And the crowds asked him [John the Baptist], “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:10-14).
As we prepare for Christmas, most of us still probably have a lot to do. So, what is on your to do list? Cooking, baking, cleaning, buying and wrapping gifts are just a few of the things that may be on our list of to-dos.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the question that is at the heart of every person who is crushed by the weight of the law is, “What do I need to do?” What do I need to do to fix the problem? What do I need to do to make things right again? What do I need to do to reconcile this relationship? What do I need to do?
That was their question as they stood on the banks of the Jordan River as this camel-skin covered man who ate locusts and wild honey called out to them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Having been baptized, they heard his call, and they all wanted to know what they had to do now.
What is so unique about this text is that he actually tells them what to do. To our ears, that makes almost no sense. We would expect that John the Baptist would respond to their questions of “What do I need to do?” with: “Repent! And keep on repenting!” And though that is true, that isn’t what he tells them. He tells them to be generous. He tells the tax collectors not to be greedy. He tells the soldiers to be content with their wages. He responds to their “What do I need to do?” with something they are ‘supposed to do’.
As Lutherans we believe and confess that we are not saved by what we do. So, is John the Baptist being heretical here? Is he claiming that we can be saved by works righteousness, by what we do? Absolutely not!
Rather, John the Baptist is getting at the heart of what repentance is all about. When he talks about bearing fruit in keeping with repentance, he means for his hearers and for us to fully examine ourselves according to the Law.
The Catechism teaches us to do just that. It asks the question: “How are we to examine ourselves before receiving the Lord’s Supper?” The answer to that question is this: “We are to examine ourselves in light of God’s Word to see whether we are aware of our sins and are sorry for them; we believe in our Savior, Jesus Christ, and in His words in the Sacrament; and we intend, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to live as forgiven sinners resisting the devil, saying no to sinful desires, and walking in the newness of life.”
That last one is what John the Baptist is getting at when he responds to the peoples’ questions. Repentance goes beyond being sorry for our sins. It goes beyond believing that Jesus will forgive us. Repentance is a change of heart about our sin and about God. It is a turning away from sin. Repentance includes that we plan, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to amend, to change our sinful lives.
If we have no desire to amend our sinful lives when we are confronted with the law of God, are we truly sorry for what we have done? Absolutely not! Parents and teachers see this all the time. A kid does something wrong, and the parent says, “Now say you’re sorry.” To which the kid replies “I’m sorry” (sarcastic tone). Then five minutes later, they catch the kid committing the same sin.
But are ‘we’ any different when it comes to our repentance before God? All too often, we fail to take God’s Word calling us to repentance seriously. All too often we think God’s grace is cheap, and it can be tossed to the side like some sort of unwanted toy we get at Christmas, like it’s not that big of a deal.
But let’s consider that for a moment. Did the forgiveness of sins come at a cheap price? When we consider the story of the passion of Christ, can we honestly say that our forgiveness and salvation came cheaply? As we think about the wounds of Jesus, as we consider deeply His hands and feet that were pierced, we are invited to behold that our very sins are in those wounds. Our very sins caused those wounds. As we ponder anew what the Almighty can and did do, we see that in no way did forgiveness come cheap. We see that it came at the outrageous price of the Son of God’s life. We see that price in full display as He shed His innocent blood on our behalf.
Lest we ever forget that His death should have been our death. For the wages of sin is death. That price had to be paid, and we should have been the ones who paid it. That should have been us on the cross, bleeding, dying, crying out to the Father in heaven to get no reply. That should have been us forsaken by God for all eternity. But it wasn’t.
Willingly, voluntarily, lovingly He came from heaven to earth for just this purpose. He came to earth to die. That was His mission in life so that each of us could have a hope and a future. So that when we would be confronted with the law and the reality of our sin we would not be left to die in those sins, forced to suffer separation from God for all eternity. Jesus endured that separation for us, ahead of us. He did all that was necessary to save us. ‘Jesus did all that had to be done.’
So, when John the Baptist tells the people that they are to do something, he is not telling them to do it to save themselves. No, He is pointing them to Jesus. He said, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier that I is coming, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).
This is why John was called to be the prophet in the wilderness. He was sent to prepare the people for the coming of Christ. To point them in the direction of their salvation.
That’s what repentance and the fruits that come with it are all about. It is all about being directed and pointed to the Savior. “Confession has two parts,” the Catechism tells us. “First that we confess our sins, and second that we receive absolution.”
God loves us enough to show us our sins so that we see our desperate need for a Savior. And through John the Baptist he showed that love by telling the people that once they had repented and been forgiven, now they were to go and sin no more. Just like Jesus told the woman who had been caught in adultery. Go and sin no more.
Besides, if we truly believe that the wages of our sin is death, then why would we want to return to them? If we know something is going to kill us, do we take it? No. If something is poisonous, do we consume it? No. If we know something is dangerous, we run from it. Scripture tells us to flee from our sins. That’s what John the Baptist was directing the people toward when he told them what to do. Flee from your sins and follow Jesus.
So, if we are being disrespectful toward our parents or our boss, what do we need to do? Honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them. If we bear grudges and hatred toward anyone, what do we need to do? Help and support them in every physical need. If we are caught up in an affair or looking at pornography, what do we need to do? Lead a sexually pure and decent life in what say and do, and husband and wife honor each other. If we cheat or steal in any dishonest way, what do we need to do? Help our neighbor to improve and protect their possessions and income. If we lie, gossip, or slander, what do we need to do? Defend others, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way. If we covet what others have and are filled with jealousy, what do we need to do? Help and be of service to them in keeping what rightfully belongs to them.
We are not called upon to do this in order to save ourselves. We are called upon to do this because everything that had to be done to save us has already been done by Jesus. It is truly the Gospel work of Jesus Christ that brings us to the point of saying to God and meaning it, “What do You want me to do?” As Scripture says, “We are not our own, we were bought with a price, so glorify God....”
Because Jesus did what had to be done, we glorify God by bearing fruit in keeping with repentance and amend our sinful lives. Because Jesus did what had to be done we gladly think, say, and do things that are pleasing to Him. Because Jesus did what had to be done, we glorify God by doing the same thing John the Baptist did. We glorify God by pointing others to the One whose sandal strap we are not worthy to tie. The One who has come and will come again. The One we are called upon to prepare for His arrival. His name is Jesus, and He will soon be here.
Yes, it is great to have a to do list here during the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas...a to do list from the Holy Spirit to help us live out the faith He has graciously given to us in Christ, our coming King.
Let us pray. Almighty, everlasting God, for our many sins we justly deserve eternal condemnation. In Your mercy You sent Your dear Son, my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting salvation. Grant us a true confession that, dead to sin, we may be raised up by Your life-giving absolution. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may be ever watchful, amending our sinful ways, and live a true and godly life in Your service. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.