Sermon 1



Luke 3:12

December 17, 2006


Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you in the name of God the Father , Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 3:12 tells us today to repent. “Bear fruit that befits repentance,” it says. This word is the scratched record of the Bible – calling us over and over again to repent. Repent, repent, it says.

And we need this repetition – annoying though it may be – because we think we can do without it. So the Bible hammers away at us about repenting. And this is good for we must not be like the people of old who stumbled after righteousness saying, “I am innocent,… I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35), and didn’t repent!


Pushing Repentance

Therefore “repent,” Jesus says, “and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). “Repent,” he says, or “you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). “Repent and come to know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25). “Be zealous and repent” (Revelation 3:19).

And before Jesus we heard, “Acknowledge your guilt,… O faithless children” (Jeremiah 3:13-14). “Confess” your transgressions to the Lord (Psalm 32:5). Say to the Lord, “Against you have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4). “Repent and turn from all your transgressions” (Ezekiel 18:30).

So early and late we hear: Repent, repent, repent!

No wonder, then, that Martin Luther argued in the first of his famous Ninety-Five Theses (1517) that “the entire life of believers” must be “one of repentance” (Luther’s Works 31:25)! And so Lutherans down through the generations have been taught that true faith grows only by repenting, or abiding “in the terrors of a conscience that feels God’s wrath against our sin” [The Book of Concord, ed. Tappert (Fortress, 1959) p. 126].


Even During Advent

And so in Advent this is also true – during these days before the twelve day celebration of Christmas. For in Advent we are to prepare ourselves by repenting [see my “Advent Wretchedness,” The Bride of Christ 25 (Advent 2000) 3-6]. For repenting helps us worship the Lord “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24) and with “reverence and awe, for the Lord is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12.28-29).

One of our local television stations has announced that the Christmas Season runs from December 1-25! But that’s not our message. This holy season lasts from Christmas Eve to Epiphany Day, January 6!

For the days of Advent aren’t for a string of winter parties – brimming full of alcohol and pastries. They instead are for repenting. In church we hear from St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of Our Lord Jesus. He calls us to repent as he did those of old. He is our “fiery angel,… the preacher of true repentance,” who with “a single thunderbolt… strikes and destroys both…. false penitents, and… false saints” (BC, p. 308)! So let St. John fill these days of Advent with repentance as they were designed to be!


Repenting Properly

Now if that were to happen, what would this repenting look like? Surely it would include more than simply saying you’re sorry so you can escape punishment [see my “Only the Remorse of Judas,” The Bride of Christ 19 (Pasha 1995) 26-31].

Remember St. Peter when he repented. He “wept bitterly” – bitterly, mind you (Matthew 26:75)! So shame is clearly at the heart of repentance. That’s its indelible mark. So it’s not just being remorseful or sorry. Therefore we’re told, “Be ashamed… and bear your disgrace” (Ezekiel 16:52). This is because your sinful deeds dishonor God, your creator and redeemer – who is the source of “every good… and perfect gift” (James 1:17)! And it is just this shame that makes “a broken spirit… and a contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) [see my “Breaking Our Hearts,” Logia 8 (Trinity 1999) 59-60]. For in our distress we wonder: How could we bring such dishonor on the One who has done so much for us? This makes our guilt unbearable. And so we too weep bitterly.

Luther has it right, therefore. “Repentance,” he says, “consists mostly in your acknowledging that God is right… that we are all… condemned” (LW 51:318). So he’s right and we’re wrong! That’s repentance in a nutshell. Mark this well.

For this is as it should be since God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, neither are his ways our ways. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,” so are his ways higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). And so as one tightly argued and insightful recent study puts it, “we have no more rightful place in God’s household than worms… do in ours” [Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell University Press, 1999) p. 94]! This clearly makes our ways and God’s way incommensurable – or playing in quite different leagues!


Our Incommensurable Book

This incommensurability is well expressed in 1 Thessalonians 2:13. There we read that the Bible is “the word of God which… is not… the word of men, but… is really the word of God.” This verse claims the preposterous, namely that the Bible is the actual word of God! Or as the old Latin Bible has it, vere verbum Dei. The Bible therefore is the vere verbum Dei – something worldly eyes can’t ever see (1 Corinthians 2:11-15).

This truth certainly cannot be proved on the basis of argument and evidence alone. For on those grounds the Bible is but another human classic like Homer’s Odyssey or Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But remember, we cannot stand in judgment of God – for his ways are incommensurable with ours.

From this we see that repentance makes us buckle under the weight of divine Biblical revelation. It stops us from judging God’s Word. For this Word is to judge and correct us instead (2 Timothy 3:16). And here are six ways that it does so.


Quit Fitting In

First, in Romans 12:2 – a book which Luther thought was “truly the purest Gospel,” one that “every Christian should know… by heart” (LW 35:365) – we’re told to stop conforming to the world. It says we should be transformed by the renewal of our minds and follow the will of God revealed in his holy Word. This is because worldly ways are not godly ways.

But our natural inclination is to do the opposite and fit in – to conform to the prevailing cultural norms and dominant value system. But that must stop. We must renounce (Luke 14:33) the sensuality, violence and materialism of the world. Be not conformed, we’re told. Quit fitting in. You weren’t made to be popular. Obedience to God is rather our clarion call. Oh that we knew “how important God considers obedience” to be (BC, p. 384)!

So be a godly maverick – and don’t conform to this world. March to the beat of a different drummer. Know that if you’re trying to please people, you’ll neither be able to serve the Lord (Galatians 1:10) nor believe in him (John 5:44)!

Know instead that heaven is your rightful homeland and you’re but passing through (Philippians 3:20; Psalm 119:19). Give up chasing fades and fashions in styles and thought. Settle instead on those words of eternal life that cannot be found anywhere else (John 6:68). Fight against “every wind of doctrine” built on human “craftiness in deceitful wiles” (Ephesians 4:l4). Be “steadfast and immovable” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Stand on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” with Christ Jesus being “the cornerstone” (Ephesians 3:20). “Resist the devil, firm in your faith” (1 Peter 5:9)!


Quit Being Tolerant

Next Acts 4:12 says the unimaginable – namely, that there’s no salvation under any other name than that of Jesus Christ. So if we think there are other ways to heaven, we’re deluded. Christ is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Belief in him is the only way to be rescued from everlasting torment in hell (see my “For Christians Only,” under publications at

Martin Luther therefore said that when Jesus Christ appeared on the scene, the Pantheon shook – that ancient Roman temple dedicated to the peaceful coexistence of all the gods. “Strife and discord” broke out, he said. For Christ, “the real God,” went against theological tolerance. And in return, worshippers at the Pantheon “raged and stormed against him” (LW 34:213-214).

So be warned. Jesus says, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). Therefore “Christians must be armed and prepared for incessant attacks…. Let no body think that he will have peace” (BC pp. 435, 429). We must therefore “give up the hope of advancing Christ’s cause on earth in peace and pleasantness” (LW 48:153).

Now this warning cannot be passed off lightly for “wherever Christ is,… there must be opposition or it is not Christ” (LW 52:118 and 52:117, 119; 51:1-12)! So there’s no peaceful middle ground. Mark this excluded middle well – for it’s shamefully and pervasively denied in the church today. And this denial is the hallmark of false teaching (Isaiah 30:9-14; 2 Peter 2:1-3).


Quit Fooling Around

Thirdly Hebrews 12:28-29 says we are to worship the Lord God Almighty with “reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” But we would rather draw attention to ourselves in church – expressing ourselves and enjoying ourselves. And so we balk at this holy Word of God.

Lutherans, however, can’t stand for this. We are to insist that keeping the sabbath day holy isn’t about “entertainment” (BC, p. 378). It’s rather about glorifying God alone (1 Corinthians 10:31).

But what about us? Well, our place in worship is to be repentant above all else. In worship we are to disclose our secret sins and fall down before the Lord (1 Corinthians 14:25)! Only then is God glorified in the proper way. Only then are we put in our place and God exalted by our praises (Psalm 22:3)!


Quit Being Superficial

Next John 3:3 says we must be born again if we are to enter the kingdom of God . That means we have to become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our first physical birth is not enough. That birth traps us in sensuality and sin – robbing us of the spirit.

This trap leaves us “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3) – “accursed children” of the devil (2 Peter 2:14; John 8:44). For faith alone can’t free us, since without works it’s dead (James 2:26). Mere belief is useless – floating “on the heart like a goose on the water.” It does nothing to fashion a different attitude and make us “altogether new” human beings (LW 2:266-267).

What we need is to live a new life – one “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27; Colossians 3:1-17; 2 Peter 1:3-11). This includes being ever so gradually “changed into Christ’s likeness” (2 Corinthians 3:18) – based on a God-given power to become “children of God” (John 1:12). “We receive fire and light,” Luther said, “by which we are made new and different, and by which a new judgment, new sensations, and new drives arise in us” (LW 26:375). Our fingerprints don’t change, but our hearts do! We may look the same, but our actions won’t stay the same.

Transformation must be our goal. We can’t ever lose sight of this – or stop striving for it in “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) [see my “Salvation Within Our Reach,” Lutheran Forum 31 (Fall 1997) 18-21]. Nevertheless with Luther we must warn, that though through our baptisms (LW 22:197-198) we are Christian in name, true Christians are “few and far between” (LW 45:91)!


Quit Being Pompous

Fifthly Philippians 2:3 says we are to count others better than ourselves! This is especially tough on educated, prosperous Christians in the industrialized world. Our gifts and achievements seem to make us tower over others! But this can’t be. We mustn’t give in to this temptation because humility is our calling – not self exaltation (Luke 18:14). We are to be servants of all (Mark 10:44).

Jesus taught that life does not consist in the “abundance of our possessions” (Luke 12:15) – and that includes our talents, education and achievements as well. He said everything that is exalted among us is an abomination before God (Luke 16:15)!

So before the Lord God Almighty we stand naked. Our only righteousness is what Christ covers us with (Isaiah 61:10; 1 Corinthians 1:30). This is because essentially – that is, apart from all our superficial cultural trappings – we are “wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17). Therefore we cannot lord it over others, for only God is good (Mark 10:42, 18).


Quit Hoarding

And finally Mark 10:21 says give to the poor. We are to live frugal lives so we will have enough to share with others. Life is not about building bigger barns so we can hoard what we have for ourselves (Luke 12:16-21). Loving and caring for others is the best way to live (1 Corinthians 12:31; Luke 10:29-37).

We must ever be mindful of the poor for they will always be with us (Mark 14:7). They are our life-long concern. We are to help them as best we can by sharing from our wealth – wealth that has been graciously given to us by God himself (Deuteronomy 8:17-19). We are to have a heart for the poor. We are always to be looking for better ways to help them as we are given opportunity according to our abilities.

But don’t be duped. Gullible Christians never help anyone. Instead with Luther we must only help those who “bear the burden of work,” and not the “hoboes who… suck us dry” (LW 17:287)! But this realism must never make us jaded. For God watches over the poor and will “not leave them unavenged” (BC, p. 398).

So be careful how you spend your money. God is testing you, “to see whether you are willing to abide in His fear; to humble yourself before Him. For very few do this; they become haughty because of their good fortune” (LW 3:248). And remember the most common idol on earth is not some religious statute or other, or even internet sex, but “money and possessions” (BC, p. 365). For “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).


Risky Preaching

So God’s right and you’re wrong. Feel this deeply. Quit fitting in, fooling around at worship, hoarding your wealth and being tolerant, pompous and superficial. For God is right and you are wrong. Repent of your sin! Let these words strike you. For repentance is nothing but “an earnest attack on the old man” (BC, p. 445).

This attack makes preaching repentance risky business – and as a result, quite rare. Saying repentance “must hurt” us (LW 8:6) aggravates us to no end. William Blake (1757-1827) gave this disgust classic expression at the end of his poem, “The Garden of Love” [Complete Writings ( Oxford , 1969) p. 215]:

And Priests in black gowns

were walking their rounds,

And binding with briars

my joys and desires.

 So to “make explicit what is implicit” in God’s command to repent, puts the preacher squarely on the hot seat [James Arne Nestingen, “Preaching Repentance,” Lutheran Quarterly 3 (Autumn 1989) 249-265, p. 264]. People resent spelling out the costly details. They would much rather keep repentance murky.

But this belligerence is as it should be. For followers of Christ are “not above” the Master (Matthew 10:24). So what Jesus said of himself must be seconded by every preacher of repentance: “The world… hates me because I testify of it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). That’s the suffering of ministry (2 Timothy 4:5).


Christ is Our Repentance

Now with all this condemnation, pain and riskiness, with all these demands to quit, quit, quit, who could ever repent properly?  

For no sooner then we feel “forced to face the raw winds of exposure,” we find ourselves diving again for “the nearest shelter” – just like a “pheasant driven out of a covert” quickly scrambles for another hiding place [James Arne Nestingen, “The Matthean Advent Gospels,” Word & World 12 (Fall 1992) 406-412, p. 409].

In the face of this cowardice and the unlikelihood of repenting, Luther blurts out: “Christ…must be our repentance” (LW 40:345)! This means he thinks Christ will repent for us!

What a shock! Surely this cannot be. We are the ones called to repent because we are the ones who are supposed to do it. So Christ can’t possibly be our repentance! Or so we think.

But remember our Lord’s magisterial words: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)! Now this surely would also include the tough work of repentance. And note also him saying he will help us carry our load (Matthew 11:28-30). So surely he will help us carry the heavy load of our repentance. Believe that!

But how does this work? How does Christ repent for us? In his explanation to that first thesis on repentance from 1517, Luther writes: “True sorrow must spring from the goodness and mercies of God, especially from the wounds of Christ, so that man comes first of all to a sense of his own ingratitude in view of divine goodness and thereupon to hatred of himself and love of the kindness of God,…. yet without despair” (LW 31:160)!

What magnificent words! And at the center of it all are the very wounds of Jesus. Our love for God’s kindness and our self-hatred – set free from all despair – hinge on those wounds. In them the impossibility of repenting graciously becomes a viable possibility.


Saving Us From God’s Wrath

Those wounds of Christ do that by “stilling” God’s wrath for us (BC, p. 138). Jesus is crucified and punished in our place so that we, though sinners, may be set free from all condemnation and punishment! For by his poverty we “become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). By his suffering we are saved from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9)! “By his wounds you are healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

So his death – ghastly though it may be – does not repel us (John 12:32). Rather it draws us to him – confessing our sins. His suffering frees us from our hiding and self-protecting maneuvers. He draws us sinner unto himself (Mark 2:17). For “if you see in… the wounds of Christ… that God is so kindly disposed toward you that he even gives his own Son for you, then your heart in turn must grow sweet… toward God” (LW 44:38)! Forget this not!

To unbelief, however, this is foolishness. But to those who are being saved it is the very “power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

So receive this Savior today. He is here for you, in the bread and the wine of the holy sacrament, the mystery of the Lord’s Supper. Eat and drink that Christ the Savior may abide in you, and you in him, that your faith in him may grow (John 6:56).

Then give thanks to God for Jesus and your faith in him and set out from this holy house to serve him – in decent living and love for one another.


Fast Like Anna

But also be sure to bear fruit that befits repentance (Luke 3:8). On this score be like Anna of old. While she worshipped in the temple she also fasted (Luke 2:37). So do the same during Advent. Worship here and then fast throughout the week. Be like Anna.

Fast, one and all. Deprive yourselves of the foods you delight in. It’s the Lutheran thing to do (BC, p. 69)! It will help you repent.

Though fasting is not easy for us prosperous Americans, call on God and he will help you. He will graciously see to it that fasting marks your days of Advent. Amen.


(based on the sermon as preached – with some changes)