John knew that the Messiah was just about to come - and that the people needed to be ready for him. The news of his coming was good news (v.18); at the same time it was not something that could be taken lightly, for it would only be good news for those who were ready for him, those who were living fruitful lives in God's eyes. John therefore spelled out the need to repent.
What exactly is repentance? The Greek word literally means a change of mind, but it means more than that: it means a change of direction, affecting the whole person as well as their ideas. John the Baptist called people to change their mind about their way of life, to change their attitudes, their thinking, their speaking and their behaviour. When asked exactly what people should do, he gave very practical answers. Notice how the issues he deals with are connected with both private and working lives.
What about us? As we get ready for Christmas, we need also to get ready for Jesus' second coming, when all that John expected will be fulfilled. So how do we repent?
Obviously, we need to repent of every sin that we are aware of. That means not just admitting that it is a sin against God and seeking his forgiveness for it - though that is hard enough - but determining to turn ourselves around and live differently in the future. As we do so, we do not expect to find the power to live a godly life within our fallible human nature, but in the Holy Spirit whom God has given us. Repentance is good news, not bad!
There are deeper levels of repentance, which we discover as we progress in the Christian life. We learn that we repent not only of our sinful actions, but of our sinful attitudes. We go on to learn that we also need to turn from things that are not wrong in themselves, but are not God's way for us. We learn not to 'look after number one' but to seek God's will and pleasure in all that we do. We learn not to rely on our own gifts and abilities, however great they may be, but to look to Christ to live through us (Galatians 2:20). The result is that we become more and more Christ like. That's the goal of repentance!
ISSUES FOR TODAY Repentance: click HERE for further thoughts. Repentance is not just about private morality. Our work, our politics, our society are all important to God. Is it all the way God wants it to be? If not, what would John tell us to do? QUESTIONS 1. John warned the crowds not to take their relationship with God for granted. Is that an issue today? What can be done about it? 2. We see many things wrong in our world. John the Baptist reacted by telling people to repent. How should we react? 3. How can we prepare for Christmas in the light of the fact that Jesus may return at any time?
IDEAS FOR MEETINGS
Welcome question: Is there any occasion that you remember because you were not ready for it?
Worship: John wanted the people to be spiritually clean, ready to meet a holy God. The worship could follow themes of holiness and cleansing, using Isaiah 6:1-8 as a basis; an illustration might be washing hands before sharing finger food or bread and wine, or washing cups before using them for drinking - let the washing be a symbol of spiritual cleansing, preceded by a time of silent or open confession and followed by praise.