Many people tend to live in a permanent state of thinking God can’t see them. We might be able to cover our own eyes, if I can’t see God, then he won’t be able to see me. But we can’t fool God who can see not only into our eyes, but right into our heart.
John’s ministry fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord” (Luke 3:4) Although he was miles from anywhere, living an austere life and preaching a challenging message, people flocked to him. You had to make an effort to find him along the banks of the Jordan river. Even so, he drew quite a crowd. His ministry sent ripples through city and countryside, to the courts of King Herod and to the courts of the temple – for once again there was a prophet in the land. John had a particularly strong message for those who trusted in their ancestry for salvation, giving an appearance of respectability to cover their true nature, and blind to the reality that judgement was coming. They were like the toddler covering her eyes, imagining herself to be invisible. They thought God couldn't see past their outward respectability straight into their hearts.
John’s was a call to genuine repentance, not an insincere or strategic apology to deflect God’s judgement so we can carry on as usual. The book, Five Languages of Apology, highlights a true apology includes: Expressing regret, Taking responsibility, Making restitution, Genuine repentance, and Requesting forgiveness. I think this is a good framework for understanding what it means to truly express sorrow towards God for our wrongdoing. I’m sure we have all received, or given, a reluctant apology that has a hollow ring to it. Do we tend to give that sort of apology to God, hoping he won’t see through it?
When people asked what they should do to repent, John gave practical answers. Repentance was not simply an inner awareness of our sin, it had outward practical action. John told them to care for the poor, sharing food, clothing and shelter. He told tax collectors not to rob people and he told soldiers not to abuse their power over people. I wonder if in today’s world of vaccine inequality John might have said, if you nations have two Covid vaccines give one to the people who have none.
What difference does this make to us? I think this challenges us to reconsider our own approach to repentance. Have we fallen into an easy grace where we use a strategic sorry when speaking with God, in which we ask for forgiveness without any thought of sincerely expressing regret, taking responsibility, making restitution or genuinely repenting? John the Baptist expected those coming to God not just to have the word sorry on their lips, but also in their hearts and in their lifestyle. In response to Israel’s insincere religiosity, God said, “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (Isaiah 58:6–7)
Repentance has a very practical aspect to it as we begin to leave the sin that bound us and begin to do the good which God commands us to do. Jesus said, “‘No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit.” (Luke 6:43–44) Does the fruit of your life reveal a true repentance that is pleasing to God?
What practical changes has repentance made to your way of life?
Rev John Malcolm