Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 4, 2016)

Advent 2 – Series A (December 4, 2016)

“Prepare the Way of the Lord” (Matthew 3:1-12)


Out in the wilderness, those who went to see and hear John the Baptizer preach would have been reminded of the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel.  For 40 years they camped in the desert, following the Lord wherever he told them to pitch their tents and HIS tent, the tabernacle.  Over and over again, the Israelites tested the Lord’s patience with their unbelief.  It was their unbelief that had shut them out of the Promised Land for so long a time.  The wilderness may have also reminded John’s hearers of the time when the people of Judah were exiled in Babylon.  That 500-mile stretch of desert between Palestine and Babylon, with all its obstacles and hindrances, was like the obstacles and hindrances that separated the people from God … the obstacles of sin and unbelief in dry, barren hearts.  And there, at the Jordan River where John was baptizing, they would have been reminded of the way God brought them back to the land, passing through the waters of the Jordan, with the Lord always being faithful to his promises even when the people were unfaithful.

We chide the Israelites for their idolatry, for their doubt, for their covetous desire to return to the flesh-pots of Egypt.  But we, with our sinful nature, are no different than they were.  We, too, have our idols … whatever priorities, people, and possessions we place before God.  And you and I, too, have doubts that plague us and desires that haunt us.

John’s call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” is for us, also.  It is necessary for us to “Prepare the way of the Lord” in order to properly welcome and worship him.  The Kingdom of Heaven had come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ.  All the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven were centered in the manger of Bethlehem.  All the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven were won for us at the cross of Calvary.  And through faith in the Christ Child, we will be ready to welcome our Advent Lord when he comes again and brings his Kingdom in all its glory.

So, “Prepare the Way of the Lord” by repenting of your sins (vv. 2, 6).

In the movie “The Princess Bride,” the kidnapper Vizzini constantly says that the events that keep happening around him are “inconceivable,” to which the swordsman Inigo Montoya finally says, “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  The same goes for the way we use the word “repentance.”  “I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Repentance is not merely saying, “I’m sorry,” or feeling regret about something you have done.  Neither does it mean walking around, beating your chest, berating yourself, and crying out, “Woe is me!  I am a sinner!”

Certainly, we should feel regret and sorrow over our sins which have offended God.  Certainly, we confess that we are “poor, miserable sinners.”  But real repentance is a change of heart … a turning away from going your own way to going God’s way … turning away from sin and guilt and turning towards the cleansing and forgiving grace of God in Jesus Christ.  Moreover, repentance is not just a one-time deal.  It’s a condition.  It’s a heart condition.  It’s a lifestyle.

You see, repentance is a like a two-sided coin.  Contrition – being sorry for your sin – is heads.  Faith – trust in God’s grace in Christ – is the flip side of the coin.  Both are necessary in this lifestyle of repentance.  In fact, the document that kick-started the Reformation begins with this very same thought.  The very first of Luther’s 95 Theses says, “Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said ‘Repent,’ he willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.”

Regarding a lifestyle of repentance, St. John the Baptist also declared, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  He said this to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming out to the wilderness to see him.  But John saw right through them.  He calls them a “brood of vipers.”  He recognized their false motives for coming to be baptized by him.  If the Pharisees and the Sadducees did not allow themselves to be baptized by John, they would lose their status among the people, since so many people were coming out to see and hear this popular wilderness preacher.  And so John saw that these so-called spiritual leaders were not truly repentant, and therefore they would not “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”  Their unchanged lifestyle would show that they not truly had a change of heart.

How do you and I “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”?  John answers that for us in Luke’s account.  The people asked “What should we do then?”  John told them to share your food and clothing with others and be merciful.  He told the tax collectors to stop defrauding people and be honest, be people of integrity.  He told the soldiers to stop shaking people down and be content with your pay.

What would John say to us today?  He would probably say something similar.  He would point each of us to our vocation and tell us to be faithful in our station in life.  Are you a son or a daughter?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance by serving, obeying, loving, and cherishing your parents.  Are you a parent?  Then don’t exasperate your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Are you married?  Then honor your spouse, and be pure and chaste in all that you say and do.  Are you single?  Serve your friends and your family, and also be pure and chaste in all that you say and do.  Do you have a job?  Do it wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord.

“Prepare the way of the Lord” by repenting of your sins and being ready to welcome your Advent Lord who comes with all the blessings of His Kingdom.  

John said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.  On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and tongues of fire rested upon them.  “Our God is a consuming fire,” the author of Hebrews wrote.  At Pentecost, however, God was present there in all his fiery-fullness, but the disciples were not consumed, just as God’s fiery presence did not consume the burning bush that Moses saw at Mt. Sinai.  And when you were baptized, God came to you in all his fiery fullness.  There were no tongues of fire.  There was no dove descending from heaven.  There was no voice saying “This is my beloved son.”  But God’s gracious, life-giving presence was there nonetheless, for he promises that in baptism “he saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:5-6)

For those unwilling to repent … for those who have not “prepared the way of the Lord” in repentance … this baptism with fire will mean the pouring out of an unquenchable fire.  John the Baptist calls these individuals “chaff,” the wheat husks that are gathered after the harvest and are burned up.  When our Lord Jesus returns at his Second Advent – when he returns for his final harvest – those who have been filled with faith and have borne the fruit of faith will be gathered into the barn of heaven.  But those who in this life stubbornly separated themselves from faith in the saving death of Christ our Lord will experience the unquenchable fire of hell.

We also learn from our text today that we “prepare the way of the Lord” by not assuming that we are saved by our bloodlines, our heritage, or our traditions. (vv. 7-10)  This is what the Pharisees and Sadducees assumed.  They figured that because they were descendants of Abraham, they were automatically in God’s favor.  But John said to them, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’”

Are we guilty of this assumption?  I think sometimes we are.  Some people are tempted to assume that because they were born into a Christian family, that automatically makes them a Christian … in spite of the fact that they despise their baptism by never giving it a second thought, by taking it for granted … in spite of the fact that they seldom come to church to hear God’s Word and receive the Lord’s Supper … and when they do, it’s just a ritual that they go through.  They don’t really think about what it truly means.

Closer to home, we may be tempted to think that we are just a bit closer to God because of our Lutheran heritage, our liturgy, and various church traditions.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love all of this and I will continue to uphold the richness of our Lutheran theology and worship and hymns and traditions.  But if we for a moment begin to believe that we have an automatic ticket to heaven because we are Lutherans, then we are dead wrong.  In fact, if we believe any of that, then we are as dead as a rock.  Stone-cold dead.

But God can work with rocks, too.  John said, “I tell you, God is able to from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”  The Pharisees and Sadducees clung to their bloodline for their salvation, but John said, “That’s not going to cut it.  See these desert rocks?  God made them.  And he can make them alive if he wants to, and he can turn them into living beings with faith in the Savior.”

God can work with rocks.  He told the prophet Ezekiel, “I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them.  I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ez. 11:19).  He once worked with a stony guy named Peter, whose name means “rock.”  Peter denied Jesus, but by grace Jesus forgave him and gave him a rock-solid faith. 

Apart from the Holy Spirit working in us through the Word of God, our hearts are like those stones.  Cold and lifeless.  Dead.  With no place upon which seeds can take root and grow.  But God sends his Word of forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Christ, and he makes alive what once was dead.  He waters that hard, crusty soil in Baptism, plows it under and breaks it up, and he plants the seed of faith, and it grows and bears fruit.  That’s what he’s done in you and me.  He’s taken our stony hearts and made them alive by grace.  He has made us children of Abraham, those who have been declared righteous by faith in Jesus.

We “prepare the way of the Lord” by repentance.  But Jesus is the One who has “prepared the way” for US by being bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to us in his very own flesh … born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised again on the Third Day, given to us in the Lord’s Supper, and coming again on the Last Day.


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