Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Date: Advent II + 12/09/07
Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
Any preacher of the Gospel (if he is really preaching the Gospel) will inevitably get himself into trouble. That is, he gets himself in trouble primarily when and because the gospel challenges peoples’ presumptions and expectations. People have all sorts of presumptions and expectations, especially at this time of year, concerning what Christmas is all about. What is most challenging for the preacher is that without an awareness of sin, our innate separation and alienation from God, there can be no Gospel, which is always and only the Good News of reconciliation with God, salvation from sin, death and the devil through the forgiveness of sin. You know the scripture that says, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). The two edges of that sword are called Law and Gospel. The Law hurts. The Gospel heals. The Law of God comes to reveal our waywardness and sin, the cause of all separation and death, to show us our helplessness and need for a Savior. The Law says “you have sinned and your sin separates you from God; your sin is killing you; and worse than that, you are helpless to fix that, to save yourself.” Only then does the Gospel make any sense as it proclaims and gives deliverance and salvation through the forgiveness of sin all for the sake and by the power of Jesus Christ crucified and risen again.
The season of Advent should be such a challenge to our presumptions and expectations. In its hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping and decorations and traffic and mood music in December every year in our country, the world at least still acknowledges that there is some deeper, inherent religious significance to Christmas, witnessed by the broadcasting on Christmas Eve of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols over the radio from Cambridge, England now for 78 years, and Roman Catholic masses from Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago and the Vatican in Rome; not to mention that Christmas is one of the only two times each year many people darken church doors. Many Christians like to try to remind people, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” but even that may not grab anyone’s attention.
Part of the reason for the season of Advent preceding the Christmas celebration is for Christians to remember where you came from; that we still drag around the old, sinful nature that, for all its daily drowning in the power of our baptism, still (as the old King James Version of the Bible says it) “doth so easily beset us.” The other reason for the season of Advent, however, is that the Church may proclaim to a world caught up in its secular concerns the message, “Wait a Minute!”
That’s how the Apostle and Evangelist Matthew’s Gospel begins. Oh, he begins with a partial genealogy of Jesus and a brief Christmas devotion. But in the third chapter (as we count them) Matt puts on the brakes and says, “Now, Wait a Minute!” Those who are familiar with the story may read his words as only a well-worn recounting of history much like we read a fable beginning with the words, “Once upon a time.” “Once upon a time John the Baptist came preaching.” But Matthew means to surprise us. It’s almost as if you’ve planned going to the Christmas party, you’ve gotten all cleaned up and put on your best clothes and you’re ready to grab the car keys and board the family carriage to go and suddenly you’re reminded that you’ve forgotten something. What could that be? The gifts are wrapped and in the trunk of the car, and the casserole you promised to bring is neatly packed. Wait a minute. What’s missing?
“In those days John the Baptist comes on the scene preaching, proclaiming, announcing in the desert of Judea this message: REPENT, for the kingdom of the heavens is at hand staring you in the face!” Repent. For the Gospel to take root and create faith in the heart there must first be an awareness of your deep need for it. Repent. What does that mean? It means to get honest with God and with yourself; to admit and confess your sin. Oh, you can go to the Christmas party and smile and have some Christmas punch and sing the old songs and give and receive gifts and take part in the meal and then go back home. But Christmas should be…needs to be more than that. Repent? Of what? That’s as easy as thumbing through the Ten Commandments. Putting your trust, love and fear in bank balances, cars and clothes, even family above, as more important than your trust, love and fear in God is to have other gods. Not only fowl language, the careless word, but all the ways you have not lived up to the family name of Christ put on you in your baptism is to take the Lord’s name in vain, that is, to no purpose. Your neglect or half-hearted attendance to worship of God is to forget the Sabbath Day. Then there’s all the commands of the second table of the Law: disobedience to parents or anyone in authority over you; hatred and pay backs toward your neighbor, the evil roots of murder; sexual lust, indecency or infidelity; dishonesty in commerce or business and neglect of helping your neighbor to improve and protect their property and income; telling lies, gossip, betrayal or slander against others; “simply” being jealous of others because they have a nicer car or home or situation than you. And why do you do all those things? It is only when you discover your real, deepest need that you can discover Who this Christ Child really is and why He came.
Fortunately, this makes some sense to most people. Matthew says that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” Water Baptism and confession of sins go together so closely that we can say without baptism you have not yet really and fully confessed your sins. For Holy Baptism is for this purpose: “it works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare,” namely, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Small Catechism; Mark 16:16). Fortunately, most young mothers and fathers (in my experience) desire that their little ones be baptized even if they don’t fully understand the full significance of this sacrament. “All” Jerusalem and Judea and the region were responding, going out to John.
Of course, there are always a few who consider baptism and confessing sin of little significance. In the liturgy of preparation for the Divine Service, where the rubric says, “Silence for reflection on God’s Word and for self-examination,” that is meant for you to recall your very real sins—the harmful words, thoughts and deeds of recent days—which give substance and meaning to the general words we speak together, “we have sinned…by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” I suppose the more serious we would be about this the longer that pause of silence and contemplation would have to be; the less serious we are, the less pause we give. But, of course, the emphasis of confession and absolution should be not as much dwelling on our sin, on our confession, as on the gift of absolution and forgiveness given us by the authority of Christ through His Word spoken and applied to us by His authorized ministers. And not everyone who hears the words of holy absolution receive what they say unless they are among those baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism, confession of sin and faith go together.
Still, there are always a few. The only time in Matthew’s Gospel that the two groups are mentioned together, the Evangelist writes, John saw “many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism.” By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John put on the brakes and stopped them in their tracks calling them a “brood of vipers,” warning them of “the wrath to come.” Their presumptions and expectations of what this John the Baptist thing was all about was all wrong. For they, John said, were presuming that just because they were “Lutherans,” that is, belonged to the right group or family, “sons of Abraham,” they didn’t really need to repent. So John spoke of the wrath of God against all sin as an axe being flung at the root of trees, ready to cut them down and throw them into fire. The fire of God’s wrath is coming, warns John, an “unquenchable fire” of eternal judgment against all sin.
John’s baptism for repentance finds its substance, power and significance only in the “mightier” One who comes after him, namely, the Messiah, Jesus Christ. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” That is, this One whose human birth we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas, who is he? He is, said Isaiah the prophet, the branch from the stump of Jesse, that is, both King David’s son and Lord, full of the Spirit of the Lord who comes to judge, to decide with God’s own righteousness and faithfulness, to strike the earth and kill the wicked. As a true prophet John was seeing the whole picture of our Lord’s earthly ministry and the time of grace leading up to His final Advent when He will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is in view of Christ in the coming day of judgment that John is saying, in effect, “you can have your sins dealt with either by water or by fire,” by confession, baptism, absolution and faith or by the destruction of being cast into the lake of eternal fire otherwise created only for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41; Rev. 20:10).
Now, eventually John got in trouble for his preaching against sin and demand for repentance. It cost him his head. But that’s what sin and the devil does. It not only destroys the sinner but also wreaks havoc on the otherwise innocent around him as we just witnessed yet again in the Mall shootings in Omaha, Nebraska this past week. Do we need to question that sin and its wages are real? Then why do we ever question the reality of God’s love and deliverance and salvation for those who repent and are baptized into Christ—the One mightier than any of us, whose innocent life, atoning death and glorious resurrection is more worthy of praise than any of us; the One who was born into our flesh in order to redeem us with that same holy, precious blood of His, that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness?
The Advent Gospel calls “Wait a Minute!” “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). Now you’re ready for Christmas.
Rev. Allen D. Lunneberg