God Begins His Work in You

Text: Luke 3:3, 10 (3:1-14)
Date: Advent II + 12/9/12

Blessed is the King who comes in the Name of the Lord! For when He comes among us we are changed. He comes to us before we are able to come to Him. God sent John the Baptist “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And we are among the crowds through the ages who have come out “to be baptized by him.” John’s baptism was preparatory to our baptism into Christ. But by John’s preaching we are called to repudiate our old way of life and be converted by faith to God’s gift of newness of life through the forgiveness of our sins. May we hear once again God’s call through John that we may be blessed by the King who comes in the Name of the Lord.

This year (Series C) our Advent ears are tuned into the Gospel according to Saint Luke. He alone relates this conversation between the crowds, the tax collectors, some soldiers and John the Baptist. After hearing John’s preaching they ask him, “What then shall we do?” The question indicated great interest in what John was saying. But John’s answer strikes us as so…so un-Lutheran! I mean, we read in the Book of Acts that on that Pentecost Day Peter was preaching to the people, saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” St. Luke tells us, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter gave them the “Lutheran” answer, “‘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 2:36-39). Now that’s a true, doctrinally pure, faithfully “Lutheran” invitation and instruction. But how do we hear John the Baptist today responding to the same question? Good works! How un-Lutheran! “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also asked him, “What shall we do?” John said, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (advice appropriate to those negotiating the current so-called “fiscal cliff” in Washington, D.C.!)

Now in addition to the “crowds” from all around the area of the Jordan and the despised tax collectors among the people, we may be a little surprised that there were soldiers there. What kind of soldiers were they? The Jewish temple guards? Or maybe soldiers of Pilate or Herod there to enforce the occupation of the Roman Empire. Luke doesn’t say. But to them John gave advice appropriate for the vocation and the temptations of military life, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages,” advice, it seems, appropriate for many even non-military professions and vocations today.

But does John’s “works” answer contradict the central doctrine of the justification of the sinner by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? By no means. Remembering that John’s baptism was preparatory and assuming that these folks had already received that baptism, John’s answer is not listing works required in order to be saved, to enter the kingdom of heaven, but rather works as the fruit and evidence of repentance and faith already in the heart.

These “works” were examples of the “fruits in keeping with repentance” expressed in daily life in this world. This became part of the early church’s way of preparing adults for Baptism and entrance into the Church. In the examination before being admitted, the catechumens would be questioned by the bishop, not on doctrinal matters, but whether they visited the sick or took care of the widows. They would be examined as to evidence of a change of lifestyle verified by a sponsor. Today the reverse seems to have happened, namely, the Church changing to accommodate and “baptize” if you will all sorts and any kind of lifestyle you choose requiring little or no change.

The “revival” of the ancient catechumenate in the Roman Catholic “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” reflects this aspect of preparation. In the “Rite of Calling the Candidates to Continuing Conversion,”[1] the Celebrant says,

“The Christian life and the demands that flow from the sacraments cannot be taken lightly. Therefore, before granting these candidates their request to share fully in the Church’s sacraments, it is important that the Church hear the testimony of their sponsors about their readiness.”

Then follows the dialog between the Celebrant and the Sponsors:

“Have they faithfully listened to the apostles’ instruction proclaimed by the Church?
They have.
Have they come to a deeper appreciation of their baptism, in which they were joined to Christ and his Church?
They have.
Have they reflected sufficiently on the tradition of the Church, which is their heritage, and joined their brothers and sisters in prayer?
They have.”
Then the question of John the Baptist:
“Have they advanced in a life of love and service of others?
They have.”

We also need to say that this is not only the practice of the early or the Roman Church. Think of Martin Luther’s “Table of Duties,” part of his Small Catechism, “certain passages of scripture for various holy orders and positions, admonishing them about their duties and responsibilities,” addressed to Bishops, Pastors, and Preachers, then What the Hearers Owe Their Pastors, then Of Civil Government, Of Citizens, To Husbands, Wives, Parents and Children, To Workers of All Kinds, To Employers and Supervisors, To Youth, To Widows and To Everyone. “Let each his lesson learn with care,” Luther wrote, “And all the household well shall fare.”[2]

Note also our tradition of the Rite of Confirmation where in addition to the doctrinal questions the candidates are asked, “Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death?”[3]

The point of it all is that we need the Advent call of John the Baptist over and over again since we so easily start taking God’s grace for granted which is nothing less than to begin to fall away from that grace. When we are falling you can see it happening: refusal or just finding convenient excuses not to share clothing or food with those in need; allowing “just a little” dishonesty in our financial dealings; and today’s most popular sin in the public square, covetousness and discontent with your wages. Add to that any combination from St. Paul’s list of the works of the fallen, sinful nature—envy, strife, gossip, boasting, “foolish, faithless, heartless” to name but a few (Rom 1:29-31)—and the voice of one crying in the wilderness ought to echo in your conscience, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”

That voice and that call to constant repentance and faith does not repel but draws us to the wonderful grace of God that is full of power for the forgiveness of any and every sin. For that forgiveness flows from the supreme sacrifice of Christ’s body broken and blood shed on the cross for you, no matter how unworthy you may feel or think yourself to be. This wonderful change from sinner to saint happens as “God Begins (and continues) His Work in You” through His Word, Law and Gospel, entering your ears, mind and heart. Now, as we heard St. Paul say in today’s second reading, may “he who began a good work in you bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” May “your love abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1:6, 9-11).

[1] RCIA Study Edition, Liturgy Graining Publications, Chicago 1988, p. 261-263.

[2] See LSB p. 328.

[3] LSB page 273.