Do We Really Need The Voice In The Wilderness?

Text:  Matthew 11:2-10

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

Your plans have gone smoothly up to this point, for the most part.  The tree went up without any major problems; the Christmas lights were untangled with ease.  You even got your Christmas cards printed off without much of a hassle and sent them off.  Oh, and who can forget the weather?  The weather has been beautiful; no ice or major storms.  Everything is going as planned; the Christmas Season is blossoming with ease and grace.  That is until you came to church this morning and heard our Gospel reading.

I know what you are thinking: do we really have to ponder today’s Gospel reading?  I mean, can’t we just skip today’s text?  Everything with Christmas planning has gone so smoothly this year; do we really have to ruin it by examining John the Baptist?  Do we really need to hear the voice in the wilderness crying out to us in the midst of our holiday cheer, “Make straight in the desert highway for your God!”?

There is no doubt about it that John the Baptist is that stern preacher in the Gospels accounts.  He is that unyielding prophet that came before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  And he is that New Testament figure who the church examines every year approximately two Sunday’s before the birth of Jesus. 

At first glance it seems odd.  You and I are getting all the decorations set and our emotions fixated on that sentimental poor baby born in a stable, lying in the manger.  And then out of nowhere, we are blindsided by this New Testament prophet with his wild hair, stern glare, weird attire, and jarring message of repentance.  He is like the Grinch who stole Christmas, for he seems to throw a wrench into the holiday cheer by saying, “Repent, the kingdom of God is at hand.”

So, this morning, we find ourselves at this awkward point.  We find ourselves with the temptation of wanting to simply skirt around John the Baptist.  Yes, maybe we could just simply gloss over John the Baptist, in order to prevent him from ruining our holiday cheer. 

Truth be told though, even though we want a preacher who suits our own fancy, a fickle John the Baptists that won’t preach Law to us, we actually desperately need the voice in the wilderness. 

During this Advent and Christmas Season, what we do not need is another smooth talking and agreeable message; we do not need another message that is pleasant to our ears.  But rather, we need the voice of the wilderness; we need the voice that does not waver and does not fluctuate.  We need the voice of John the Baptist that does not sway or follow the delusions of our culture.  We need John’s message to break through the Christmas glitter - to pierce through the holiday glimmer – in order to warn us not to be like a shaken reed, to drive us to repentance, and to prepare our hearts and minds for the Christ. 

Dear friends, the pagan and unbelieving world around us shines gushy superficial Christmas cheer all over the real reason of the season.  The pagan and unbelieving world really cares nothing for the spiritual aspects of Christmas and we are easily ensnared into this same mentality.  We must not be ensnared in this though and that is why we so desperately need the offense and message of John the Baptist. 

And what is John’s non-fickle and non-man-pleasing stern message? 

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!  After me comes he who is mightier than I!”

This message of John the Baptist to repent has been spoken by many in the Old Testament: prophets like Elijah.  Indeed, the message of repentance - the Law of God – has also come forth through in the New Testament and since then through thousands of mouths and voices.  In other words, John the Baptist needed to come before Jesus, repentance needs to happen before faith, Law needs to be preached before Gospel, and Advent must come before Christmas. 

Dear friends, “how can faith enter a heart that has not yet been crushed?  How can a person feel hungry and thirsty while he [hates] the food set before him?  No . . . if you wish to believe in Christ, you must become sick; for Christ is a Physician only for those who are sick.  He came to seek and to save that which is lost; therefore, you must first become a lost and condemned sinner.  He is the Good Shepherd, who goes in search of the lost; sheep; therefore you must first realize that you are a lost sheep.”[1]  What this means is that the Gospel is not good, unless we first hear about the malady of our sin.  We cannot understand the assurance of Mt. Calvary, unless we have heard the thunder of Mt. Sinai.  The same is true for Christmas. How can a person understand Christmas without Advent?  How can one receive Jesus, without first hearing from John the Baptist? 

The Child in the manger means nothing to us, unless we come to the manger with the words of John the Baptist ringing in our hearts.  In other words, the Christ-child in the manger was born to redeem sinners.  Therefore, if you and I go through the emotions of Advent and Christmas without the sobering message of John the Baptist – recognizing our sin – then Christmas is truly meaningless. 

There is no doubt about it, those who do not confess their sins get the full blast of the Law from John the Baptist,

“Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  Prepare for God’s arrival!  Make the road smooth and straight!”

Those who refuse to repent never end up at the manger or the cross, but end up in unquenchable fire.  However, those who repent, confess and acknowledge and come clean with their sins, are baptized and gathered up into the story of Christmas - a story that takes them from the manger to the cross and from the cross to the empty tomb.  In other words, Christmas is not a mere commemoration of the birth of Jesus – some big birthday party with a piƱata - but is the recognition that the Lord God was not content to leave us in our sins. 

Dear friends, if you wish to hear the message of the manger and the birth of Christ for you, repent!  This is the message of John the Baptist; this is the message of Advent.  It is a message that comes to you every Advent; it is a message that comes to you from the Word, from the wilderness, and from this pulpit.  It is a message that is needed.    

Yes, you and I are called to repentance of our sins as many as our sins that need repentance.  “The Lord is slow to give up on you [and me].  He calls you [and me] to repent again and again.  But if you [and I] insist on holding on to [our] sins – perhaps just [our] favorite one or two – and try to run with both [Jesus] and [our] sins, He will finally put an end to that game.  He tells [us] so.  He issues a warning call to repent, to turn.  Your sins are either with Jesus or with you.  It is only the sins you hold and keep away from Him that can damn you.”[2]

In the weeks to come, we will travel to Bethlehem’s stable and manger.  Even today we lean forward towards the manger and peer in.  I suspect that as we look forward towards Bethlehem and as we lean inward on the manger, that we do so with a certain amount of guilt from John the Baptist’s bruising message.  If that is the case, we can say, “Thank God!”  We can thank God for this because it is a fruit – that is to say, a result - of us encountering John the Baptist.  Indeed, it is a fruit of hearing the message of Advent and the word of God’s Law. 

With that said though, Bethlehem, the stable, the manger, and the Christ-child do not meet you with condemnation.  But rather, these are the things that John’s message prepares us to receive!  The good news for you today, tomorrow, and for eternity, is that your sins and guilt remain at Bethlehem.  They remain at the manger, for when we look to Bethlehem and in the manger we behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

At Bethlehem God entered our human life as a true man to cancel all sin and to take all guilt upon Himself – for you and for me.[3] Peace, the peace between God and man, begins at Bethlehem and is accomplished at the cross.  “In and through the Christ-child, God has established a contract and bound Himself to forgive all and every sin.”[4] 

Today, do not make the mistake of ignoring, disregarding, and avoiding John the Baptist, but rather, hear his message for you, a message that prepares your hearts and lives in a way to receive Bethlehem, the stable, the manger, and the Christ.  And as you receive Bethlehem, the stable, and the manger, know that you are taken to the cross to hear that Jesus answers for your sins with forgiveness, life, and salvation.    

In the name of Jesus: Amen.

[1] C.F.W. Walther The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel tr. W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), 92.

[2] Norman Nagel, Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2004), 22. 

[3] Fred H. Lindemann, The Sermon and The Propers: Volume 1, The Advent and Epiphany Seasons (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1958), 50. 

[4] Ibid.

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