Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sermon -- 3rd Sunday of Advent (December 14, 2014)

LUKE 3:7-18

In the name + of Jesus.

     As pilgrims traveling to and from the festivals in Jerusalem, they would have heard a fiery preacher.  John the Baptist was in the wilderness by the Jordan, calling everyone to repentance in stern and even violent terms.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7,9) 
     Remember that John was not preaching to unabashed heathen.  John preached to Israelites, sons of the covenant who were attending the Lord’s prescribed festivals.  John called these people a brood of vipers, offspring of Satan.  John warned these church-going people that the ax was ready to swing on them and that the fires were being stoked for them unless they would repent. 
     St. Peter preaches a similar message to you and me.  He declares: For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?  And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)  Just as being children of Abraham did not save the Israelites, neither will a confirmation certificate save you.  Do not get comfortable, thinking that we can mindlessly coast on our way into Paradise.  The Lord judges his own first.  The Lord still seeks fruits of repentance from us.  Even the wicked expect as much.  If you bear the name “Christian,” the wicked expect your lives to reflect that.  And they are right.  You are expected to be righteous, and you should expect it of yourself as well.  Therefore, we do well to examine ourselves and prune from our lives whatever is sinful.  Prepare the way of the Lord with fruits of repentance.
     Rather than write John the Baptist off as a nut-job, the people were cut to the heart by John’s preaching.  They felt God’s fiery judgment.  Though they may have been religious, they were still sinners and they knew it.  One by one, groups of people begged to know: “What should we do?” 
     Each group was more surprising than the last.  After the general crowds came the tax collectors.  You could imagine the crowds thinking, “You thieves?  You think there is hope for you?!”  John did not tell the tax collectors to quit their jobs; he told them to quit being thieves.  Then Roman soldiers asked, “And we, what shall we do?”  At least the tax collectors were fellow Jews.  They may have been slimy, but they were at least sons of the covenant.  But Roman soldiers?  Surely there was no hope and no place for them!  John the Baptist did not tell them to quit being Roman or soldiers; he told them to quit being thugs.  Never look upon someone else and think that there is no place or no hope for them.  Nor look upon your own sins and think that you are too wicked for the kingdom of God.  As despicable as anyone might seem, to the Lord Jesus all are people for whom he came to suffer and die.  All are called to repent.  Prepare the way of the Lord with fruits of repentance.
     The crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”  And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?”  And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-14)
     When John told the people to repent, he did not tell them to quit their jobs and move into the desert.  They were not commanded to abandon their families or their communities.  They were told to go home.  They were called to quit their sins and to love their neighbors.  If you will be a tax collector, be an honest tax collector.  If you will be a soldier, be a noble soldier.  If you will be a father or mother, then serve your children with love and nurture them with discipline.  If you will be an employee, then show up on time and put in an honest day’s work.  If you will open your mouth, then be sure what comes out of it is kind and true.  The Lord does not ask you to leave the world, but to serve faithfully, diligently, and honestly in it.  The fruits of your repentance are borne in whatever task God has given you to do.  Put away sins and all excuses for them.  Devote yourself to what God declares to be good and right.  Prepare the way of the Lord with fruits of repentance.
     So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. (Luke 3:18)  John’s message does not sound like much good news.  We know that we should repent of our sins and not return to them.  Yet, we have never stopped sinning—not even when the threat of hellfire is presented.  Such is the sinful nature.  There is no good news in this.
     John’s job was to prepare the way for the Lord.  John’s preaching makes it clear that you need this Savior.  If you do not care about your sin and guilt, you will not care to be saved from them.  All your efforts to root out sin only show you how bad your condition is.  This is why John warns that the blade of the ax is sharp and that the fires of judgment are burning.  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and it is wise to take the Lord seriously and to fear his wrath.
       But fearing God’s wrath does not take away your sins.  It only shows that you need to be saved from them.  John prepares the way for salvation; but Jesus IS the way for salvation.  Jesus comes to deliver you from your sins and to work true repentance in you.  Jesus first delivers you from the curse so that the ax will not come down upon you.  Jesus has taken the blow in your place, suffering and dying for you.  Jesus has spared you from the wrath of God because God’s wrath was poured upon Jesus in your place.  He is the Lamb of God who was roasted in the fires of hell in your place.  He let death consume him before he consumed death by his resurrection. 
     Jesus has saved you from sin so that sin no longer owns or damns you.  Jesus also has worked repentance in you so that you will never be owned by sin again.  He baptizes you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Jesus has driven out the unclean spirit in you and grants you his Holy Spirit in its place.  He creates in you a clean heart and gives you a right spirit.  He has converted you so that you are in agreement with God.  You acknowledge that your sins are evil because God has assessed them to be so.  The Lord also baptizes you with fire, refining you like gold.  He continues to purge your sins from you.  He has you bear a cross so that you put your sins to death.  Even though you still commit sins, you are frustrated and disgusted with yourself for them.  This is good, for then you stop taking pride in how good you have been, and you are compelled to rely on Jesus alone to save you.  This is good; for salvation comes only through Jesus. 
     Prepare the way of the Lord with fruits of repentance.  What should we do?  John the Baptist tells you.  Serve the Lord and your neighbor with lives and words and thoughts which are both wholesome and helpful.  But be sure you notice where John is pointing—to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus is the one who works in you to will and to do the works of God.  Jesus promises, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” (John 15:5)  Jesus cleanses you from all wickedness, and Jesus works all good within you.  Jesus is your salvation. 

In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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