Second Sunday in Advent

December 5, 2021

Luke 3:1-14

God’s prophet, named Malachi, proclaimed a message of hope for God’s people, saying, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” After Malachi finished prophesying, the Israelites waited and waited and waited some more to hear from God. They waited a very long time – some 400 years – and then suddenly a man appeared in the wilderness – for the Word of the Lord had come to him. The man mimicked Elijah – a garment of camel’s hair, a leather belt, eating locusts and wild honey. While he probably wasn’t a handsome sight to behold – the fact remained. The messenger like Elijah has come! Hear his voice crying out in the wilderness:


PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD!


John the Baptizer comes to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is a forerunner for Israel out of the prophets of old – the last of the Old Testament prophets bridging the Old Covenant on Sinai with the New Covenant on Calvary. Even his message and tone comes across as sounding like an Elijah or Jeremiah or Amos.


This man sent forth by God steps into the wilderness, into the muck of human sinfulness in order to prepare the way for the Lord’s arrival. Make no mistake, John makes a royal proclamation. Now, if John is preparing for a king, we might expect him to be well-dressed. There’d by lots of pomp and circumstance, trumpets blasting, and so forth. Yet, this is not how the king comes, and so this is not how his herald comes. God thinks differently than we do.


The king’s herald humbly arrives in the same manner as the messengers who came before, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He calls the people to lead lives of repentance. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Repent – turn away from your sin and return to the Lord your God who soon comes to you. Repent – the King is on His way. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Repent – get your act together. Shape up or ship out, you might say.


Some who heard John’s message thought to themselves, “I have Abraham as my father. So, that means I’m good. Because I belong to the family of Abraham, I’m among God’s chosen people, and everything is ok.”


Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “My family has been Lutheran a long, long time.” Because, let’s face it. Some people assume that the family heritage is what counts. “My great-grandparents were baptized, married, and buried through this church; my grandparents were baptized, married, and buried through this church; my parents were baptized, married, and buried in this church; I’ve been baptized in this church, married in this church, and it’s been so long, if I can remember where it is, I’ll be buried through this church.” Other people emphasize the day the made a grand decision to allow King Jesus to be their Savior from sin, death, the devil, and hell – as if that’s how it would even work in a worldly way. Or you just might be thinking to yourself, “Ok, John. I hear your message to repent. I’ve got it this time. I can do this. I can win God’s favor. I can be a good person so that God will love me.”


John rebukes all of these misconceived ideas. “None of that makes you special. Whoop dee doo! God is able to raise up from these stones children for Abraham. Repent, you guys. The axe is laid to the root of the trees.”


Repentance is not just a simple matter of turning from this or that sin and getting one’s act together. It’s not about trying harder or being born in the right family. Repentance is a heart thing. A heart of repentance is one that falls before God, broken and contrite, with nothing to offer the Lord except guilt and shame. A repentant heart pleads for God’s mercy in Christ Jesus – which by the way, God completely desires to show. A repentant heart makes a U-turn from trusting the selfish, sinful, idolatrous, lusts of your hearts to trusting the Lord your God for all that is good and right and true. A repentant heart quits following false gods (and make no mistake – we do set up false gods to worship) and instead follows the one true God alone, revealed as Father, Son, and Spirit. A repentant heart dies to sin, daily drowns the old Adam, daily crucifies the flesh, and daily rises and emerges a new man or woman in Christ.


The baptism of John in the wilderness brought people into lives of repentant trust in the Lord that received the forgiveness of sins. While John’s baptism was different than the Baptism that our Lord instituted, it has similarities – namely water and the forgiveness of sins. Your Baptism into Christ Jesus has brought you into a life of repentant trust in Christ that cherishes the forgiveness of your sins as you continue to receive the Good News of Jesus your Redeemer through the enlightenment of God’s Word by the power of the Holy Spirit.


John the Baptizer tends to be thought of as a fire and brimstone, Law preacher. That mischaracterizes his message. He certainly preaches the Law, so that his hearers will realize their sinfulness and need for a Savior. The proper preaching of the Law arises from an act of love that desires the salvation of the world. John doesn’t leave people in the Law, but also proclaims the the forgiveness of sins through the coming Savior who takes away the sin of the world. In fact, Luke says after today’s reading, “So with many other exhortations [John] preached good news to the people.” So even Luke remembers John the Baptizer as a preacher of Good News.


And why shouldn’t that be? John is the herald – the forerunner – preparing the way for Christ who comes to “save His people from their sins.” Christ’s mission to save included those who gathered around John for baptism. It includes you. It includes me. Jesus desires that all receive the forgiveness of sins that comes by His blood.


Christ the King exercises His authority on behalf of you – His people. Christ is here today, bringing His good gifts of the Spirit, that you may trust your Redeemer and live in a way that is pleasing to Him – not to earn His favor, because you already have that by grace. But because you belong to Him and want to please Him because you love Him. So here today God is present in a way that He isn’t present in the woods or on a lake, as your Lord comes to declare the forgiveness of your sins in Word and Sacrament, and by those same gifts the Lord strengthens and equips you to lead godly lives of repentance.


Trusting in Christ for our salvation, the children of God then desire to know how one ought to live a godly life, what does bearing fruit in keeping with repentance look like? What is the godly alternative to sin? “What do we do?” the people asked John.


He says to the crowd, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” The Lord provides for the salvation of people through Christ, out of which come the daily provisions of body and soul. So, there’s no reason to greedily, selfishly horde as though God can’t be trusted. The people needed to die to themselves, and we need to die to ourselves. Scripture encourages, “Love one another as God in Christ has loved you.”


The most hated group in Israel – the tax collectors – want to know what to do, and John yells at them, “Stop what you’re doing, you traitorous worms.” Just seeing if I’ve still got your attention. Actually, he says, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” In other words, be honest in your dealings with your neighbors. Love and treat them as you would yourself.


Likewise, some soldiers came to John. He didn’t tell them to stop being soldiers. God doesn’t condemn this vocation that is a necessity in a sinful and broken world. The Lord condemns the temptations that may arise in a soldier’s heart. So, John says, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” This applies to anything we would seek to do.


What is the relevance of these matters for us today? We see in John’s interaction with the people that, according to our sinful flesh, the Ten Commandments is the most ruthless of judges. But as God transforms our hearts in repentant faith, the Ten Commandments become a guide for how to love God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. They show us God’s perfect ways by which we can avoid making life harder on ourselves and others. The Commandments teach what a good work is in the proper light of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus.


John the Baptizer is the faithful prophet of old, calling for our hearts and minds to be prepared for the coming of the Savior. The Lord grant that our repentant hearts cling firmly to His promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ until the “great and awesome day of the Lord comes” for a second time – Christ’s return in glory. Amen.