Lord, Let Thy kingdom come. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
The sermon text is from Matthew chapter 3:1-12 (not all printed)
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near… I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come One Who is more powerful than I, Whose sandals I am not fit to carry.” So far the text.
Advent means “coming.” The whole season cries out for the coming of Christ. Our banners say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Hark the Glad sound the Savior comes. Christ comes.” Our altar frontal says, “Maranatha! Our Lord, Come!”
Since Advent is all about Christ’s coming, John the Baptist, is the perfect prophet of Advent. With all his eccentricities and rough edges, God called John to say: “Get ready! Christ is coming!” He wasn’t too fashionable about it. No preaching in the rich part of town or double-breasted suits for him. John doesn’t appear to have enticed eager ears with entertaining stories. His message was a much more confrontational call, “Repent, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John didn’t massage itching ears into God’s Kingdom, rather he wielded God’s Law as a hammer smashing down the walls of human pride and pretension. And when the barriers of sinful pride were demolished, He pointed to Jesus, the Lamb of God, whose sandals John was not worthy to untie.
John the Baptist was a man for our time, because then, as now, the hearts of many had grown cold. King David was Jesse’s son whom God had promised would have an eternal throne. The people John preached to thought Isaiah’s promise of a “shoot from the stump of Jesse” meant the Messiah would be a king like David killing off the hated Romans – not an eternal King like Jesus. They wanted a political “messiah.” God still had His faithful remnant longing for Jesus’ coming, but, then, as now, people were more concerned with this world than the world to come.
Sounds familiar in our time… Most folks today want a political savior to heal our economy, to protect our environment, to win our wars and keep us safe. We get so focused on “this worldly” things we forget the message of Advent. Even we Christians spend more Advent time preparing for the secular trappings of Christmas, than for the actual Christ. Far fewer journey with John in repentant expectation, than for exorbitant celebration.
Just as in his own day, so for us today John the Baptist sounds God’s wake up alarm: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If we’re to use this Advent season wisely and well, we must step back and listen – wake up and hear God’s voice. For a call to repentance and preparation to be meaningful, we must realize that the teddy bear image of God must be balanced with the God of wrath who despises sin. John put it this way: “The axe is already at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear fruit will be chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
John had a tough job and it’s not any easier to get us 21st century hearers to take seriously God’s call to repentance. The words of Richard Niebuhr fit John’s audience back then and still today. Niebuhr wrote that people were looking for “a God without wrath to bring men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Even many pastors today, most prominently Joel Osteen, refuse to use the word “sin”, when they preach. But the problem with not acknowledging sin – the problem with talking about sin as an obstacle that we can overcome by loving Jesus and keeping a good attitude is you’ll never understand just how amazing God’s grace in Jesus really is. If sin is just an obstacle, then Jesus becomes something like a life coach cheering you on. Then you end up trusting in yourself – which in the end leads to an eternity in hell. If you and I don’t recognize the seriousness of our sins, we’ll never truly trust in a Savior who rescued helpless, hopeless dying people like us.
John’s word “repent” is more than just change your attitude. It’s something God the Holy Spirit must work in us. That’s why we pray: “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” Repentance isn’t a mental exercise we pull off. The Holy Spirit brings us to repentance when His Law is proclaimed, such as John the Baptist in our text. God uses His words from John’s mouth to convict us and show us our guilt and how far our hearts have been from Him.
But notice in our text, if repentance is genuine, the Holy Spirit changes our heart.
John says in our text: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” True repentance can’t say, “God I’m sorry, but I’m gonna do it anyway.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says, “Inner repentance means nothing unless it also results in strict correction of the flesh.” Hebrews 10 says, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after receiving the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left but only a fearful expectation of judgment and raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” May God preserve us from stubbornly unrepentant hearts.
But, listen, being scared straight and broken-hearted by God’s Law isn’t the whole story. The second part of true repentance is faith in Jesus. Judas betrayed Jesus and was desperately filled with sorrow. King Saul was devastated for his failing of God, but both lacked this key ingredient of genuine repentance. Our sin and guilt must bring us to the confession that we are “poor, miserable sinners”, but all that is in vain if we can’t take refuge in the protective arms of our Savior.
If the Christian faith were only about being sorry for our sins and not about a God who took every one of those sins and carried them to the cross, Christians would be the most miserable people on earth. John the Baptist wasn’t only saying, “Repent! Be miserable, sorrow-filled people.” He was saying the message of Advent that warms our hearts and brings us comfort and eternal peace and salvation. He was saying: “After me comes One Whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie.” He was saying, “Be baptized and receive forgiveness for all your sins.” Don’t get stuck looking at yourself, look to Christ. In John 1, Jesus comes to where John is preaching and baptizing and John exclaims: “Behold, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”
It’s the Gospel Good News of the Savior that John the Baptist brought to hearers crushed under the weight of God’s Law. It’s the Good News of a Savior who comes to His people. Jesus didn’t stay in heaven and give you empty pep talks. You needed a 100% Savior – and God be praised, that’s what He is! When God the Father sent His Son, heaven came to earth clothed in human flesh. The Infinite and Almighty God made Himself weak and lowly, assuming our flesh, “like us in every way, except without sin.” True God and truly human, He became our brother in the flesh, the living “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Every celebration of the Lord’s Supper as we prepare to receive Christ’s real body and blood we sing the words of John the Baptist: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world.” That’s amazing! Singing John’s words, the prophet still points our eyes from our failures and faults, and points us to God’s heavenly solution – the flesh and blood of Christ the Savior. “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” the Lamb of God comes to give you forgiveness and eternal life.
This is the Good News that brings joy to your hearts in Advent. The Savior, who came in lowly Bethlehem, who lived a perfect life in your place, who died for your sins and rose from the dead to save you, is the Savior who still comes to you speaking tender words of comfort; giving you not empty words and symbols, but Himself, His very body and blood, and with Him all the forgiveness He won for you at the cross.
In the mighty mirror of God’s Law, John the Baptist shows us the deep, dark depravity of our sin-scarred hearts. Such fearsome need, beyond anything we could ever change or repair, prepares you and me to welcome our gracious and loving Savior. Jesus is the “Shoot from the stump of Jesse”, David’s son, yet David’s Lord. In this Baby, our God and Savior, crucified and risen from the dead, God rescues us from the dungeon of death. Jesus is the Savior King John points to whose sandals we’re not worthy to untie – the Savior who establishes His royal reign in our hearts through faith and one day brings us into His eternal Kingdom. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses human understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.