Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
How are your preparations for Christmas coming? What kind of things do you do to prepare for Christmas? Do you have the tree and decorations up yet? Have you begun shopping for gifts? Are the stockings all hung with care? Advent is a season where we prepare for the comings of our saviour. There are three: his coming in the flesh, his coming in the Lord’s Supper, and his coming again on the last day. So, I’ll ask again: how are your preparations for Christmas? In our Gospel reading, we see that John the Baptist came to prepare a people for Jesus, the coming Messiah. We could summarise his message in a single word: Repent. So, this morning we will be looking at how John the Baptist prepares us for Christmas. We’ll first ask, “Why do we need to repent?” And then we’ll consider, “What does repentance look like?”
Why do we need to repent?
Crowds of people flocked to John. John’s preaching is harsh and perhaps surprising; it is jarring, particularly as an approach to the Christmas season; and it is challenging. John was not your warm and fuzzy sort of preacher. “You bunch of snakes. Who warned to flee from the wrath to come?” Hardly the friendly, smiling preacher we might expect. Is this any way to start a movement, much less a religion? Insult your first hearers?
He is not just being cranky or rude. He is prophetic: snakes come out from under rocks when it is safe to do their poisonous deeds and later slither back under their rocks again. By calling them a brood of vipers, he’s saying they are children of the devil. Their spiritual father is that snake who deceived Eve in Eden.
John also says that you can leave your credentials at the door. Don’t assume that you belong to God’s people because you have a religious heritage. God can create a new people from stones if He wants. And that goes for the “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life” or “I have gone to this church for the past sixty years” or whatever religious cookie you want to hold out to justify yourself. Credentials will get you nowhere. Everything revolves around how one responds to God. Don’t presume to say, ‘We’re baptised!’ Show your faith by your actions, or get ready for the axe.
John says they are all like trees that have an axe laid to their roots. He is warning them about the disastrous consequences of their current ways. But he’s also hinting that they still have a chance. That means the matter is urgent, the time is now, the blow that will finish them is about to be struck. Either they produce, or they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 9).
John came to prepare a people for the coming Messiah. Isaiah’s prophecy sees God’s people as an obstructed road, an uneven road, even a crooked one. The one they need is a smooth, straight road. Roadwork is required. That’s why there’s the call to make the road ready. There is road repair to be done.
The Messiah is coming, and his coming will bring devastating judgment. The idea of Jesus as a judge and a saviour is essential. The Messiah will ensure God’s justice is done throughout the world, which involves dealing with evil. John talks about the fork and the fire: the farmer’s fork separates the wheat from the chaff, and then the fire burns up the chaff.
John’s warning was indeed sharp. When the message of love and grace fails to touch the heart, then the law’s message of judgment upon sin must be proclaimed. The purpose of this message is to strike fear in your conscience so that you might stop and realise your own condition.
We don’t want to hear all this repentance talk. It’s a downer and it doesn’t make us feel nice. We don’t like to be reminded that we’re sinners. But living in denial will make you unable to understand the desperate situation you’re in. We need to repent because learning that you are a sinner leads to the good news. It means knowing the problem, knowing that there is a God you have offended and to whom you can be reconciled. We need to repent because there is a coming wrath. Don’t be deceived. The Scriptures are very clear that you will stand before Jesus and give an account of everything you’ve done. It’s not exactly the picture of Jesus that many want, but it’s one we have to take seriously.
It is good to be reminded that John’s message is meant for a people who wait with eager longing for a Savior, then and now. If those who came to see John are called snakes, so are we. If they cannot claim special privileges based on their heritage, neither can we. If they risk cutting themselves off from God, if the axe is ready to fall on them, it is also on us.
That’s why John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” There’s a risk that in our era of tolerance, part of the message of Advent, the part about repentance, will be missed. Instead, it is so tempting to preach about hope in the abstract or to rush Christmas and talk about glad tidings of great joy. The glad tidings are an announcement of forgiveness, but there can be no forgiveness without repentance. The Advent preparation for Christmas involves repentance.
What does repentance look like?
What exactly do we mean when we talk about repentance? Repentance is a fundamental change of mind and heart followed by a change in behaviour. It means being deeply sorry for and regretting the sins you’ve committed. It means turning to God, trusting that he promises you forgiveness. And repentance is incomplete and insincere if it does not lead to a new life. If you have truly repented, you will give up that sin, change your thoughts, mind, and heart, and then lead the kind of life God wants for you instead.
This is what your baptism means. “What does such baptising with water indicate? It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
To you who are baptised, Scripture says, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Do you want to know what fruits are in keeping with repentance? The crowds did. They asked John, “What, then, should we do?” John gave simple, straightforward answers. He told them what it means to love your neighbour as yourself. He did this using examples from their everyday life to show what “fruit in keeping with repentance” is. “Two cloaks? Give one away. Too much food? Same applies. Be honest and don’t get rich at the expense of others. Don’t use brute force too rob people. Do not use your low pay as an excuse to rob and pillage.” Simple, clear instructions.
The kind of simple, clear instruction we find in our catechism! “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” “Do you help and support your neighbour in every physical need? Do you lead a sexually pure life?” The Ten Commandments are your mirror to show you your sins. They can also be your guide in teaching you how to live the kind of life God wants.
John said to those who came to him, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” And so those who have not produced such fruits have no reason to suppose that they will receive pardon for their sins by a barren repentance. You must repent and bear fruit.
How are you going to bear those fruits? Are you just going to muster your willpower, grit your teeth, and resolve to do better? Willpower alone won’t get it done. You need help. You need the help of God’s grace to live this life of repentance, day by day. Cling to Christ. He is the source of your new life. And you cling to Christ by staying connected to his word. Word and Sacrament–these are the means that God has given to keep us Christians alive and flourishing and to bear fruit.
Dear fellow baptised, John the Baptist has been preparing us for the celebration of Christmas. He proclaims: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Even us baptised, grace-helped Christians are still going to mess up and stumble and fall. You will always be discovering more road work to do: rough places in need of smoothing out, more sins in need of forgiveness. God calls through John to all baptised Christians: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John says every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is thrown into the fire. But with Jesus, the bad tree of the cross became the good tree of your salvation. He came to deal with your sins on the cross. Now, you’re invited to turn afresh to Christ and receive forgiveness of sins. Repent. Be forgiven. Bear fruit. Prepare the way of the Lord!
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.