward but outward, toward God and toward neighbor.
Stripped of all excuse and set free in Christ, the love of God moves us to love others in His name. Indeed, love for God looks like love for neighbor, for poor and needy neighbors, for neighbors who require something from us instead of being able to give us something. As Isaiah said, the Spirit brings new life from the old lifeless trunks of our lives, dead in trespasses and sins. This shoot born of repentance and faith has as its purpose and calling a life of good works to glorify God. Israel was a dead stump until God brought new life to their death. Repentance is God chopping down the dead tree that can produce nothing so that He might bring new life from this death, fruitful trees of the Spirit’s sowing, bearing the good fruit of repentance and faith.
What does God seek from us? What does a life of faith look like instead of a life of presumption? That we love mercy and walk justly – it’s no secret. The Law which once spoke death to us in our sins, now in Christ shows us how we live out our new lives in Christ. We bear in our lives the good fruit of repentance, showing outside what the Spirit has worked on the inside. We cannot add anything to Christ's work to save us but we cooperate with the Spirit in the good works that are the fruit of this repentance and faith.
These good works do not comfort us. Only Christ's redeeming work can comfort us. We cling never to what we have done and always to what Christ has done for us. We confess that we are not God nor are we gods but we were created anew from baptism's water of life to glorify God in our bodies. Salvation rests upon Christ's work alone but sanctification teaches us to do the works of Him who called us from darkness into His marvelous light. Internal repentance and faith, external fruits – the external shape of repentance and faith.
Advent strips away our favorite and favored lies – the lies we tell ourselves and others about who we are and what kind of lives we live. There is no shame in repentance, in confessing our sins, in lamenting our flaws and failures. Instead, the only shame lies in the presumption that we have nothing to confess, that we need to confess nothing, or that our faith can reside so deep down inside of us it does not affect the shape of our lives.
Advent's call to repentance is as jarring today as it was when John first spoke. Its call comes to us so that the discomfort may be the fruitful opening of the Spirit to lead us to honest confession, honest repentance, and honest faith in Christ alone. Advent's call to repentance reminds us that repentance is not merely the hidden work of the Spirit in the heart but that this repentance and faith has consequences for the external shape of our lives. Make no mistake. It is Christ alone who saves us, who brings the Kingdom to us, and it is the work of the Spirit to create in us clean and new hearts, to restore to us the joy of our salvation, and to lead us to bear in our lives the good fruit of this repentance and faith, loving God and our neighbor. This is the joyful path of those whom the Lord has redeemed – the path that always begins with the call to repent and the Spirit’s work to make us the new people our Lord has declared us to be. Amen