Good Works is Repentance?
Readings for the day (2nd Sunday of Advent – Sunday, December 4, 2016):
Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
The new church year begins with the season of Advent, a time where we not only prepare ourselves for the first advent of Christ (the coming of God made flesh in the birth of Jesus), but we also focus on preparing ourselves for the second advent of Christ (the second coming of God when Jesus will return on that final Day of Judgment). One way of preparing ourselves is in the hearing of these words from John the Baptist, standing in the wilderness saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This word ‘repent’ literally means to turn around; to have a dramatic change of mind and direction. So we are called to put aside all of those values and practices that lead us away from God, and come back to God and turning back to the foundations of our faith.
Now repentance is nothing more than your own recognition of your personal sin and your need to be saved. Repentance is acknowledging that what you have done was wrong, you’re sorry for what you’ve done, and you’re now going to strive to be better. A growing understanding of being a Christian is that you can be a good person without going to church, which is true. I actually know some atheists who are good people, and do some wonderful things for people in this world. And I know a lot of people who do some pretty wonderful things for others. But doing good works and being a good person will NOT save you. So when John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he isn’t saying, “Do good works.” After all, who at that time were the ones doing good works? The Pharisees and Sadducees were doing everything they could to follow God’s Law to a T. Plus they made sure that everyone knew that they were perfectly following what God wants. So everyone should strive to be more like them.
Except, while he is standing in the wilderness, John calls the Pharisees and Sadducees not perfect children of God, but rather a “Brood of Vipers” – children of the snake, children of Satan. The reason? Because repentance doesn’t mean to do more good works, but rather than you actually acknowledge your sin and realize your need for saving. Bearing fruit of repentance then means that you believe that you indeed are a sinner and so you don’t act holier than thou, but act like a sinner. And how does a sinner act? By coming before God and saying, “I’m sorry.”
So John says that the ax is already lying at the root of the trees and “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit (meaning: every person that does not acknowledge that they are indeed a sinner in need of forgiveness and strives to change their sinful ways) will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” This really is a life or death matter because on the Last Day, Jesus will come again and He will baptize, or rather, wash the whole world with either fire or salvation. All of those who bear fruit worthy of repentance will be gathered like wheat into the granary, but all of those who don’t believe, who can wake up at 4:00 am for a $20 crock-pot but can’t bother showing up at 10:30 am to hear God’s Word and receive the forgiveness of their sins will be like chaff that will be burned.
Even though that sounds harsh, that is what Judgment Day will look like. But today we also hear of what our salvation will look like on that Judgment Day. “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together…the cow and the bear shall graze…and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Predators will dwell in harmony with their prey. Can you imagine staunch republicans and staunch democrats getting along? Can you imagine all those who voted for Clinton dining together with all those who voted for Trump – and getting along? It doesn’t really seem possible in today’s climate, but today’s climate is tainted with sin. When Jesus comes back again, all of creation will be restored. So the wolf shall live with the lamb, the conservatives and the liberals will dine together. No one will be at odds with one another when the Messiah returns, for all of creation will be once again restored and Jesus will reign over His kingdom forever.
The kingdom of heaven is not a land or place like we think of an earthly kingdom that has territory and a palace. Rather, with Jesus reigning as king, His kingdom is present wherever He reigns and is actively working His power. So when John says that the kingdom of heaven is here, he means that God’s kingdom is present in the hearts and minds of all believers. Even today, all of those who bear fruit worthy of repentance, who believe they are sinners and are in need of saving, all make up the kingdom of heaven. Even though God’s kingdom is not a land or place, you occupy space and time. So “God’s kingdom is plainly visible because its citizens live in the world as living signposts, pointing to Christ Jesus by what [you] say and do.” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is here!” Through the Holy Spirit Jesus is here now, and on the Last Day Jesus will return in the flesh to separate the wheat from the chaff.
We have not had easy days recently as the church, with fewer and fewer people believing in God and choosing church over a $20 crock-pot. And the future doesn’t look any easier, but remain steadfast in the faith for our God is gracious and merciful. Keep your eyes and your faith fixed on Christ for we trust that one day Jesus will indeed return to gather all of His faithful wheat into His granary. The kingdom of heaven is here! Amen.
© 2016 Anthony Christoffels. All Rights Reserved.
 Matthew 3:2, NRSV
 Matthew 3:8, NRSV
 Matthew 3:7, NRSV
 Matthew 3:10, NRSV
 Isaiah 11:6-7, NRSV
 The Lutheran Study Bible, pg. 1566
 Matthew 3:2, NRSV