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01.10.16 Repenting of Religion Luke 3:1-22 Sermon Summary

by on January 11, 2016

Luke refers to John’s call to repentance as “good news.” It’s good because everyone needs to repent, and everyone can repent. But the first thing we need to repent of is religion.

Summary Points

  • Moving to the margins: The ministries of John and Jesus in Luke
  • Repenting of religion as an ethnicity
  • Repent of religion as a means of salvation
  • Five steps in repenting of religion

Luke introduces the ministry of Jesus in the context of the institutional establishment of his day. He refers to Tiberius, emperor of Rome, which might represent culture, tradition, or the entire Western civilization for us today. He then speaks of Pilate of Judea, which we might think of as country. Then the various “state” governors, including Herod, Philip, and Lysanias. And he concludes with a reference to the religious establishment through the high priests Annas and Caiaphas.

From these mainstream institutional establishments, Luke then moves to the margin with John the Baptizer, himself a son of the establishment (his father was a priest and his mother a member of the priestly line), in the wilderness. John has an orthodox appearance (according to Mark). He preaches not in the Temple but in the region of the Jordan River.

The Gospels present John as the fulfilment of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of “every valley being lifted up, every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked paths being made straight and the rough places made smooth.” (Isaiah 40:3-5) All this re-landscaping is done so that “all flesh can see the salvation of God.” In the Gospel of Luke, this “all” includes the crowds, tax-collectors, and soldiers. The Gospel of Matthew includes Scribes and Pharisees.

What this “all” does is prove what Luke says: That John’s call to repentance is “good news.” Everyone needs to repent, and everyone can repent. And if John is our example, then the first thing we need repent of is religion.

We repent of religion in two ways. The first is to repent of religion as an ethnicity. It is the presumption that one is a child of God through religious identity. John warns the crowds that, if the descendants of Abraham don’t want to participate in God’s promise to him, then God can raise up children for Abraham from the rocks. Note that God’s faithfulness to his promise is never in doubt. If we don’t go along, God finds another means to fulfill his promise.

Presumption of religious identity is evident when people identify themselves as “American” and thus Christian, or “Catholic” or “Protestant” or even “Christian” but do not bear any of the spiritual fruit of being a child of God. Just because you’re born in a hospital doesn’t make you a doctor. Disciples are made, John is saying, not born. And disciples “bear the fruit of repentance.” Jesus uses same metaphor in his parables and his final speech.

So John calls us to repent of religion when it gets in the way of our acting like a child of God. And what does a child of God act like? A short summary list from the teachings of the Newer Testament includes:

  • Love your enemies
  • Provide for the poor
  • Protect the vulnerable
  • Regard others as better than yourselves.

Are others better? No. But God knows the only hope we have of overcoming our self-centered ego is by considering others better than we are. Only then will we love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Only then will we serve them as Jesus did.

The other way we repent of religion is to repent of it as the means of our salvation. Religion isn’t our salvation. John’s baptism was a water baptism of repentance. It represented the intent of those coming to receive it. But Jesus, he says, will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus’ baptism represents something beyond our intent.

Jesus understood the baptism in the Holy Spirit because he received it in his own water baptism. And he also understands the fire of trials culminating in his own crucifixion. The Newer Testament relates Jesus’ baptism to the baptism of his death. (see Mark 10:38)

So when John calls us to repentance and promises that Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire, he’s saying that it is Jesus within us who is actually doing the repenting. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t do it on our own. We need the wind and fire of the Holy Spirit to separate the wheat from the chaff in our lives.

We choose religion (necessarily, I would argue) and repentance. But religion isn’t what saves us. Christ with us in the Holy Spirit is what saves us. If we trust in anything else to save us, especially if it is religion, we need to repent of it.

How does Jesus helps us repent of religion? Here are five steps from this passage.

First, we embrace an attitude of repentance. We remember John’s water baptism and humbly accept that we need to change. And beyond this, we resolve that, whatever God says, we’ll do it.

Second, we follow John to the wilderness, which means, yes, outside the official church. We go to a place where we are vulnerable to the Spirit. We find ritual cleansing in the living waters of a river, like John’s Jordan River, instead of in the cisterns of water we find in the Temple.

Third, we ask Jesus to cleanse the threshing floor of our lives. We imagine him coming in with his winnowing fork and tossing the wheat and the chaff into the air, then burning away the chaff. And we must remember his motive in doing this. It isn’t to punish us in the flames, but to isolate and use the wheat to make good bread of our lives—bread Christ may take, bless, break, and give to others for their benefit.

Fourth, we submit to Spiritual examination. Just as Jesus entered our world under the waters of  baptism, so through our baptism into Christ the Holy Spirit “swims” within us. If you’ve ever been fishing, you know you have to deliberately drop the hook and reel it in. You have to take into account the time of day, the weather, and the shadows making the water cool or warm. It’s the same with the Spirit in our lives. We have to attend to it in order to catch it. But when we attend to the Spirit, God speaks to us.

Fifth, we let the fires burn. Yes it is difficult and even painful. We will want to protest, to argue, and to fight. We may need to grieve. But have to let go of those things God wants to separate from us and burn away. Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was led by the Spirit to the threshing floor where he was tempted. There he remembered God’s proclamation at his baptism: “You are my child, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Because of God’s love and delight in us, we repent of religion without judging. We don’t judge others and we don’t judge ourselves. We may repent of things that “worked” in the past for us, or still work in the present for others, but don’t work anymore for us. Just remember, God was faithful in those things back then to you, and God is faithful in those things now to others. And God remains faithful now in your repentance.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • In what ways have you been called to the “wilderness” with John? Where have you found God’s Spirit at work beyond the fellowship of your church?
  • We normally think repentance follows threats of judgment and fear. How does the idea that repentance is “good news” strike you?
  • What presumptions of religious identity are getting in the way of your growing as a child of God and a disciple of Christ? Are you too content in the activities of Christianity while neglecting the activities of Christ?
  • If repentance is powered by the Holy Spirit within us and not by our own power, is it easier or harder for you to repent?
  • Looking at the five steps Christ uses to bring about repentance in our lives, where do you see Christ working in your own life?
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