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When we repent, Jesus sets us free.

I am not wholly comfortable admitting this in many places, but since I trust you so completely, I will publicly confess that in my earlier days I was an unabashed fan of "The Lone Ranger". Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 7:30, I tuned in my radio to ABC and listened to the exploits of the Lone Ranger. For, "Nowhere in those sterling pages of yesteryear can one find a greater champion of justice." That's the way the program used to start. "We turn again to those thrilling days when out of the past came the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver, for the Lone Ranger rides again." Every week, three times a week, it started that way. Those of us who are a little bit old remember those words.

The one confounding thing, however, about every episode of "The Lone Ranger" was that at the conclusion, 27 minutes and 30 seconds into the episode, somebody would always ask the question: "Who was that man?"

Somebody else would say, "Why, didn't you know? He's the Lone Ranger!" That's the way it would end.

Now as a young person, it perplexed me that here was someone whose life had been saved, whose money had been restored, whose ranch had been protected—their whole lives had hung in the balance—and yet all the way to the end they didn't have the slightest idea who that man was. Why hadn't they asked at the beginning of the program instead of the end? But they would allow him to do all this stuff without knowing who he was.

It occurs to me that an awful lot of people in the world at the time of the Lord Jesus Christ (and even today) were very anxious to benefit from what Messiah might do, but were not sure if they knew who he was or how to spot him should he make his appearance. The job of John the Baptizer was to come out of the wilderness and talk to people and to prepare them, so that when Messiah made his appearance, they would not only know who he was but be prepared to respond to what he said and called them to do. To see Christ, to know Christ, to obey Christ, demands preparation. You cannot see him if you are not prepared. And the work of John the Baptist in his generation was the work of preparation, opening the hearts of those who would listen, so when the Lamb of God appeared, they would know who he was and how to appropriately respond.

This chapter, in effect, gives us, in the broadest possible outlines and sketches, how people could be prepared to see and respond to Christ. That's an oversimplification, but it's worth looking at.

The only way to see and respond to Christ is in the atmosphere of repentance.

In those first two or three verses there's a very interesting insight that gets you ready for the rest of the chapter. I have always romanced in the interesting thing Luke does, and I have a suspicion he did it inadvertently. He lists a number of very important people, beginning with Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Philip, Herod, Annas, and Caiaphas—all the men of his day who were the biggies in the world, beginning with the emperor at Rome and then working down to the local situation. I hear Luke saying, "Here are the big men in their places doing their big things. And in the midst of all the things that the world thought to be important, that the world was admiring, at the very same time all that was going on, a word from God came to John in the wilderness.

It's very important to recognize God is not always speaking to the people in the places that the world might consider to be significant. World history knows very little about Annas and Caiaphas and Philip and Herod and Pontius Pilate apart from how they took part in the life of Jesus Christ. Yet in that day, you would have thought those were the people worth following and listening to. But when God says his thing to people, frequently he does it to different kinds of people in different kinds of places. God does not speak in the emperor's palace. He does not speak in the Temple of Jerusalem. He does not speak in the court of Herod. He goes out to the wilderness and he speaks to a nondescript, rather strange, person called John, whose wardrobe is suspect. And when John comes out of the wilderness having heard a word from God, it is a preparatory message and it speaks to one major issue. The issue is preparation. The way to prepare, John says, beginning in verses 2 and 3, is, "You must repent!"

Doubtless by now you know, as I have learned, that this word repentance is an extremely dramatic word. From its Hebrew roots it is a physical word. It is a passionate word. It speaks to the notion of people having been going in one direction changing radically to another direction. But it is not only physical in the sense of a change of direction, it is passionate in the sense that it exalts the notion of sorrow and regret, perhaps even tears, about the direction in which one is going. So it is a feeling that erupts from the heart, the innermost spirit, and eventuates in a change of deeds and actions.

It's a word, by the way, that is frequently used by Jews to Gentiles. "You've got to change your former loyalties, your way of life, the things you're proud of, the values you've had. You've got to become like one of us. You've got to repent." No Jew in John's time really thought the word repentance relevant for him or herself. And yet it was Jews to whom John spoke. It was to the religious people, the people who had their theology and their doctrine and their positions on all issues right in place. He says to them, "You have got to repent." That was the one message, and every day when he met them at the Jordan by the hundreds, that's the message he preached.

"John don't you know anything else?"

"No, I'm going to keep preaching this day after day. Repentance, repentance, repentance. Because repentance is the only way that you people will be prepared to see and respond to the Lamb of God."

I think it is legitimate to suggest this morning the only way a woman or a man today can see and respond to Christ is in the atmosphere and climate of repentance. It is only when men and women like you and me begin to break through the hardness that often encrusts our inner being and see what we really are by nature that we are able to be prepared to see Christ.

Knowing Christ requires a lifestyle of repentance.

I'd like to go on and suggest to you in the moments we have that repentance is more than a act. Repentance is a lifestyle. It is a way of living. To put it in more poetic words, it is the process of keeping soft before the Spirit of God, allowing the Spirit of God to turn up in our lives with consistency the record of what we are by nature and what we are prone to be if we are not looking to him for direction and dimension every day.

That's why we sing that hymn that has the words: "Prone to wander. Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here's my heart. Oh, take and seal it." What's being said in those words? What's being said is that repentance, openness, softness, warmth must be not only an initial act, but it must be a way of life if a person is to be regularly and routinely prepared to see Christ in his broadest possible implications in his life.

Notice how Luke the writer illustrates the message of repentance in verses 5 and 6 when he goes back to Isaiah, chapter 40. There the writer, looking forward to the days when Jerusalem shall be comforted, says, "The comfort will come when the king comes, and when the king comes you must prepare the way. You must level the mountains. You must fill up the valleys. Straighten the crooked roads. Smooth out the rough, washboardy style." There's drama here. There's the picture of people frantically preparing, so that when the king comes they will be ready to see him, and he will be comfortable among them. Repentance is like filling the valleys of our lives and leveling the hummocks and the mountains of our lives and straightening the crookedness that sin has caused in our lives. And Isaiah looks forward to the great theme that John will preach in preparation for the coming of the Lamb of God.

In verse 8 John goes on, and this is where I begin to build my case that repentance is not just an attitude of sorrow but a lifestyle of acts. Notice he says, "Bear fruits that befit repentance." In other words, the performance of my life day to day will reflect the active repentance within me. You cannot have one without the other. You cannot be sorry in your heart before God for sinfulness if you are not replacing the sinful acts with righteous acts. Preparation demands that day by day as we look to see Christ, we are substituting right acts for bad acts in our lives. Frankly, too much of evangelical theology in the past has permitted us, inadvertently, to be sorrowful in our hearts but not active in our actions. I hear John saying you can't have one without the other.

Drop your eye to verse 10. A very disturbing paragraph emerges. In the wake of John's preaching, the multitudes ask the question, "What shall we do?" Maybe you're way ahead of me, and you see the repetition of the question three times in that paragraph: "What shall we do?" "What shall we do?" "And we, what shall we do?" I've heard some of you are taking a Greek course this week. I'm sorry for you. If you have your New Testament, you may note there's a repetition of the same Greek verb root in verses 8, 10, 12, and 14. It's the verb "to do," poieo. In verse 8 John says, "Bear fruits that befit repentance." The verb is being repeated in verse 10, so you can legitimately exegete the text that the crowd is saying, "John, what fruits must we bear to match repentance? What are the sort of actions that will prove our sorrow in order that we may be prepared for whatever it is you're preparing us for?"

Repentance results in specific actions, the fruits of repentance.

What are the fruits? To the overall crowd John says, "Those of you who have two coats, share one. You've got food; share food." Then Luke describes two subgroups of the multitudes, and there's genius to the selection of these two groups. The tax collectors and the soldiers are the most despicable of the people in the multitude. The Greek scholars I read say that in verse 14 the word soldiers is more accurately translated mercenaries, which are a little bit more despicable than soldiers. These are guys who make their living by oppressing people.

And you know what tax collectors were like in those days. So out of this multitude listening to this message of repentance come the two most despicable groups, tax collectors and mercenaries. And all three, the larger crowd and these two subgroups, ask the same question.

Where have you heard that question before? Acts 2, verse 37: Peter preaching at Pentecost ends his sermon, and the multitudes cry out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Acts 13, the Philippian jailer: "What must I do to be saved?" Paul, Acts 22, recounting his conversion on the road to Damascus: "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" When you see that question six times in the New Testament, you've got to ask the hard question: "What's being said here for me?" I think the answer is that the appropriate response to the conviction that leads to repentance is this: "Lord, today what must I be doing in order to show in my performance my lifestyle of repentance?"

Can I make three very quick observations about John's answers? To the multitude he talked about food and clothing. To the tax collectors he said, "Don't collect any more money than you have coming to you." To the soldiers he said, "Don't intimidate and exploit people, and be content with your wages."

Observation number one: When John talked to people about repentance and the resulting fruits, the very first thing he talked about was stewardship. He talked about people's money and their possessions, the stuff they thought they owned. I've been preaching on and off for about 20 years now, and if I've learned one thing, it's this: don't talk about money to people until you've really got their confidence.

John doesn't know that. The first thing he does when he gets people in the palm of his hand is start talking about money. John, you shouldn't do that. Send them a letter or a telegram, but don't talk about money the first day you've got them. John says, "The fruits of repentance begin to emerge when you do business with your possessions and your money." Stewardship is at the top of John's list of things that men and women do when they are both repentant of their sins and earnest in their desire to see Christ.

I don't think I'm taking great liberties with John when I say that you and I will never see Christ in the fullness of how he may be seen in our lives until we have offered Christ our possessions and asked Christ, "What do you want me to do with my food? What do you want me to do with my coat?" Only when Christ is possessor of my possessions will I be thoroughly prepared to show the fruits of my repentance and my preparation to see him in his lordship over my life. It's a very, very important thing.

The second observation: This paragraph suggests to me that the man or woman who sees Christ is becoming a sensitive person to the needy people about him or her. The multitude, in order to give their coat and their food away, had to know who needed it. The tax collectors had to know whether people were hurting or not. The soldiers had to be sensitive to where they cross the line from the exercise of rightful authority to the exercise of exploitation. I see in that paragraph John saying that repentant people are aware of the people who are being downtrodden and misused.

Or to put it another way, I think I hear John talking about justice and what is right for the needs of people. How you and I can pretend to say that we have a headlock on Jesus Christ in our theology and leave out the elements of justice and sensitivity to the whole needs of people is beyond me, because John is saying in this chapter that repentance will show when we get off people's backs and when we become generous in sensitivity to the needs of people around us. You can apply that a thousand different ways.

The third observation. To make my point let me reread the text. The multitude said, "What shall we do? John said, "Come out to the wilderness and wear a leather girdle and a camel coat." When the tax collectors said, "What shall we do?" he said, "Quit your jobs and come preach with me." When the soldiers said, "What shall we do?" John said, "You have no business soldiering. Drop your weapons and start prophesying with me down here on the Jordan River." Now that's absurd. The fact of the matter is, John never said to any of these three groups, "Give up all your possessions, quit your jobs, or stop doing what you're doing." He simply said, "Use your possessions properly, do your job rightfully, and handle people carefully and justly."

I think that's very comforting to each of us, that being prepared to see Christ does not mean leaving the real world. It means going into the world as Christ did and serving in the world by doing our jobs justly and rightly and sensitively and generously.

And those are the practical acts that befit the sorrow of the heart when it is in repentance. And when a man or a woman chooses to repent inwardly in sorrow of sin, and matches it with the acts that befit repentance, then is a person prepared every day to see, and therefore to serve, Christ.

At the end of the western on the radio someone cries, "Who was that man?" It's too late when the identity comes. They couldn't know the masked man better by name and by person.


It's going to be tragic some day for some people to recognize when they see Christ that they didn't ask soon enough, "Who was that person? And why didn't I know him?" And the answer will be, "You didn't know him because you weren't prepared. You didn't follow through in the initial act and the ensuing style of repentance and the fruits that match it. You didn't know him."

We must see Christ to serve him. To see him is to be prepared. And John tells us how that happens.

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary and editor-at-large for Leadership Journal. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence.

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Sermon Outline:


I. The only way to see and respond to Christ is in the atmosphere of repentance

II. Knowing Christ requires a lifestyle of repentance

III. Repentance results in specific actions, the fruits of repentance