Sermon: The Message of John the Baptist

Text: Matthew 3:1-12 & Isaiah 11:1-10
Second Sunday in Advent, Series A
Listen to the sermon here.

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

John the Baptist will be our Advent preacher for the next two Sundays. But I need to warn you in advance. You may not like him. His message is challenging, particularly as we prepare for the Christmas season.  John’s message is similar to the church’s message today. This fact makes the message of John the Baptist appropriate for every generation. It is a simple message. It has two parts, summarized neatly in verse two of our reading. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 3:2).  John proclaimed, firstly, that they should repent. The second concerned the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven. The two go together; the coming of the Kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today.


John’s message begins with “Repent!” What is repentance? Is it a demand or a promise? Is it Law or Gospel? What is it? Melanchthon writes in the Augsburg Confession: “Repentance consists of two parts: one is contrition or the terror that strikes the conscience when sin is recognized” (AC XII.3-6). The first part is the guilt and fear of God’s wrath when you recognize your sinfulness. The first part we see is modelled in verses 5 and 6. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” What was it that John said that motivated the crowd to acknowledge their sins? He warned that the Lord was coming. His axe is laid to the root. He’s come to chop down the unfruitful tree and throw it into the fire. The Messiah is coming, and his coming will bring devastating judgment. 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. That’s why his preaching was sometimes harsh and perhaps surprising. John was not your warm and fuzzy sort of preacher. He clearly made God’s wrath against sin known! “You bunch of snakes. Who warned to flee from the wrath to come?” Hardly the friendly, smiling preacher we might expect. This message aims to strike fear in your conscience so that you might stop and realize your sinful condition. You must recognize your sin and flee from it.

Is this something that the church should be preaching? What do you think when someone says to you, “Repent!” We usually think, “Repent of what?” What did I do? Or, “Hey, you should talk! You’re the one who needs to repent!” But no, John is speaking to you. There’s a coming wrath and judgment and fire. Repent! Should the Church proclaim this? Absolutely! We preach both Law and Gospel. We proclaim God’s wrath against sin and the promise of forgiveness in Jesus. I wonder what John would say to us here today on this second Sunday of Advent devoted to his preaching? John would certainly have approved of our confessing our sins and sinfulness at the start of the service. He might have noted that we probably haven’t fully plumbed the depths of our sinfulness and can be a bit trite and superficial in our confession. John also might have said that we often hide behind our works and heritage. Don’t assume that you belong to God’s people because you have a religious heritage. 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. The point is all of us here today still need to repent. Things in our lives are not as they should be, and we need to recognize that.

We don’t want to hear all this repentance talk. We don’t like to be reminded that we’re sinners. But living in denial will make you unable to understand your desperate situation. We must 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.  It doesn’t matter if people don’t want to hear it, and it certainly doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make you feel good. You do not come to church to feel good. You come to church to have your sins exposed by God’s Law and forgiven by the Gospel. You’re in the wrong place if you don’t want your sins exposed. You can’t be forgiven of sins that aren’t exposed and confessed. You may think, “We can’t tell people that,” but in reality, there’s nothing more unloving than not telling people that. We call out all sins and announce that God’s wrath is coming against these sins. God “commands all people everywhere to repent” (Ac 17:30). In our era of tolerance and inclusivity, there’s a risk that the first part of repentance will be missed.   I told you that you probably wouldn’t like John, but that’s likely what John would say to us.

“…for the King has come!”

Repentance is not simply turning from your sin; you must also trust in the Son. “The other [part of repentance]”, writes Melanchthon, “is faith, which is brought to life by the Gospel or absolution. This faith believes that sins are forgiven on account of Christ, consoles the conscience, and liberates it from terrors. Then good works, which are the fruits of repentance, are bound to follow” (AC XII.3-6). The second part is your trust in God because Christ died for you. Repent is both a word of Law and the Gospel, demand and promise. To properly repent, you must both confess and believe— turn from sin and cling to Christ.

John says, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2). This Kingdom has a king, and John says, “he who is coming after me is mightier than I.” This is not just any king, but the king that Isaiah and all the prophets foretold. Seven hundred years before John, the prophet Isaiah saw the coming Kingdom as a tiny shoot sprouting from the stump of King David’s family tree. And from that Sprout a righteous Branch that would bear fruit. The Messianic King will arise from the decayed family of David. Through Isaiah, God promised to raise a king from an unlikely source, the broken dynasty of Judean kings. God not only knows how to chop down mighty trees; he knows how to generate renewed life in dying wood. The king who comes won’t be another in a long line of failed kings. He will not be one more descendant of a royal house that is now dead. Instead, he will be the restoration of this fallen line of kings. The crownless again shall be king. This king will be raised from the stump like one raised from the dead. This king came to bring hope to the entire world by making good on God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

This is good news: Jesus of Nazareth was the long-expected, long-awaited Messiah. He doesn’t come from a royal palace but from a manger, not from an important city but from a backwater village. His parents were not nobility but a virgin and her betrothed carpenter. Yet, Jesus of Nazareth is of the house and lineage of David. From this unlikely source, God presents his Messiah, the promised king. The Lord gives him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his Kingdom, there will be no end (Lk 1:32-33). Jesus, the King, has come to save us from our sins. Our King has made peace with God on your behalf by making restitution for your sins. The axe of the Law had to be laid to the Root of Jesse, to David’s greater Son born of the virgin. The fire of God’s Law had to be kindled against Him, so He might breathe the fire of the Spirit upon the world. He had to become a curse under the Law in our place, cursed on the cross tree so that He might be a blessing for the world and its Savior.

The church does not only convict of sin, but we must also proclaim the forgiveness of those sins. We proclaim this forgiveness to any who are terrified. We urge them to believe in Christ. That is why those who recognize their sins can know with certainty that they receive the remission of sins freely and by faith. It’s not enough to believe that Jesus died on the cross or died for sinners. Faith is when you believe that he died for you. He died for my sins. I am forgiven. If you believe that you have been forgiven because of the death of Christ, your Lord, then you are received by God. 

John is your Advent reminder that you need Christ. You need Him more than you think you need Him. You need Him for much more than comfort, companionship, safety and security. You need Him to save you. You need to die and rise with Him. You need Him to save you from the Sin and Death that would consume you were it not for Him. The message is the same today in our wilderness as it was then in John’s. Repent. Turn away from your sin and cling to Christ alone. Then go back into the world and bear fruit. 

May, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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