Our very lives may seem like a wilderness of dismay, doubt, discouragement, of anger and bitterness. But it is into this wilderness that God’s Word can make inroads and shed light to help us see the way forward such that we not only thrive but can experience the joy of being right with God which, for Christians, is the calling and hope of our lives.
But contrary to our inclination to assume that this means doubling down on all our legalistic attempts to “be a better person,”repenting means to turn. It means to turn away from our own waysin surrender to God, to His will for our conduct, for guidance for our intentions, and for our values. Having said that, this does not mean that we save ourselves through our own righteousness and perfection because the point is that this can never be accomplished! This is because of the kind of creature that we are. We are made to need God and the message of the kingdom being at hand is that there is a way out of this conflict in which we live!
That One who was to come, who did come, and who will come again, showed us the way. This way is clear; it is in fact not mysterious although it is not easy, again because of our nature.
Who among us actually likes the idea of surrender? If we look at the truth about ourselves, we want to do anything but that. We want to do things our own way, we want to think our own thoughts, and we want to assume that we can figure it all out ourselves. This is also the message of our culture and our times.
This cultural message essentially says we don’t need God!
When I lived in Germany in my twenties, I remember being very impressed by a book series entitled, Selbst ist die Frau and Selbst ist der Mann; rough translation being, Self-determined Woman and Self-determined Man. I am not now speaking against being an adult who takes responsibility for their life but about the omission of recognizing that we need God’s guidance in order to become mature individuals who are pleasing in God’s sight.
Now, John the Baptist’s God-given mission was to give notice that the Savior of humankind was about to appear, in the flesh. And his message was such that it moved people to recognize how they naturally fell short in their efforts to be what God wanted!
There must have been a very special dynamism in how he taught, such that they flocked to hear him say something they hadn’t heard before and that the religious teachers of their day were not saying!
This is how and why John was so fierce in his encounter with the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they were specialists in assuming that since they were such dedicated keepers-of-the-law, there were no flies on them!
John was in effect saying, what are you even doing here? You think you have it all sown up by your legalism!
Furthermore, he knew they practiced a form of racism that went like this: we are descended from Abraham, therefore we have a built-in advantage before God; we are just naturally a better, superior people!
Have you heard that before?!
But, he said, what you are clinging to is about to be taken down. To cling to your self-righteous attempts at perfect law-keeping in the absence of true surrender to the God who created all of us is useless; if necessary, God can create children of His own from stones!
At the same time, we are still admonished to produce good fruit!
How, then, is this supposed to be done?
John was very plain on this: what we need is baptism by the Holy Spirit and we need the zeal – the fire – that comes from this. This is the basis on which God will winnow the wheat, the people proclaiming His name.
The question then becomes, do we have His Holy Spirit? Do we have the zeal to practice surrender, daily and in all our affairs asking for guidance and searching the Scriptures for what God is looking for in us?
This message was already present in the Old Testament but most people couldn’t hear it.
Without surrender, our destruction is certain. And our destruction will be for willfulness.
And not because God is a sadist who delights in torturing humankind but on the contrary because He loves human beings and we evidently can’t do it on our own!
John baptized with water in the name of repentance, which means intention to change as well as sorrow over our shortcomings, but the good news he brought – and the good news for all of us to hear during this Christmas season – is that God’s gift to us is and will be the Holy Spirit.
This gift stands to assist us in true right standing before God. Let this be the real source of our joy during this season! Amen