Beloved in the Lord,
In the Spirit and Power of Elijah, the Baptizer trumpets the Advent of the Kingdom of God. He is the one crying in the wilderness, the one of whom Isaiah spoke about, the one who is to prepare the way of the Lord and to make straight His paths.
Clothed in the skin of an unclean animal John likens himself to the unbelieving Gentiles. The coming gospel is for both Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, young and old. Repent! He cries. Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near, nearer now than when we first believed, as near as the Word made flesh.
And how is his sermon received? Jerusalem and all Judea went out to him, out into the wilderness, out beyond the Jordan, to the East side, outside the promised Land. The call to repent is a call to begin anew. Like ancient Israel the penitent must pass through the waters of the Jordan and enter again the promised land. They must set aside their idols, their sins, their false theology. They must repent and confess that though they are descendants of Israel, they are not all Israel! They have not lived as God’s holy people. For the baptizer calls them to the Jordan to be baptized.
And so they come, not as God’s holy people, but as God’s fallen people. They come confessing their sins. They come to enter again into the covenant of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They come to the waters, not as Jews, but as Gentiles. For only gentiles underwent a baptism upon their conversion. Jews did not. They had not need to convert! They were already Jewish! Yet John calls them to repentance, to prepare the way, to enter again the promised Land that the greater Joshua . . . the greater Yeshua might lead them to victory over their enemies. They are coming to John, coming by the droves to repent and be baptized.
John’s message to the Jews is God’s Word to You this morning. Though 2000 years have passed, His sermon hasn’t changed. “Repent! The Kingdom of heaven is near.” If our Advent prayer can be summed up in the single word, “Come” then our Advent sermon can be summed up in the single word, “Repent!” For such is the Word of God to you and me today. For one cannot welcome the Savior until His messenger has first preached repentance. Elijah must come before Elisha, the lesser before the greater, therefore John before Jesus.
Now, I’m not about to call my beloved congregation a brood of vipers, but how different are we really from those Jews who heeded John’s call to repent? Not much! We have no need of baptism, for we have already been baptized. We’ve already been made Christian. But even so, our lives haven’t always reflected that. Though we have passed through the Jordan and entered the promised land of Christ’s church, we have not lived as God’s holy people. Sin still pervades our heart. We still are greedy. We still lust. We still bicker, and complain, and grumble and disobey. We still covet. We still ignore God’s Word. We still take our Christian life lightly. We’re still tempted to think we’re good enough to earn God’s favor. We’re still comfortable with the way we live our lives, as though being a descendant of Abraham, or some other Christian saint, were sufficient.
Beloved, we must confess, when compared with the unbelieving world, at times . . . there not much of a difference. Sure we’re in Church a little more than they are . . .but does that mean we’re better then they are? Does that mean we don’t need the forgiveness of our sins, the reassuring Word of God’s love and grace, as well as the continual encouragement to examine ourselves and repent? Of course not. We need these things just as much as they do. Therefore, John says, “Repent!”
Yes, beloved, Repent and make ready the way of the Lord. For the ax is at the root of the tree. And that ax is Christ. For out of His mouth proceeds a two edged sword. And the tree is the cross upon which He shall be fastened. Those who look to the fruit of their own flesh will fall short and be cut down! But those who look to Christ and His tree will find a gracious God and Savior who has taken all sins upon Himself and shackled them to the wood. There, on that tree, the power of sin is destroyed. The God of your salvation puts it to death. The Word made flesh severs sin from His dear creation and pierces it through even has His own body is broken and His blood is poured out for the healing of the nations. This tree bears fruit! This tree when plunged into the font through the preaching of the Name delivers cleansing waters. Hidden under the forms of bread and wine, this tree nourishes the faithful with holy manna and heavenly nectar. Body and blood are veiled in common elements in order to give uncommon gifts.
The penitent heart rejoices to hear of the glories of this tree! For on it was crucified the Savior of the World.
Thus we Christians rush to the font that we may bathe in the wonders of our God’s saving acts, that we may be made spotless, without blemish, holy and presentable to our God and Savior.
We Christians hasten to the altar where His resurrected body and blood is placed within our mouths and pledges within us the resurrection of our bodies. For Christ having been raised from the dead, dies no more. The death He died, He died to sin, once for all. And the life He now lives He lives unto God. Therefore death no longer has dominion over Him, and if no longer over Him, then no longer over those who receive Him by faith, who eat His resurrected flesh and drink His resurrected blood!
All that is ours; heart and soul, body and mind, we lend to His Word and Sacrament and then offer unto His Holy Name the praises of our whole being! We sing! We pray! We bow and we kneel! We hear and we believe! Wherever this God and His tree are proclaimed, there are His dear people basking in the glory of the Lord’s salvation!
But our life is not one lived apart from the rest of the world. To repent doesn’t mean to retreat! No beloved, just as the Israelites came unto John, received His baptism and then returned to the promised land, so also do we Christians, having been renewed in our baptism, enter again a world corrupted with sin!. We return to the daily grind. We go back to our vocations in hopes of bearing fruit worthy of repentance. God’s Word and Sacraments are not just for Sunday. No!, they are for every day, for our whole life.
Encouraged by the forgiveness of our sins, each of us returns to our God given callings that we might serve our neighbor with the same love and mercy we have been shown by God. Husbands love and serve their wives. Wives love and submit to their husbands. We serve our children, our employer, our church, the neighbors next door, or the ones downtown. Whomever, whenever, God puts in our path to love and cherish as those for whom Christ died and rose again.
Yes, we will still struggle. Yes we will still fail. Yes, we will still at times be grumpy and complain. And at times we will not act very Christian, in fact we’ll look and sound much like the unbelievers around us. The Old Adam won’t go away without a fight. Thus we must repent again. Thus John’s sermon must echo in our ears throughout the week. And louder still must the absolution of our God. For repentance is more than just saying I’m sorry. Repentance is more than just ceasing a certain sin, or making up for it afterwards. Repentance also involves faith, faith that sins are forgiven on account of Christ Jesus. That’s why we come back Sunday after Sunday, holiday after holiday. We need more of God’s grace and mercy. We need more of His Son, more of His cross, more of His forgiveness. We simply need more. And He is here to give it as often as we need it.
Beloved in the Lord, covered with camel hair and eating locusts and honey, the prophet of God calls God’s people to repentance. It is not simply the Jews of Palestine so many years ago, but also you and me. He calls us to the waters of our baptism, to remember who we are, who we’ve been recreated to be. You are not to be like those brood of vipers, but like those in the water, confessing their sins, receiving forgiveness, preparing for the coming of Jesus. For one mightier than John is on His way. The night is growing shorter and the dawn is soon at hand. Make ready the way of the Lord. Repent and believe the Gospel! Repent! For the kingdom of God is near, nearer now than when we first believed, as near as the Word made flesh, as near as Christmas itself! AMEN!
The peace of God which surpasses all human understanding keep your heart and mind through faith in Christ Jesus! AMEN!