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Advent, the Harvest Season, and Stewardship: A Continual Observance10 min read

When we read Luke 3:1-14, we are immediately confronted with a somewhat odd character: John the Baptist. John stood out from his contemporaries because of his dress: a leather girdle and a garment of camel’s hair (Mt.3); his diet: locusts and wild honey (Mt.3); and his message directed to the Jewish people: “Repent!” and “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” It’s possible his ‘oddness’ was part of what made the wilderness a popular travel destination: people wanted to see him giving his message, “Prepare the way for the Lord,” a unique emphasis. What could all this possibly mean?

The beginning verses of Luke 3 give us, in the broadest possible outlines and sketches, answers on how people could be prepared to see and respond to the Lord, to Christ, the Anointed One, the Messiah. That’s a bit of an oversimplification, but one I’d like to explore.

Repentance

John was equipped to speak a simple message that addressed one major issue. That issue was preparation. The way to prepare, John said in verses 3 and 8 of Luke 3, was to “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” “Repent!”

This word, “repentance,” is an extremely dramatic word. From its Hebrew roots, it is a physical word. It is a passionate word. It is physical in that it depicts the notion of people heading in one direction and changing radically to go in another direction. It is also passionate in the sense that it exalts the notion of sorrow and regret, remorse and perhaps even tears, about the direction in which one was going. It is supremely passionate in that it recognizes its sin and, in Holy-Spirit-nurtured faith, embraces the Christ of Calvary and runs to His cross for forgiveness. So it is a keen awareness, prompted by the Holy Spirit, that erupts from the heart – genuine sorrow and also faith in Christ – in the inner spirit, and eventuates in a change of deeds and actions.

It’s a word, interestingly, that was frequently used by Jews to address 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.” I don’t believe that any self-respecting Jew in John’s time really thought the word ‘repentance’ relevant for himself or herself.

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 each day when he met them at the Jordan by the hundreds, that’s the message he preached.

It is important to recognize that the only way a woman or a man today can understand and respond to Christ is in the ‘atmosphere’ or ‘climate’ of continual repentance. It is only when men and women like you and me recognize the working of the Holy Spirit’s power breaking through the hardness of our hearts and see what we really are as compared to a holy and glorious God … that we are able to be prepared to see and respond to Christ.

A Life of Repentance

What I’ve already suggested I’d like to state explicitly: repentance is more than a one-time act. Repentance is a lifestyle. It is a way of living. It is God’s desired, initiated, and loving work and process of keeping our hardened hearts soft, whereby the Holy Spirit consistently turns up in our lives the truthful record of what our sins are – and what we are prone to be – if we are not looking to Him for direction and dimension (fullness) every day.

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Notice how Luke 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 would be comforted, says something like, “The comfort will come when the King comes. Prepare for His coming! Level the mountains. Fill up the valleys. Straighten the crooked highways. Smooth out the rough, washboard (Michigan-like) roads.” 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.

Repentance is looking at our lives honestly, the way God would, and filling the valleys of depravity and laziness with His grace and leveling the mountains of deliberate sin and debauchery by His power and endeavoring to straighten the perverse crookedness that is both the evidence of sin and the mess it has caused in our lives. 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 continues to explain that repentance is not just an attitude of sorrow but a continued life of bearing fruit: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” “Keep on producing fruit …” In other words, the living out of my day-to-day life should be a daily reflection of 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 fruit. God is working in you, with your regenerated spirit, to do this. We read in Philippians 2:12, 13: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

So, in the wake of John’s preaching, the multitudes ask the question, “What shall we do?” If you look ahead in the verses that follow you’ll see the repetition of the question three times in that paragraph: “What shall we do?” “And we, what shall we do?”

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 repeated in verse 10, so you could legitimately understand the crowd as asking, “John, what fruits must we bear to match repentance? What are the sorts of actions that will prove our sorrow and our faith in order that we may be prepared for whatever it is you’re preparing us for?”

The Fruits of Repentance

What are the “fruits,” the “demonstrations” of repentance? To the crowd John says, “Those of you who have two coats, share one. You’ve got food; share the food.” Then Luke describes two subgroups of the multitudes. The Holy Spirit has surely inspired Luke as he writes in the selection of these two groups. The tax collectors and the soldiers are the most despicable of the people in the multitude. You know the reputation of tax collectors … and some commentators explain that in verse 14 the word used for “soldiers” is more accurately translated as “mercenaries,” which were a group more despicable than soldiers. These are guys who made their living by oppressing people.

All three, the larger crowd and these two subgroups, ask the same question: “What shall we do?”

Let me ask you: Where have you heard that question before? In Acts 2:37, Peter, anointed by the Holy Spirit, is preaching at Pentecost and ends his sermon with the multitudes crying out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” In Acts 13, the Philippian jailer responds to the message of the Apostle Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” In Acts 22, recounting his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul (formerly Saul) himself asks: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”

When you see that question six times in the New Testament, you’ve got to ask yourself the hard question: “What can I learn from this?” I think the answer is this: the appropriate response to being convicted of my sins and sincerely repenting of them is to daily ask, “Lord, today, what must I be doing in faith, in your supplied strength, in order to show in my life true repentance and its fruits?”

Please read what follows carefully: 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.” I’d like to make three very quick observations about John’s answers:

  • Observation number one:

When John talked to people about repentance and its 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.

John says, “The fruits of repentance begin to emerge when you do think, act, and live rightly 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 follow Jesus. (It was at the top of Christ’s list as well.)

I don’t think I’m taking great liberties with John when I say that you and I will never see and experience Christ in the fullness of how He may be seen and experienced in our lives until we know and confess that everything belongs to Him and has been offered to Him. We could ask, “What do you want me to do with my food? What do you want me to do with my coat?” Christ’s lordship in my life is a very important thing.

  • The second observation:

The man or woman who knows, believes in, and follows Christ is becoming a sensitive person to the needy people that are around 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 and understand where they crossed the line with their exercise of rightful authority to the exercise of exploitation. Repentant people are aware of the people who are being downtrodden and misused.

  • The third observation:

To make my point let me rewrite 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.’” NO! That wasn’t what John asked or what God wanted. John never said to any of these groups, ‘Give up all your possessions, quit your jobs, 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 should be very comforting to each of us. Being prepared to see and experience Christ with a repentant heart does not mean leaving the ‘real’ world. It means going into the world as Christ did. It means serving in the world by being sensitive and generous and by doing our jobs justly and rightly.

Those are the practical acts that befit/demonstrate godly repentance. And when a man or a woman chooses to repent inwardly with genuine sorrow and contrition over sin, and match that repentance outwardly with the fruits of repentance, that person is prepared – every day – to see, experience, follow, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. What a blessing that is!

I pray that as the Advent season – a time of preparedness – is here, we will remember John the Baptist’s message of repentance, and also our Lord’s words in Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.”

By the powerful working of the Holy Spirit through the Word, may we bring forth the fruits of repentance as seen in our lives of stewardship and service for the glory of God, the welfare of our neighbor, and our blessing.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography

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About the Author

Rev. Dr. David P. E. Maier serves as president of the Michigan District, LCMS.

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