Sunday, December 9, 2012

Advent 2, Series C

Sermon on Luke 3:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 9, 2012 (Second Sunday in Advent)

Repent!  The kingdom of God is near!  This is the message of John the Baptist.  It has been the message of the Advent season in the Church as long as there has been such a thing as Advent.  Repent!  The kingdom is at hand!  You could say that this has always been a core part of the preaching of the Church, in whatever season of the year.  Repent!  Confess your sins and receive baptism for the forgiveness of them!  The tone for this message was set by the last Old Testament prophet, John the Baptist, whose ministry is begun in today’s Gospel lesson.  Now, in some times and places the preaching of repentance has taken on extreme forms, especially when men have presumed to think they knew exactly when our Lord was going to come, and unfortunately failed predictions of our Lord’s coming tend to take away from the credibility of the message to repent.  But the message still rings forth.  Repent!  The kingdom of God is near!  Repent of your sins!  Receive forgiveness of them in the waters of Holy Baptism!  Repent!

John the Baptist came to the region around the Jordan River to preach precisely this message.  He preached to everyone who came to him that they should repent of their sins and receive forgiveness through the washing of Holy Baptism.  And why did he preach this way?  Because he was sent to prepare the way of the Lord who was coming to His people.  Of course, when the events recorded in our text took place, Christ had already come in one sense.  He had already been born as a baby in Bethlehem over thirty years ago and had grown into manhood as the son of a carpenter in Nazareth.  But John was preparing His way, because He had not yet come to His people in the sense of bringing His Word to them.  Jesus had not yet begun His public ministry, but he would soon.  It was to prepare for Jesus to begin preaching and teaching publicly that John was sent to preach in the wilderness.

John’s mission of preparing the way for Christ to come to His people took the form of the preaching of repentance.  What John is there to do is to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah which forms the last part of today’s Gospel lesson.  John is literally “crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”  What John is doing when he preaches repentance is preparing the way for the Lord to come in to the hearts of His people.  There are obstacles however, barriers and rough terrain which make it difficult for the Lord to come.  These barriers are what is called sin.  Every human being born since Adam and Eve fell, except for Christ Himself, has had sin dwelling in his heart.  Since Christ has come to forgive sin, the Law must first be preached so that we become aware of how sinful we are, and become repentant of our sins, so that when the good news of forgiveness is preached we can receive it with thanksgiving and take it to heart and treasure it.  After all, how can a person receive forgiveness of sins if he is not aware that he is a sinner?  John prepares the way of the Lord by preaching the Lord’s Word of Law.

The sins which John preaches about are described in Isaiah’s prophecy as mountains and valleys and crooked places and other obstacles that prevent the construction of a smooth road.  Some places are too high for the road to climb over, and these must be cut down.  Some places are too low for the road to go into, and these must be filled in.  The road should be as straight as possible, because if it is too curvy a person on it will go twice the distance they need to.  And finally, the surface of the road needs to be smooth.  We can compare the obstacles that are present when a road is built to our sin.  Some of our sin is things we do, and some of it is things we don’t do.  These are known as sins of commission and sins of omission.  The things we do that are wrong must be broken down and reduced to nothing by the crushing blows of God’s “Thou shalt not.”  Thou shalt not steal.  Thou shalt not kill.  Thou shalt not commit adultery.  Thou shalt not covet.  Thou shalt not bear false witness.  The things we don’t do must be filled in and supplied.  Love the Lord your God.  Honor the sabbath day.  Love your neighbor.  Honor your father and mother.  Help those who are in need.  Defend your neighbor, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.  And so on.  The crooked places in our hearts are to be made straight.  Instead of putting on a show and trying to fool everyone with our own holiness, we are to be honest about ourselves and our own true spiritual condition.  The rough places are to be made smooth.  Even those sins which are part of our personalities, such as anger or stubbornness or pride or selfishness, must be done away with.  Everything must be made ready for the coming of Christ.

Of course, it’s one thing to say that this must be done, and its another thing to do it.  In fact, we can’t because even trying to do so on our own denies that God is the giver of all good things.  The Holy Spirit must do it through the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  To simply say that all of these sins must be avoided and that all of these good works must be done does not allow us to actually do that.  All that it does is to make us realize that we cannot do any of it.  We cannot please God on our own.  Without Him, we are poor, lost, miserable sinners.  But as poor, lost, miserable sinners we are prepared for Christ to come to us through the Gospel and build in our hearts new, straight, smooth roads of love to God and the neighbor.

Through the Gospel Christ comes to us and creates in us a clean heart, renewing a right spirit within us.  When we were baptized into Christ, we were clothed with Him.  And when we were clothed with Him, that means that His righteousness has become ours.  He committed no sin, neither sins of omission nor sins of commission.  He was obedient to His Father by helping the people He met, healing their diseases, giving them life, speaking the truth, keeping the sabbath day, and so forth.  He was also obedient in that He suffered under the abuse that was heaped upon Him.  All the guilt of the sins of the whole world was put upon Christ when He died on the cross, and He did not complain or open His mouth, but patiently suffered so that we might be free of those sins.  His heart had no hills or valleys in it, but was straight as an arrow.  This righteousness of His became ours in Baptism and continues to become ours as we return to Baptism in Holy Absolution.  And so, just like John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ to come in the flesh by preaching Christ’s Word and baptizing them into Christ, so today Baptism and Holy Absolution prepare a person to receive Christ’s flesh and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, as well as preparing us to receive Christ when He comes again in glory.

So the message of John the Baptist is the same as the message of the Church today: Repent!  The kingdom is near!  While we cannot know exactly when Christ will return again in glory, the kingdom is near in many ways.  Christ comes to us with all His blessings in His body and blood.  His people, united and strengthened by His body and blood, go forth to serve their neighbor out of love.  When Christians live in the world, and perform their respective jobs with the idea that they are doing these things to serve God and not just men, then the kingdom of God comes to all the world in and through them.  The kingdom of God is indeed near, nearer than we can ever comprehend.  We have been washed with Christ, we have put on Christ, we eat His body and drink His blood, and when we serve our neighbor it is Christ who is serving in us.  The kingdom of God is very near.

When John preached in the wilderness, he preached a message of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  In doing that he was preparing the way, smoothing and paving the road, for Christ to come and begin His earthly ministry.  But through John’s preaching Christ was already coming to His hearers through the power of the Holy Spirit.  We cannot prepare ourselves to meet Christ; we are too filled with sin, but God does so through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments.  He has prepared us for Christ to come.  Let us now receive Him who comes to us in His body and blood.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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