Monday, December 09, 2013

Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12, for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, "Wouldn't be the same..."

            Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Each year as we reach the season of Advent, John the Baptist greets us as a familiar figure in the readings. He is the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” Besides having a full beard, he probably has nothing in common with Santa Claus. And he gets far less notice. But in the Christian church, John teaches us far more about the proper celebration of Advent and Christmas than does Santa Claus. But we often need reminders that the Christmas celebrated by the world can so easily distract from and obscure how Christ is the heart and reason for the season. Are we aware of what makes Christmas distinctively Christian, or do we secretly prefer the version that is all about over-spending, self-indulgence, and all the holiday trappings, but is devoid of Jesus?
            We all grew up with various memories and associations of what makes the holidays nostalgic for us—whether that be certain traditions we keep, concerning our trees, or decorations, or if the Christmases we remembered were green in Hawaii or white with snow. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without _____.” And many of these nostalgic traditions are harmless and good. Nor should our celebration be free of festivity. But I’ve never heard: “Advent just wouldn’t be the same without John the Baptist.” Nor are we often eager to hear his message of repentance, with its strong dose of law and judgment. So what place does John and his message of repentance find in our celebration of Advent, in preparation and expectation for Christmas? Would Christmas be the same without repentance? Or could repentance possibly be the beginnings of a deeper and more profound joy?
            Back 2,000 years ago, when John the Baptist came preaching, he charged the atmosphere with expectation, wonder, and anticipation. It is right for our celebration of Christmas to be filled with the same. But why? For them, it was because for about 400 years, the people in the land of Israel were enduring a famine. Not a shortage of bread or water, but a famine of God’s Word, with no prophet of God appearing in Israel for some 400 years. And then out in the wilderness of Judea, outside of the urban centers and away from the Temple in Jerusalem, comes this man dressed like Elijah, the prophet of old. All of a sudden word gets out—people pour out of the cities and villages, and ears perk up to hear what this first prophet on the scene for 400 years, has to say. They had lived through a time of foreign oppression, wars and rebellions, and worst of all—silence from God. But now they were listening.
            John’s message revealed that momentous things were underway. The kingdom of heaven was at hand, and they were to prepare the way of the Lord. God was on His way. And the way to be ready was to repent. To turn away from sin, and be upright and ready for the long-expected Messiah or Christ. What would the coming of the Christ be like? First of all, He would be greater than John, and John was quick to remind that he was just a herald, a forerunner, a messenger whose role it was to step out of the way once the One of far greater honor arrived. Once Jesus came on scene, John declared, “He must increase, I must decrease.” Jesus’ greater honor consisted in that He was God in human flesh
            But John also warned that the coming of Jesus would involve judgment. That the unfruitful trees would be thrown into the fire, and that Jesus would sort between the righteous and the unrighteous—the wheat being gathered into His barn, and the chaff being thrown into the fire. Taken together with Jesus’ later teaching in the parables, this seems to be referring to Jesus’ final judgment at the end of times.
            Today, do we suffer so much from a famine of God’ Word, or rather that it’s available in abundance, but people neglect to listen? Are we entertained and preoccupied to the point of total distraction, where having hearts made ready for Christ is the last thing on our “to do list,” if it’s on there at all? So John again comes on the scene this Advent, not to steal the spotlight from Jesus, but to shine it on Him, and to prepare us by repentance for His coming. The way we prepare for Christ’s coming is by repenting from our sins, and watching eagerly for His coming.
            Was John’s first audience ready for Christ’s coming? Apparently the religious leaders assumed they were, but John called out their hypocrisy and called them to live lives that matched their words, and not to count on their ancestry putting them into God’s good favor. Do we secretly want to avoid John’s rebuke, because we come half-heartedly to Christ? Are our hearts longing for His kingdom? Or are we unwilling to confront the hypocrisy in our own lives? The apostle Peter tells us, “Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2). Thirst for the spiritual milk and growth into salvation!
            While no one but Christ can be truly free of any shades of hypocrisy, that is no excuse for indulging, ignoring, or permitting it. Hypocrisy is always unbecoming of Christians, as we are called to the pureness of life in Christ. So repentance is the order of the day, and the order of the season, for that matter. John the Baptist shows up, not to spoil our Christmas celebrations and ruin the holiday cheer, but to cut through the trappings and expose what’s in our hearts, so that we may be ready for Jesus’ coming kingdom. Ready for the kingdom of light that drives back the works of darkness—even from us. Ready for the kingdom that has no room for hypocrisy and malice, but the kingdom in which we are called to sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8).
            Key to John’s message was that we “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” The mark of the sincere Christian life is that it strives to bear good fruit. Deed follows word. But how is this possible? How does the Christian who has repented and turned from their hypocrisy, or who has put away their former life, get a fruit-bearing life? One thing is clear, that our own efforts continually fail us. But Jesus taught where true fruit comes from. He teaches that He is the Vine, and we are the branches, and the branches that remain in Him bear much fruit. “Apart from me”, Jesus says, “you can do nothing.” In Christ the Vine, we will bear fruit. If we remove ourselves from the Vine, we’ll be like a garden hose unscrewed from the faucet, that quickly runs out of water. Fruit-bearing comes from remaining in Christ and His Word and Sacraments, and experiencing the constant pruning and growth of repentance and forgiveness.
            Yes, because the reason we prepare for Christ’s coming by repentance, is because His is a kingdom of forgiveness. As John would later say of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John the Baptist is a timely figure for our season because he reminds us that Jesus came into the world to bear our sins. The Christmas season is filled with many sentiments of warmth, peace, love—and these are indeed proper to welcome the Christ-child. But Advent and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without repentance. For without this, we miss the real reason Jesus came into the world. As the book of Galatians tells us, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.”
            Without repentance, we would stand in the company of those whom John called to “bear fruits of repentance,” and be called to examine our hearts. With repentance, we can come with those who confessing their sins in baptism, looked expectantly to their future place in Jesus’ kingdom. For them, and for we who have repented and believed, the future coming of Christ in judgment is not something we fear, but rather we wait for it with joy. When Christ comes with His winnowing fork to gather the wheat into His barn and throw the chaff into the fire, we place all our confidence in Him who redeemed us from under the law and gave us the adoption as sons in His kingdom. Because His kingdom is a kingdom of repentance and forgiveness, and no one who comes to Him in repentance will be turned away.
            Gathered as wheat into His barn. At Jesus’ second coming, He will not come as a child, but as the King of Kings, coming to bring us to the place that He has prepared for us. He will take us there as wheat gathered into His barn, with our sins left far behind at His cross. While you are making your holiday preparations this season, make sure that above all else your heart is ready by repentance for Christ’s forgiveness. You’ll survive the season even with some unfinished items on your “to-do list”—but repentance is something we can never put off or postpone for later. But with a repentant heart and a joyful expectation, we will indeed be ready to celebrate the festival with sincerity and truth. Jesus’ kingdom is among us now, in His Word and Sacraments, but it is also ever nearer to the day when He will come in all His glory. So come, let us worship and receive the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and may we become fruitful branches of His Living Vine! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Who was John the Baptist, and what was his role? Read the prophecies about his coming in Malachi 3:1-7 and Isaiah 40:3-5. What would his coming be like?

  1. Why did John’s preaching move the people to repentance and to confess their sins? In preparation for what? Why was the wilderness and the region of the Jordan River a significant site for this baptismal preaching? Read Numbers 13-14, Joshua 1-4. How had these sites played into Israel’s redemption history? What promised land do we hope for? How do we enter through water into God’s kingdom? 1 Corinthians 10.

  1. What sort of hypocrisy did John encounter in those who came to be baptized? What did he call them to do, to correct this? Why was their ancestry no defense or assurance? John 8:31-59; Galatians 3:7-9. What must we do when we are caught in hypocrisy? 1 Peter 2:1-2. How can one become a “fruitful tree?” John 15:1-11

  1. What sort of new life does baptism move us toward and equip us for? How does it equip us for this new life? Luke 3:10-14; Colossians 3:1-17.

  1. Jesus’ baptism, which replaced John’s, insured the gift of the Holy Spirit. John gives way to Jesus, who must become greater (John 3:30). How does Jesus’ ministry create “wheat” to be saved, and “chaff” to perish in unquenchable fire? Luke 8:4-15; John 3:16-21. 

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