In the name of Jesus. Amen.
We learned last week that Advent is the season of preparation. We also learned who it is that is really doing the preparing. The Lord Himself prepared His people for the first coming of Christ in the manger. He prepares us for the celebration and remembrance of that first coming during the Advent season. He does this by calling us to repentance, by showing us the need for Christ’s coming, and by pointing us to the cross.
Since Advent is the season of preparation, it is also the season of John the Baptist. John, son of Elizabeth and Zechariah and cousin of Jesus, is famously known as the forerunner of Christ. Just as Advent prepares us for Christmas, John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ.
Old Testament prophets spoke of him and of the work that he would do. Luke was quoting Isaiah when he wrote in his Gospel: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
Malachi also spoke of him. “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.” Between Malachi and John there were 400 years of prophetic silence. No prophet in Israel spoke during that time. And then one day the Word of the Lord came to John in the wilderness. The 400 year silence was broken.
And it was broken finally, not by a voice of political correctness, not by a voice that was afraid to offend, but by a voice that cut to the heart. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” “Oh, and by the way, don’t begin to think that you’re off the hook just because you’re related to Abraham. It won’t work. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.”
As the forerunner of Christ, John’s purpose was not to draw attention to himself. His job was to cut through the thick crust of sin and unbelief that had built up over the years in Israel. But He also was sent to announce the arrival of their Redemption. The One that everyone was looking for had finally come. To paraphrase Malachi, the Lord whom they sought had suddenly come to his temple…in the person of Jesus.
So you can see why John is such a fitting preacher for Advent. His voice continues to ring in our ears as it once did in the wilderness of Judea, calling us to repentance for our sins, and calling us to faith in the Promised Savior.
As much as we might not want to admit it, we all need that voice of John the Baptist. As unpleasant as it may be for our sensitive feelings, we need someone to call us on the carpet for our failure to live and believe as we ought.
We all need someone to show us how we have grown comfortable and secure in our sins. We need someone to say to us, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come. Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!”
In other words, you call yourself a Christian and a child of God, so prove it. Show by your life that you belong to Christ. Do you not know that faith without works is dead? And don’t begin to say to yourselves, “I’ve been a Christian all my life. In fact, I was one of the founding members of this church. That should count for something, right? I have nothing more to learn. In fact, pastor, I’ve got a few things to teach you.” This will not do.
Listen to that voice crying in the wilderness: “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Do you understand what this means? It means that you cannot go on living comfortably in your sins and still call yourself a Christian. This is hypocrisy. It means that you must stop making excuses for yourselves and own up to your errors. You cannot simply assume that because your name is on the church roster you do not need to worry about amending your life.
Anyone who desires to be a Christian and partakes of the Lord’s Supper ought to know that it is sheer mockery of God to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood with no intention of amending your sinful life. The Gospel is freedom from sin, not license to sin. When the crowds asked John the Baptist, “What then shall we do?” he did not say, “Oh, don’t worry about it. Just do whatever feels good.” He said: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
To the Tax Collector he said, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” To the soldiers he said: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” He instructed the people to do the opposite of what they had been doing. That is what it means to bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
What does he say to you? To the Porn addict, he says: “Throw away your computer. Cling to the wife of your youth.” To the insensitive husband he says, “Love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her.” To the domineering wife he says: “Submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”
To the angry church member he says: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger. Be reconciled to your brother.” To the thief he says: “Give generously. Steal no more.” To the disobedient child he says: “Honor your father and your mother.” To the employer he says: “Give your workers a fair wage.” To employees he says: “Be honest, and work hard, not only when you are being watched, but at all times.”
These are the fruits of repentance. They are the good works that “serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living.” These follow faith. Commit yourselves to these things, knowing of course that in this life the fruit that you bear will always be imperfect and incomplete. Lutherans believe, teach, and confess that fruits of repentance are necessary. But we also believe Romans 7, in which St. Paul complains that “the good that I want to do, that I cannot do.”
Indeed, we are all too familiar with the reality that “the thing we hate, that we keep on doing.” We keep God’s commandments only in much weakness. And for this reason we should listen just as carefully to the voice that says: “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.” We need the voice that says: “Bear fruit.” We need the voice that says: “Repent. Turn from your sin and amend your life.”
But equally so, more so we need the voice that says: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We need the healing and soothing voice of the Gospel, that voice which declares us sinners righteous and forgiven in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the voice that sounded so sweet in the ears of tax collectors and others sinners who wanted to be free of their sins.
It is the voice of forgiveness and mercy. It sounds forth from the cross: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Listen to it. Believe it. It does not lie. “If we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is the voice that frees us from our sins, that binds up our wounds, that comforts our trembling hearts.
John threw salt in the spiritual wounds of the Jews, no doubt about it. But he also cleaned those wounds by pointing them to Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He held before their eyes the One who came to call not the righteous, but sinners to repentance. And as our Advent preacher, John the Baptist does the same for us. His voice cries out in the chaotic wilderness of our lives: “Rejoice! God has kept his promises. The Savior has come. The wait is over!”
That is the voice that we need to hear when our hearts are heavy with guilt. It is the voice we need to hear when we have lost our way, when our hearts are broken, when our sins have gotten the better of us. It is the voice that continually calls us back to the arms of our gracious heavenly Father, back to our baptism. It says: “Do not despair. God has had mercy on you and has given His Son into death. You will not die.”
Isaiah promised that all flesh would see the salvation of God. And so we have. We have seen it by faith in Christ Jesus. We have seen it in His suffering and death for our sins. We have seen it in the empty tomb. We have seen that Salvation in our Baptism, when Christ cleansed us from the filth of our sins. We see that Salvation week after week in the Eucharist, where we feast on the flesh and blood of our true Passover Lamb who was sacrificed for us.
During this season of preparation, God grant you eyes always to see His Salvation, and ears to hear the voice that cries out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Amen.