The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen? I wanted to make some venison burgers on Friday night. I was told it’s a good idea to mix a little pork with it first, so I got out our KitchenAid mixer and the meat grinding attachment. I had used it before, so I started putting it together and grinding some of the pork and venison together. But as it was going I started noticing some dark spots and it wasn’t shooting out the meat very well. Mandy came in and asked, “Did you put it together right?” “Yeah, of course I did. I’ve done this before. I know what I’m doing.” Then, she shows me the spinning piece for the front of the grinder that I forgot to put in. I had to throw that little bit that did make it through away, because those dark spots were little metal shavings or lubricant that got mixed into the meat because I was missing a piece. When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?
You’ve done it before. I’ve done it. I’ve certainly seen it plenty. When you have kids, it seems like they will try to make anything work. I’ve seen Issy and Lute use some of their toys for a whole bunch of different purposes other than just playing. We expect these kinds of things to work, maybe not as well as it could, but it will at the very least get the job done, so we think. Then, when it doesn’t happen or someone ends up hurt, you realize that you should have just taken the time to use the right tool the right way.
Advent is all about Christ’s coming. It’s about preparing for him. So, getting ready for Christ’s coming means you need to have the right tools and you need to use them the right way. That thought came to mind as I studied the Gospel for today.
People need the right way to get ready for the Christ. Back then and still today, we could never come up with it on our own. When it comes to spiritual life, can a person ever legitimately think, “I’ve got this covered. I can take care of my spiritual life the way I want to with my own abilities and my own thoughts?” No, if God is the Spirit and he is one who gave us ours, then we need what he gives to keep us spiritually strong and healthy people, especially as we get ready for Christ’s coming.
Do you know how that process works, to be strong, healthy, and fit? Let’s just talk about it physical terms first. It takes the right tools used the right way. And it might hurt. I’m in the middle of that hurt right now. A few weeks ago, because I was not doing my best in the realm of fitness and health, I started up a workout system called Insanity. It’s an insane cardio, death-defying 45 minutes 5 mornings a week. It’s not what a lot of people consider fun. It doesn’t feel good. My muscles are being tugged and torn, so that they can be rebuilt. My lungs are screaming. My heart is pumping upwards of 180 beats a minute at some parts. But that’s how you get better. Combining that kind of regular exercise with healthy foods and, voila, I’m healthier, stronger, and fit.
But it’s not easy. This training system is not telling me what I want to hear. What I want to hear is, “Sleep in and eat a bunch of donuts and bacon all morning.” What I want to hear is, “Go ahead and have a third helping. And when you get done with that, how about some ice cream?” What I want to hear is, “You will be fine if you just do whatever makes you happy.”
Now, if that’s not how it works when you want to get into better physical shape and be healthier, do you expect that to work when it comes to being spiritually healthy? Can you expect good results when you don’t have the right equipment, or don’t use the it the right way?
Like I said, God is the only one who can give us the path to a healthy spiritually life, and God is the only one who can show us the right way as we get ready for Jesus’ coming. That’s what he was doing with a man named John.
Now, John was a recluse who lived in the desert, ate bugs and wild honey, and wore a camel hide around (and I don’t think he was trying to start a new trend). God gave them someone very unexpected. And John’s job was just as unexpected. His job was not to tell people what they wanted to hear. His job was not to be a cheerleader for whatever they already had going. His job was to prepare them God’s way, a way they didn’t expect. Sometimes he said things that the people didn’t want to hear: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” As we get ready for Christ’s second coming, God still gives us a message that is sometimes hard to hear. “Straighten out!” he says.
When it comes to staying fit, we want to hear, “Eat the donuts and bacon and sit on the couch as much as you want. You don’t need to push yourself. You don’t need to go through the pain and exertion.” But what do you expect will happen when you listen to what you want to hear? You’re never going to lose those extra pounds.
Spiritually, when you want to be fit and ready for Christ, you can’t always listen to what you want to hear. God has somethings to say in his Word that might hurt a bit, but it is for our good. He is straightening us out. He’s getting us stronger and spiritually healthier.
When he tells us that our devotional life, prayer life, or worship life is sporadic to the point of damaging our faith and the faith of our children, it hurts. When he tells you or he tells me that my offerings are a meager reflection of what he has blessed me with, that hurts. When God says that my actions and attitudes are supposed to be a bright, shining light in this world and when he looks he asks, “Why are you living like a child of darkness? Why, when I listen to the words coming out of your mouth, do I hear praise and cursing? Why, when I see your actions, do they not resemble the good things I have prepared for my children to do? Why, when I look at your heart, is it darkened with selfishness and negativity?” – that hurts because I know it’s true.
But that’s not the end of it. The hurt leads us somewhere. God does not just want you to hurt and that’s the end. It’s like a workout. The diet and exercise done the right way doesn’t end in pain. The pain in your muscles and the pain of saying no to some of your favorite foods leads to getting more fit and healthier. That’s how God’s spiritual training works. His Word strengthens us, it turns us into a new direction, a direction that is spiritually better for us. This new direction is straighter and smoother, even if there is some difficulties in getting there.
For people who are hurting, there is peace. For people who are sad, there is joy. For people who are broken, there is comfort. Did you hear that from the Prophet Isaiah, today? Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem… That was also God’s message through John to these people who were hearing some things that were tough to hear. They had been hurt by God’s message, but God was preparing them for his good news, the good news of a Savior who was coming.
Mark quoted these words in speaking about John the Baptist. Yes, he was unexpected. Yes, his words were unexpected. Yes, the people were sometimes hurt by his words. And yes, God was turning them from the wrong kind of spiritual life. The hurt was leading to a healthy and strong spiritual life, a life ready for the coming of Christ, a life on the straight and narrow.
That’s what repentance is, brothers and sisters. It hurts to hear. There is pain in God pointing out your sins. There is a burden that becomes too heavy to carry. And through repentance, God lifts the burden.
But it’s not up to you to do the heavy lifting. When I began the sermon I said, “When you use a tool the wrong way, what do you expect to happen?” If you think repentance is your work that God recognizes and rewards, you are using it the wrong way. If you think repentance is the get-out-of-jail-free card, you are using it the wrong way. If you think repentance is finishing up the work that Jesus began for you, you are using it the wrong way.
Repentance is simply the Christian spiritual workout. Through his Word, God brings us to the realization that we are out of shape. God shows us where we need some work. He gives the new direction, the new regimen for the healthy, stronger spiritual life. And he gives us the motivation and willpower to turn things around. It’s all from him.
And do you know what that will power is? It’s not that I’m going to look so good for God, that I will be blessed more. It’s not that my life is going to start getting better and better here on earth. It’s not that I’m going to be such an asset for the people around me.
Those things could potentially happen, but the real willpower for repentance is that Christ loved you to the point that he was willing to leave heaven for you. He was willing to carry your heavy burden of sin. He was willing to live according to God’s perfect expectations. He was willing to suffer the punishment and pain. He loved you to the point where his last breath was exhausted from his body, because you could never pay for your sins. He felt the full wrath of God’s anger against sin, so that you and I would never know what that’s like. Yes, repentance hurts when God points out our sin and we can only hang our head and confess it, but it will never hurt like the separation Jesus was forced to endure. He did that for us.
That’s the motivation for repentance. God has given us this new life in Christ. God has given us his law and gospel. God has given us the reality of heaven. Nothing can take that away from us. So, the spiritual exercise of repentance helps us on the journey. It is God’s way of helping stay spiritually healthy.
The way John says it: God is getting us to straighten and smooth the way for Christ because he is coming soon. Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to try and convince Christ that there are no potholes, unwanted twists and turns in your life. Preparing for Christ’s coming, you don’t have to veer off the wrong way thinking your hard work and confession saves you. Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the unexpected message that sometimes hurts, when God points out what’s wrong in my life or what is missing. Preparing for Christ’s coming means listening to the way God takes care of the crooked and rough places of my life with his loving forgiveness. Preparing for Christ’s coming means continually going through the spiritual exercise of repentance to enjoy the health and strength that God provides.
That is how to use repentance the right way. God grant it. Amen.