Friday, February 23, 2007

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18, 3rd Sunday in Advent

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, Luke 3:7-18. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

For all of us who are getting into the “spirit of Christmas,” today’s Gospel reading might strike us as a bit of a downer. Passing through the season of Advent, moving toward Christmas, we expect glad tidings of great joy. And yet John the Baptist seems so out of place among our Christmas cheer and joy. Here he comes in our text today, preaching of repentance and the coming wrath of God! An ax prepared to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit, and throw it into the fire. Some of us may start to shudder and think, “Who invited this guy who’s wearing camel’s hair and eating grasshoppers, to our Christmas party?” He may seem like Ebenezer Scrooge, who goes around muttering “Bah, humbug!” Or maybe the Grinch who stole Christmas. But if this is what we think of John and his message, we gravely misunderstand him. Do not forget who leapt with joy inside his mother’s womb when the pregnant virgin Mary stood near! It was John the Baptist. And don’t forget who excitedly proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” when he first saw Jesus. It was John the Baptist. He knows the Christmas joy as well or better than any of us.

John knew what we often would like to forget: that this Christmas joy cannot truly or fully be experienced without the preparation of repentance. John knows that the true joy of Christmas cannot come without first knowing the dire situation we are in without Christ. Unless the underlying problem of our sin and all its effects in our lives is dealt with first, all our Christmas joy ends up being a fake smile that glosses over our real problem. This is what the preaching of repentance is all about: dealing with sin. Repent literally means “turn around!” It’s a message for all of us, because we all need to turn around, turn away from our sins.

Hear how John addressed the crowd who came to him for baptism: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘we have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” As far as John was concerned, the people who came to him were not the offspring of Abraham, but the offspring of vipers! Harsh words! Apparently John wasn’t concerned with “seeker sensitive” methods! Why such a harsh response to them? Weren’t they coming in repentance to be baptized? As a prophet of God, he wasn’t deceived by their outward show. He knew their hearts still weren’t repentant. Just like it did for the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God’s Word burned in John like a fire, and he could not keep it in. Could he really allow their hypocrisy to go unnoticed? It certainly would have been more pleasant for the hearers. It might have gotten him “in with the right crowd.” But to spare them this rebuke now, would only postpone the greater judgment that would await them if they continued with their untrue hearts. How would that be loving them? At least now, they could be jarred awake from their sin, and still turn to God and be forgiven, with only their pride being wounded. But should they continue in their unrepentance, an unquenchable fire awaited them!

So also with us. We shudder at the law’s accusation against our sin. Our self-esteem is wounded by the thought that we are hypocrites who claim to obey God, but cover our sin below the surface. God is not pleased with lip-service. Why do we have to hear the gloomy message about our sin? Because repent means turn around! You are headed the wrong way! Would we rather be comforted with soothing words, while we head down the wrong path…the way to destruction? Or wouldn’t we all rather be stunned by the sharp warning: “Beware! The road ahead of you leads to destruction! Turn back from your sins and be forgiven by God!” If I had fallen asleep at the wheel on a curvy cliffside road, like the road from Hana to Kaupo, I’d be grateful to the passenger if they suddenly slapped my face and yelled at me to wake up, rather than letting me sleep unaware.

Or consider a child who has badly scraped up her leg, and has gravel under the skin. She comes into the house screaming and crying that it hurts. There are two different things you could do. You could proceed to calm her down, stroke her forehead gently and say “There, there, it will all be better soon, don’t cry” but do nothing to clean the wound. Fearful of making it hurt worse for a short time, you decide to ignore the dirty wound, and so the wound gets infected, and the injury becomes worse as the infection spreads through the wound.

The second option you could take, is quickly bring the crying child to the bathroom, wash the wound clean with soap and water, maybe some peroxide, and carefully remove the painful gravel. Truthfully, it will hurt more, and the child might kick and scream, and even say “Mommy, why are you hurting me? Why are you making it worse?” But the wise parent knows that it is only after this painful cleansing (to which I am comparing repentance) that they can then comfort and console the daughter, hug her and hold her while the crying stops. Only then will the antiseptic balm heal the wound. Then words of comfort will be genuine, for the infection has been forestalled, the wound is clean, and the healing can begin. In a short time, she will literally be as good as new!

The same goes for us. We daily cut ourselves and scrape ourselves with our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The gravel of sin works its way under our skin, and if we leave it sitting there, the infection will grow and spread within us, until it is stopped by something more powerful. It stings and hurts like the dickens to have that wound scrubbed clean by the preaching of repentance, and by hearing the Word of God’s law. Without faith, the childlike trust in God, we might think its better for ourselves to not touch the wound, not clean it, but just let it heal. We want the gravel of sin to remain undisturbed under our skin. But like a wise parent God knows that the the Law must come before the Gospel. The sting comes from the law, but the cleaning and healing power comes from the Gospel. The cleansing from sin in baptism is like the peroxide or soap and water that cleanses our wound. Baptism joins us to Christ’s saving death, and through Him we are washed clean of sin. Baptism also joins us to His resurrection, where we arise clean and new again healed of all sin.

So repent! Turn back from the dead path of sin, from presuming that your own works will save you. Turn back from trusting in your family name or reputation to count you in God’s good favor. Having Abraham as your father is no guarantee of God’s love. God doesn’t favor me because my uncle or a great-grandfather was a pastor, or that my family were faithful church-goers. God is concerned with my heart. With your heart. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance! If you are truly sorry for your sins, don’t continue to live in them! The crowd asked John what daily fruits of repentance that they should bear? What kind of fruit was pleasing to God? What is the thing I am to do right now, here in my place in life? The surprise might be that he didn’t give them great and glorious things to do. No dramatic pilgrimages to travel great distances to display your devotion to God. No flashy acts of philanthropy. No commands to lead a life of a hermit, sealed off from the world for quiet meditation and prayer. Rather he points them to their own station in life. Their own position or daily calling as a neighbor, a tax collector, and a soldier.

So also he would point us to our daily lives. A parent, a neighbor, an IRS agent, a teacher, a businessman, a medical worker, a storekeeper, a student, a son or a daughter. Our own place in life may not seem like the realm for the good fruit that God wants us to bear. We may imagine all kinds of great and glorious things for ourselves to do, that would surely please God. But no, He calls us to the simple things in life, to share, be generous to those in need, (and not in a showy way so that others can see), being honest in business and taxes, being content with the salary we have, and not trying to cheat others. These things were simple obedience to the commandments. Giving to those in need is an example of what Luther said about the 5th commandment, “we should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.” Not stealing, extorting, or taking too much taxes is keeping the 7th commandment, which Luther also explained, “We should fear and love God so that we do not take our neighbor’s money or possessions, or get them in any dishonest way, but help him to improve and protect his possessions and income.”

If you wonder what God may have for you to do in your own life, to show fruits of repentance, my suggestion is that you dust off your Small Catechism from confirmation class, and open up to the section titled “Table of Duties.” There you will find a collection of Bible verses arranged under the following headings: “Bishops, pastors, and preachers; Duties Christians Owe their teachers and pastors, Governing authorities; Duties Subjects owe to governing authorities; Husbands, Wives, Parents, Children, Laborers and Servants, Masters and Mistresses (which we might retitle today “Managers and Supervisors”); Young Persons in General; Widows; and Christians in General.” Here is laid out a simple summary of what the Bible teaches you from each of your various positions in life. Each one of us falls into several of those categories. Check it out and see how we may daily bear the fruit of repentance.

Repentance may be a hard message to hear, but it always leads to a more joyful message, that of the Gospel. Hearing this message was encouraging to John’s hearers, and some even wondered if he was the Christ who had been promised. But John pointed them not to himself, but to the stronger one who would come after. He knew his role of preaching repentance was just preparation work for the coming of the Christ. Christ who was baptized to take our sin on Himself so that He might take it to the cross, so that in our baptism we would be cleansed of sin. Jesus established a baptism of the spirit and fire, that forges a true and lifelong link between us and His death and resurrection. In our baptism, Paul says we are joined to His death and resurrection. Here is the strength and the power to bear fruit, fruit that will last. Jesus is the living Vine that nourishes the branches that are the Church of Christ. The Holy Spirit is the fire that burns within us to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This power does not come from us, but from God. Only a living tree bears fruit, and we are only alive in Christ.

But the joy of Christmas is not that we will bear good fruit—rather the joy of Christmas is that our Savior has entered into the world to take away our sin. It’s only after we’ve fully despaired over our sins and realized our need for a Savior that we will find the true relief and joy of Christmas. For in this baby Jesus that shepherds awaited was the salvation of the world. It’s only hearts that have been prepared by repentance that are truly ready to receive and revel in the Christmas joy of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Now is the time for the heavens to break forth with singing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth!” For the first Christmas brought us a Savior who proclaimed peace to the world that lay broken in sin. Having felt the hard scrubbing and sting of the law, we can rejoice and be glad at the healing balm of the Gospel. And so we say as we hear the Gospel, “Praise to you O Christ.” Amen.

Now the peace which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

1 comment:

nathaniel nyaga said...

Praise God ,its inspiring sermon. we need to prepares our hearts for Christ by repentance.
Rev. William Nyaga