Matthew 3:1-12 Advent Message

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The British are coming!  The British are coming!”  For those of you who are not history buffs, these were the words that were attributed to Paul Revere.  From my understanding he most likely did not shout these words as he rode his horse on April 18th of 1775 to tell of the Colonial militia that British forces were approaching.  Regardless, of whether or not Paul Revere shouted or quietly spread the valuable military news, he was instrumental in announcing and preparing the Colonial militia for the invading British King’s troops.

Some 1700 years before Paul Revere lived, another man announced another invasion. Living in the wilderness by the Jordan River, John the Baptist also announced a foreign invasion. John was not broadcasting the coming of a man-made foreign kingdom, but the coming Kingdom of God. By sending Jesus into the world, God was ripping open the heavens. The Kingdom of God was invading the world as Jesus was born in a manger and as Jesus journeyed towards the cross. God was doing a new thing, something that he had not done before, but something that was promised long ago. God was sending his only Son to live a perfect life and then die on behalf of sinful mankind.

Today for our second Sunday in Advent we are focusing on John the Baptist.  But why him; what makes John the Baptist so important and why are we focusing on him during Advent?  He was and is important because he’s the one who announced the coming Messiah, thus preparing the way for Christ.  Nothing in the history of the world has been as important as the coming Messiah with the mission of redemption for you and me.  Indeed, John the Baptist is the one who prepared the way for Christ and his message also prepares us for the Christ-child this Christmas Season. 

Can you imagine someone saying to you, “You are not a Christian!  You’ve got it all wrong!  Your parents, grandparents and ancestors may have been Christians, but you are not. Quit claiming your spiritual heritage as a basis of assurance. Repent, for you have gone wrong. You need to begin again.”  That is what John was essentially saying.  John’s ministry was one where he called religious people vipers (i.e., snakes).  His message was scary and it is even difficult for us to hear today.  Yes, John’s message is not the kind of message that builds a person up. His message does not conjure up warm Christmas fuzzies.  His message is not one that you or I would print on our Christmas cards. You see, John’s message is not a message that gives you steps or principles to work your way up to God.  Rather, his message is the complete opposite.  His message is one that throws you, me, and the original hearers to the bottom. His message shatters, breaks, and humbles those that hear.  His message is one of repentance. 

You see, some 1,400 years before John the Baptist’s ministry began, the Israelites originally entered the Promised Land by crossing the Jordan River (See Joshua 3).  It is of no coincidence that John was calling the people of Israel back out to the Jordan River.  The reason why? Israel had drifted.  They had gone astray and needed to be completely remade as a people.  They were slothful and spiritually apathetic as they appealed to their family tree and heritage.  Yes, it is true that their forefathers entered the Promised Land by the Jordan River.  Yes, they were surely children of Abraham.  However, John the Baptist was calling them back out to the Jordan River because the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Their spiritual apathy needed to be shattered and they needed to go back to the Jordan and do it all over again. They needed to be turned, that is, they needed repentance.

Creating more controversy, John spoke to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious elite of the day, and called them to bear fruits of repentance.  But wait a minute, weren’t both the Pharisees and Sadducees already the most moral and upright people of the society at that time?  Weren’t they already displaying good fruit through their good works? They were displaying outward righteousness, but this was not what was needed to be prepared for the Kingdom of God. John message of repentance was not and is not today primarily about calling for more good works; his message was and is rather calling for the ‘fruit’ of repentance—confession of sins.
The real problem for the people of Israel and the real problem for you and me in the 21st century is not merely that we need to turn away from bad choices (i.e., repent), though this is good.  Keep in mind that “a person can externally exert all sorts of energy in order to rid himself of his immoral vices.  He can polish himself up through effective alcoholic treatments from the doom of alcoholism.  He can use effective accountability groups and internet filters to cut out the seduction of pornography.  He can curb the sourness of his cursing tongue and the entrapment of gossip through carefully monitored speech.  A person can externally rid himself of all of these moral deficiencies and still be eternally lost; that is damned.” (Paraphrase of a C.F.W. Walther quote in “Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible)Rather the much larger issue is that we recognize and know that we are turned inward on self.  The problem that each and every one of us has is not primarily our sinful actions though they are bad, it is primarily this old sinful nature; it is that we turn inward on self.  As we turn inward on self we become self-reliant and trust in our own righteousness which brings about self-justification.  Properly speaking the repentance that John calls for is not only to succeed in avoiding sin and then do righteous things, but a repentance that confesses that we have sinned, that we continue to sin, that we cannot stop ourselves from sinning, and that we actual like to sin because of the old Adam (our sinful nature) in us.  To be sorrowful about our sinful longings is at the heart of John’s repentance.  To repent and despise the unholy trinity of, “me, myself and I,” is what this repentance is about. 

But you may ask, “How do we turn away from ourselves?  How do we lament over our sinful condition and how can we truly be sorry for our sins?”  Put bluntly, we can’t.  And that, my friends, is the heart of repentance.  Repentance is something that must happen to us and it is something that happens over and over and over.  In fact, it happens as God brings His Word of Law to you and me each and every time that you encounter His Word in this church and in your daily lives.  His Law, like a hammer, shatters our attempts at being God.  Repentance happens when we are confronted with the Holy will of God and realize that we have holy un-holy intentions. 

What this means is that repentance is a gift from God.  A strange gift, no doubt, probably not on anyone’s Christmas list.  However, this strange gift that John the Baptist brought to the Israelites is the same gift that the Holy Spirit must work in us through the Word.  The reason why?  It is something that we so desperately need.  Our pride and self-reliance, our stubborn belief that by our own goodness we can please God; these are the things that need to be continually killed in us so that we can be prepared to continually receive the Kingdom of God, especially within the context of our Advent season. Repentance is harsh and painful, but it is a necessary part of God’s plan to have you with Him forever.  Repentance is a gift that prepares you to receive the greatest gift of all, Jesus, your forgiving Savior

Therefore, today because you and I have confessed our sins at the beginning of the service, take comfort!  Take comfort for God will not and does not despise this status of brokenness and helplessness.  God does not and will not cast aside a sinner—that is you who have publicly confessed your sin, you who recognize your sin, you who have been gifted repentance.  For it is in this very brokenness and fallen-ness that God meets you with His tender Word of Gospel and His Sacraments, delivering to your ears, to your mouth, to your heart the forgiveness of Christ.  Yes, real forgiveness that Jesus indeed accomplished for you and me when He invaded our world at Christmas 2,000 years ago.  Yes, real forgiveness that cleanses you and makes you white as snow; forgiveness and righteousness from God that declares each and every one of you as beloved saints who have full citizenship in the kingdom of God; a kingdom that has and continues to come to you. [1]

May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

[1] Portions of this sermon are indebted to Rev. David Warner’s Sermon, “The Gift of Repentance.” (Trinity Lutheran Church of Sidney, MT: Dec. 5, 2010).

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