Second Sunday in Advent (December 10, 2006)
“Stones in Advent: Stones as Children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8-9)
Today our sermon series “Stones in Advent” continues. Last week we heard that even if all the disciples of Jesus were silent, God could make the stones cry out. Today we will hear John the Baptist tell us about some other “Stones in Advent.”
You younger people here have probably never heard of the “Pet Rock” fad that stormed the country back in the mid-1970's. Gary Dahl was a brilliant marketer who thought up the idea. For a little under five bucks, you could buy your own pet rock, complete with a cardboard box with your new friend nestled inside in that same stuff that protects your eggs in your Easter basket. Each pet rock also came with its own “Pet Rock Training Manual.” It told you how to properly raise and care for your new pet. It told you that your new pet would easily obey the commands “stay” and “sit.” However, “roll over” required some extra effort by the trainer. And “come” was completely out of the question.1 But house training it was a snap. The manual told the owner to “Place it on some old newspapers. The rock will never know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction.2
Hundreds of thousands of these things were sold, making Dahl a millionaire. Ask your parents later if they were one of the people who bought one. By the way, I can proudly say that I never had a pet rock. You know why? Because when I asked for one for Christmas one year, my wise father said to me, “Son...it's a ROCK. You want a rock? Go outside in the garden and dig one up. I'm sure you'll find yourself a good one there. I'll even put it in a box for you.”
People did a lot of stupid things back in the 60's and 70's. It may have had something to do with all that hazy blue smoke, and I'm not talking about the smog in LA. Rocks as pets? You've got to be kidding me.
That's probably the same response that John the Baptizer got when he told the crowds who came out to hear him that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Rocks as children? You've got to be kidding me.
John had come as the last and greatest prophet... the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He was sent, just as he had preached, to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Like a city that prepares its roads when a king is on his way to visit, smoothing out all the rocky places, the people were to prepare their hearts by repenting of their sins and receiving the forgiveness of God by trusting in the promise of the Messiah to come.
People came out in droves to hear John. Why? Perhaps some came because they were truly sorry for their sins and wanted to be ready when the Messiah arrived on the scene. In those days, for one reason of another, there were a lot of expectations that the arrival of the Messiah was just around the corner. Others may have come out of curiosity. They heard that there was some strange hairy preacher out in the desert, baptizing people in the Jordan River, and so they said to one another, “Let's go see what all the hubbub is about.” And then there were the religious authorities from Jerusalem, the Pharisees and Sadducees, who came out to see John, perhaps to see if his sermons met with their “doctrinal review committees.” St. Matthew is the one who tells us that they were the ones John addressed when he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our Father.' For I tell you...” and here you can imagine John waving his hand around at all those water-worn rocks on the banks of the Jordan... “God is able from these stones to raise up children from Abraham.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees, and many Israelites in those days, relied on their bloodline. They believed that their physical descent from Abraham was their ticket to being in God's good graces. John saw right through their hypocrisy. “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance,” he told them. In other words, “If you are truly sorry for your sin, then there should be some evidence of it in your life. There should be some changes in your life. There should be some good works to show that you have truly repented.” And then John warns, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Long ago, God had planted Israel as his own vineyard. He cultivated it with his love and mercy. But the children of Abraham rejected him and did not produce the fruit of repentance. God's judgment is pictured as a tree being cut down and thrown into the fire.
God's plan to bring about a Savior was indeed centered in a bloodline. That's why he was so patient with the stubborn Israelites over and over again. He had promised that through that bloodline of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob...then King David...and on down to his mother Mary...that a Savior would one day be born. The tree that God had planted in Israel was cut down, but a stump remained...a faithful remnant. And from that stump, a branch grew, as we heard in last week's Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah 33, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus was the Branch that sprung up in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And at his crucifixion, God's justice over sin was satisfied. The sinless Son of God died with the sins of the world laid upon him. And now his righteousness is given as a gift to all who are baptized in his name and trust in him as Savior.
That's how you become a true child of Abraham. God's plan to bring about the Savior was centered in a bloodline, but his plan to make children of Abraham out of stones is NOT by one's genealogy. It's by faith. Paul explains this in the fourth chapter of Romans, where he says that Abraham was justified... he was counted as righteous in God's sight... because he believed God's promises. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” verse 3 of Romans 4 says, and then he says that all who “walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had” are also declared righteous by faith. And Paul makes the same point in Galatians 3 where he says “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”
So it doesn't matter whether you are a Jew or a Gentile. It doesn't matter whether you are a Swede or a Norwegian or a German. It doesn't matter what kind of a hyphenated American you are. Nor does it matter what kind of block-headed things you may have done in your life as a stone. It all boils down to this: God makes you his child by causing you to be born again in the waters of Holy Baptism. Apart from God working in our hearts through his Word, we are as spiritually dead as those stones on the banks of the Jordan River. But when the forgiveness of sins in Christ is spoken to your heart, faith is created and becomes the hand that receives that same forgiveness through Christ's death and resurrection.
God turns stones into children of Abraham, and then he makes you into a tree. He plants you as a new tree in this vineyard called the Church and causes you to bear good fruit. The preaching of John to those gather at the riverside is for us to hear, too. “What then shall we do?” the crowds asked him. To the people he said, “If someone needs clothes, give them some of yours. If they are hungry, feed them.” To the tax collectors, he said, “Don't cheat people.” To the soldiers, he said, “Be the best soldier you can be, and serve with honesty and integrity...and be content with your wages.” To us, he would say something similar. Help the poor and needy. Serve in your individual vocations and occupations with honesty and integrity. Don't covet, but instead be content with all that God has blessed you with. Always refer to God's commandments when you think to yourself, “How else can I serve my neighbor in love?” You will have plenty to keep yourself occupied there without wondering, “What does God want me to do?” It's all there in black and white. And the needs of others are right there in front of you, waiting to be met. It's really not all that hard to see them.
After all, you're not a rock. And you are not simply a pet either. God has lovingly adopted you, not as a pet, but as a dearly loved child. You are a living stone who has become a child of Abraham, not by bloodline, but by faith in the shed blood of God's beloved Son. Respond to John's Advent sermon to “Prepare the way of the Lord” by smoothing out all the rocky places in your life by repentance and by receiving the forgiveness of sins from the King who has come, who comes to us today, and who will come again, just as he promised. Amen.