Monday, December 07, 2009

Sermon on Luke 3:1-14 for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "The Word of God Came"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. As we continue in the season of Advent, we come to John the Baptist, who levels a path in our hearts for the coming of the Lord—whose message was like a refining fire and a fuller’s soap. We turn our attention today to his preaching of the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Please keep both the Old Testament and Gospel readings before you today, as they refer to him. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

What would you do if you had a life-saving message that could spare untold numbers of people? Let’s say you were a scientist and knew in advance of a volcanic eruption that was going to happen in a highly populated area. Or an astronomer who knew of a killer asteroid that was headed toward earth. Who would you tell to get the message out to the most people? You might notify a prominent government official, who could initiate some public broadcast of this information. You might contact emergency services or a radio station, to maximize the number of people who could get the warning. I believe it was in Boston recently, that health officials went to the pastors and religious leaders of various inner city churches to get the word out to disadvantaged and low-income people about their higher risk of swine flu. This was a quick way to spread the information among people who might not hear through other channels. But what if you lived in the ancient world, and there were no radio or TV stations to broadcast on, and there was no telephone to spread the message?

Such important information would probably still go to the politicians and religious leaders. They would have the visibility and the platform on which to get this message out quickly to the greatest number of people. But when God had just such an important, life-changing message to bring, He didn’t follow that protocol at all. When Luke begins this chapter, we see how God bypassed all the rich and powerful, from the political leaders to the significant religious leaders of that day. He begins with the biggest chief on the totem pole—the Caesar of all the Roman world, moving down to a state governor, Pontius Pilate, down to the local small-fry governors of Galilee and the surrounding areas. Then he mentions the two high priests of that day, probably somewhere around 28-29 AD. After naming all these prominent individuals, whom the Jewish readers of his day would have recognized, he comes to an unknown figure—John, the son of Zechariah.

The word of God came to none of these high and great ones of the day—not to the political or religious elite. Instead, the word of God came to a man who lived in the wild and probably looked pretty wild. Dressed in coarse animal-skin clothing held together with a leather belt—sporting long hair and a beard, eating grasshoppers and wild honey—he wouldn’t seem a likely candidate for such important news. Certainly not dressed like your typical royal herald who’d announce the arrival of a King, preparing his way. Certainly not the most efficient way to get the news out, choosing a man who lived like a hermit in an unpopulated wilderness. But there it was. The word of God came to John in the wilderness. God works in unpredictable and mysterious ways. And the surrounding region of Judea emptied out in droves to see this strange preacher in the wilderness, and the message got out.

When the word of God came to John, he preached it in the message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What better environment for this message than the wilderness of Judea and the region around the Jordan River? This ancient ground was swollen with the significance of years of Israel’s history. The rocks and streams and barren soil cried out the testimony of the ancient Israelites who had treaded that ground some 1,500 years earlier, wandering those desert lands for 40 years, as a trial for their disobedience to God. They bore the consequence of their rebellion and lack of faith by giving up their chance to see the promised land. The rocks and streams would tell of the young generation of children, now faithful to God. Born during that wilderness wandering, their dusty, sandaled feet crossed over the Jordan River on dry ground—not because the streambed was dried up. No, at the peak of the flood stage, when the Jordan was a treacherous river, they crossed on dry ground behind the Ark of the Covenant. God miraculously parted the waters, and they walked safely into the lush green garden of the promised land of Canaan.

The wilderness was a place of isolation. A testing ground of faith and repentance. And people came there to be cleansed and purified of their sins. So also this Advent, we’re called away for a moment from the hustle and bustle of city life—from the crowds and noise, from the glitter and glamour and noise of celebrities, politicians, and religious dignitaries, to go out to the wilderness. To leave behind the frazzled preparations and distraction, and to make preparations for the most important event since Jesus’ death and resurrection nearly 2,000 years ago. That most important event is the return of Jesus Christ. That’s what we prepare for, what we wait for this Advent. In order to prepare, we’re called to the silence and barrenness of the wilderness of repentance. A place where there’s no one else to prove yourself better than, no one else to blame for what you’ve done wrong. There in the quiet of the wilderness we hear his cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

We’re called to prepare our hearts in the wilderness of repentance. Prepare them for the coming Lord, just as the crooked, pothole-filled roads were smoothed, straightened and prepared for the coming of an ancient king. But are we ready for the earth moving, the reshaping of our lives that repentance involves? Are we ready for the upheaval and straightening of humbling ourselves before God, and turning away from sin? Or do we come like the curious Pharisees, ready to be baptized and cleansed by John, but trusting in our religious pedigree to put us in God’s favor? Do we come with no intention to have our heart straightened or our priorities reorganized? Then John warns us that God has no regard for whatever religious pedigree we might claim, no regard for the false piety of acting religious while having no faith in the heart. For such a person is a tree that bears no good fruit, and is destined for the fire. True repentance is seen by a change in the fruit we bear—from evil deeds to good.

But John didn’t only speak the humbling, hard-driving message of repentance, he also spoke of the coming salvation of God, and the forgiveness of sins that follows repentance. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Again, what more fitting place than the Jordan River, where in those centuries past the Israelites passed through the waters to enter their promised land. Now with repentant sinners gathering at the banks of that same river, he baptized them with water, showing the way to enter the promised land of the Kingdom of God. For through baptism for the forgiveness of our sins, God will receive us into His heavenly homeland. John pointed forward to the coming Lord, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Now we, having laid aside our sins in repentance, receive the washing of water and God’s Word that pours over us, so that the Lamb of God will take away our sins. And though we’re still in the wilderness of this life, we’re not aimlessly wandering, but we have a goal and direction in life. We know Jesus is the Way to our Promised Land, and we look to His coming as we prepare our hearts.

Having that vital preparation of repentance at work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, we hear the crowds ask “What shall we do?” How should we live now, that we’ve been called to see the salvation of God in Christ Jesus? How should we live now that we’re baptized into His service? John didn’t teach them that service to God was found in a life of isolation in the wild like him. For the people who sought a genuine change in life, he sent them back into the world of their vocations, but with a new attitude and way of life. If they were a tax collector, they were to give up their greediness, and only collect what they were authorized. If they were soldiers, he sent them back to work, but on the pledge that they wouldn’t abuse their power or authority to blackmail or extort, but be satisfied with what they made.

So for us, provided we’re in a legitimate and God-honoring vocation, God sends us to our work with faithfulness and honesty and uprightness. If you’re a business person, to act with integrity in your dealings. To represent things truthfully and to charge an honest price for your goods or services. If you’re a lawyer, to give honest legal representation, and not perjure yourself or your client. If you’re a medical worker, to carry out your work with diligence and protect and defend life, and bring no harm. If you’re a student to study hard, do your own work and avoid all cheating. The policeman to enforce the law with fairness and avoid corruption or taking bribes. The politician and the judge to perform the duties of their office in seeking the common good of all, and to act in openness and conviction.

But our vocations go beyond our employment. They include our callings in life not only in work, but also in family, in church, and in citizenship. For the father and mother they are called to the responsible upbringing of their children and their instruction in God’s Word and worship. For the child, as son or daughter, their duty is to obey their parents and other authorities. In church we may serve on various boards, committees, or volunteer and service posts. In each of these roles we’re to carry out our responsibilities with dedication, with cooperation, and faithfulness to God’s Word. As citizens we exercise our right to vote and to petition our lawmakers to uphold justice and protect life. Wherever we have responsibilities of love and service to our neighbor, this is the arena for the practice of our faith, and bearing the fruits of repentance. Turning away from an old life of sin.

Though the word of God didn’t come to the high and notable people of John’s day, but rather to an unkempt, itinerant, wilderness preacher, that message of deliverance carries on down through the ages. God’s plan of announcing His coming has remarkably gone to all ends of the earth. And it wasn’t to the high and mighty that it came. So also the same word of God comes to us. Calling us to prepare for the Lord by repentance and to carry on our work faithfully in the service of your neighbor as we wait for the day of the Lord’s coming. The word of God that especially comes to children who cherish it with joy, as we saw in our Christmas musical on Friday. And we and they continue to share this word of God with others. John’s message was completed when the Word of God came in human flesh. When Jesus, the Word of God incarnate walked among them and entered the same wilderness of testing and was baptized in the Jordan, John’s work was over. But our time in the wilderness is not yet done, but the promised land is near! As we await Jesus’ return, our work goes on, as we announce His coming and proclaim the Word of God, Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection from the dead are the Way for us to receive all forgiveness, and to enter cleansed into His kingdom. So by His forgiveness, we’re ready for His coming whenever our Lord shall come, and all flesh will see the salvation of our God. In Jesus’ name. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What was so unlikely about the way that God announced the coming of His Son, the Lord? How would we have done it?

2. What made John the Baptist stand out? Read the prophecies about his coming in Malachi 3:1-7 and Isaiah 40:3-5. What would his coming be like?

3. Why was the wilderness and the region of the Jordan River a significant site for John’s repentance and baptismal preaching? Read Numbers 13-14, Joshua 1-4.

4. How does the wilderness depict our life and spiritual situation? What testing or trials do we face? What promised land do we hope for? What’s our entrance through water into God’s kingdom? 1 Corinthians 10.

5. What’s involved in preparing our hearts for the Lord’s coming? How are a level highway and straight paths made?

6. What are the personal applications of repentance and a changed life in your vocations (callings) in life? See the Table of Duties in the Small Catechism.

7. The word of God came to John the Baptist. How did the Word of God then come? (hint: read John 1). How does the Word of God continue to come to us?

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Ed said...
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