It’s happening. John the Baptist is standing out in the desert, right there in the Jordan River, where the world’s resistance to God is meeting the irresistible force of God’s coming. The ax is already at the root of the trees! It’s happening. Get ready. You’d better re-think your priorities. You’d better re-order your lives. Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance! Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire!
Jesus is coming. And he’s coming to judge. And Jesus is going to judge us according to our fruit that’s in line with our repentance. And repentance doesn’t just mean saying “I’m sorry.” We know this. We experience this when someone we’re close to says “I’m sorry” one too many times and we flip out in frustration. “Stop saying you’re sorry! I don’t want you to be sorry! I want you to change your behavior!”
When I was roofing houses a million years ago there was an old crusty guy who worked with us. We just called him Tommy. I don’t remember his last name. He was originally from New York and I always felt like he had mafia ties. Anytime anybody ever said “I’m sorry” about anything, Tommy would say, “Don’t be sorry, just don’t do it no more!”
The word “repent” means to turn around, to start going in a different direction. It means to make a brand new start.
What John the Baptist is preaching sounds a lot like the Old Testament prophets, calling God’s people into a right relationship with the Lord that has to impact every part of their lives. Repentance is a change in your attitude toward God that changes all your actions and the overall direction of your life. But as much as this sounds like the Old Testament, there’s a distinctly new element to this. He calls the people to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. The Messiah is coming. The Kingdom is here. It’s happening. Repent.
But if I’m told over and over again I need to repent, I need to change, I need to orient my life toward God, nothing significant ever happens. Nothing really changes. It’s like being told I need to exercise and lose weight. I know those things. My doctor tells me. My family tells me. I know I need to exercise and lose weight. But I still wind up at Whataburger twice a week!
I don’t need a preacher telling me to change. I don’t need some prophet telling me to get my life right, or else. I need some power from outside myself to make me different. It’s got to be something besides me. Because with just me, it’s not happening. I can’t do it.
Thank goodness this is not about New Year’s resolutions. This is about change.
You can’t do it. I can’t do it. This change we need is not tied up in your commitments or your identity. This is not about your family or your nation or your church. It has nothing to do with your education, your zip code, or your bank account. I was raised in the Church; I’m a Christian. Give me a break! Out of these stones God can raise up as many Christians as he wants! This call to repentance is universal. It’s not just for sinners or backsliders or non-Christians. This is a call to repentance for all of Israel, including the religious leaders. Including you. And me. All of us.
And, praise God, John the Baptist points to that great power from outside us that is coming. He isn’t talking about some new self-help promotion or a New Year’s resolution. He points us to the only source of real, lasting, significant change: the Holy Spirit. The coming Lord who is more powerful than me will baptize you with the promised Holy Spirit! A power that can make a new creation out of stubborn people like us, stones like us, who have no way to save ourselves. The power that is coming is not our power — not the power of our deeds or our inner resolve or our spiritual disciplines or even our faith and repentance. It’s God power. We are able to repent and bear fruit because of God’s power in the coming Lord Jesus and his Holy Spirit!
We can’t trust the powers of this world to make us children of Abraham. We can’t tell ourselves we have better genes or better morals or better theology or better attitudes or better humility or better works. It is God through Christ who is making children of Abraham. He is making people brand new for his Kingdom. Stones like you and me. It’s happening.
We are being changed. We are being weaned away from our possessions and turning more toward being possessed by the everlasting love of God. We are becoming less interested in blessings for ourselves and more interested in serving others with the grace and mercy of our Lord. We are in the process of becoming more thankful and less self-righteous and sure. We are gradually becoming less preoccupied with our own privileges and prejudices and seeing ourselves more and more in solidarity with all human beings who, like us, can receive grace only from the hand of God.
It’s happening. God does not sleep. He’s wide awake and he’s bringing his Kingdom to us. The new heavens and new earth where everything that’s wrong is made right and everything that’s broken in you and in those around you is fixed. It’s not some fuzzy, far-off dream. It is the Word of the Lord. The God who came to us in Christ Jesus is unveiling his Kingdom in all its glory. He is bringing justice and joy to the whole world. The Kingdom of Heaven is near.