A Voice in the Wilderness

Text: Luke 3:1-6
Date: Advent II + 12/6/09 (12/7/03)

Christ came for one purpose: as the world’s Savior from sin. John came on the scene for one purpose: to proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Anyone who would follow Jesus, then, does so because they have been made aware of the slavery of their sin and of Jesus as the only One who can free us from sin. The baptism of John that prepares the way by repentance is completed in the baptism of Jesus that brings the forgiveness of sins.

Repentance consists in two parts, contrition or sorrow over sin, and faith in Jesus as the one and only deliverer from sin. The whole thing has to do with sin and forgiveness. Oddly, this is the very reason why the pews are not filled but empty these days in those churches that are trying faithfully to carry out their true, Biblical purpose. For there are competing voices in the religious marketplace most of which downplay sin, change the agenda and the message, and proclaim not as much a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins but more a baptism of happiness for the denial of sins.

One reason John the Baptist did not appear on center stage in the temple courts or the synagogues but in the wilderness, out in the country, in a desolate place, was to get people as far away from all the distractions both of a misguided “church” and of the fallen, spiritually dead world, as far away as possible. The wilderness provides the historic picture of life weighed down by sin and threatened by death at every turn.

So also today: we are asked to just back way, way off for a moment. Come out to the wilderness. Get a grip. Get the perspective. I mean it’s as plain as day if you will only see. It boils down to this: the less people see or are aware of the deadly effects of sin, the less people see the need of the forgiveness and taking away of their sin. And if the Church is all about salvation from sin then who needs it? Few realize it, but all need it.

Some who may even have once seen the church and her mission to be primarily that of saving sinners, in their anxiety over dwindling membership and, therefore, finances, have actually changed their message simply in order to become popular and successful, to fill the pews and therefore also their coffers. They even say straight out that the church should be primarily concerned with people’s “felt needs” as they put it. But what is that but playing to only the earthly desires of the fallen nature? As a result, Jesus is proclaimed not primarily as Savior from sin but deceitfully as miraculous healer, the key to financial success, the solution to everything from loneliness to anxiety to weight loss to stress management to successful marriages.

A former member of Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod churches, and with a thoroughly Lutheran name, Joyce Meyer, has found the key to success and the audience to pay for it. You see her on cable television all the time. I was at a so-called Christian bookstore the other day and was amazed to see an entire section of books, from floor to ceiling, written by Joyce Meyer. They include titles like “Eat and Stay Thin,” “Leader in the Making,” “Managing Your Emotions,” “Me and My Big Mouth Study Guide,” “Prepare to Prosper: Moving from the Land of Lack to the Land of Prosperity,” “Secrets to Exceptional Living,” and “The Most Important DECISION You Will Ever Make.”

I mean back way, way off for a moment. Come out to the wilderness. Get a grip. Get the perspective. So-called “growing” churches remove the cross from their buildings because, they say, it sends too negative of a message. What else is that than a denial of sin and of salvation from it? Of course the cross sends a negative message, an uncomfortable message. For it took nothing less than the bloody, violent death of the holy, sinless Lamb of God taking on the sin of the world for the life of the world.

Of course it’s uncomfortable. For repentance means to face up to God’s judgment, to admit and confess, “I am a sinner, and cannot free myself.” Repentance means to admit and confess your total inability to please God or to save yourself and to turn in faith to the only One who has and can: Jesus Christ.

What is this “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”? It’s the way God has prescribed to get connected with the benefits of Christ’s Cross. It’s not just water only. But it is water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word. What is that word? Christ our Lord did not say in the last chapter of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, entertaining them, making them feel happy, teaching keys to successful living.” He said, “make disciples…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation because faith is given there and receives what God says and gives, namely, the death and taking away of sin, the creation of a new and contrite heart, a new life.

Every year at this time, at the very beginning of a new Church Year, at the beginning of telling the story of the Gospel, St. John the Baptist shows up first with the call of repentance. It is an unpopular call. The Baptist lost his head over it. But it is a necessary call. For it is the only way to identify our real need—deliverance, freedom and release from sin, death and the devil. For all who turn, who repent and believe in the deliverance of Christ and His Cross, the forgiveness of sins is there and life, eternal, deathless life.