Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston, Iowa
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 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. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” ” (Matthew 3:1–12, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist is a regular figure in our Pre-Christmas time. We’ve gotten used hearing about that voice crying in the wilderness. It just wouldn’t be Advent (Pre-Christmas) without singing that song “On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s cry, announces that the Lord is neigh.” (Listen to the MIDI here). This time of year we’ve gotten used to hearing about that guy who dresses in camel skin and eats locust. We’ve gotten used to him calling us to get ready for Christmas. But, is that really what he’s doing? I mean, I find it a little bit difficult to coordinate what John is saying with the picture in my mind of the animals and Mary and Joseph and shepherds standing quietly around the stable so as not to wake up the sleeping baby. I mean, just look at what John actually says; “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent! How does repent tie to that little baby? How does the quietness of the stable connect with “repent!”
I’m not even sure we always remember exactly what repent means. It’s just not a word in our common vocabulary. Well, we do know I think that repent means to confess our sins; just like we start most every church service here. “I a poor miserable sinner…” We probably remember that it has something to do with being sorry for our sins, and not just sorry for the ones we get caught doing. But, I think John tells us all about that here too. The ordinary folks that came out to see him, heard what he had to say, “Repent!” and they were baptized and confessed their sins. I think it’s what John says to the Pharisees and Sadducees that helps us to understand it all better. You see these guys didn’t repent. They came to see John, too. But they didn’t believe what he was saying. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!” He tells them, after calling them a bunch of snakes. Not only wouldn’t they confess their sins but the Pharisees believed they could deal with their sins by working them off and being better than everyone else. The Sadducees believed that there was no resurrection of the dead, when you were dead you were just dead. (That’s exactly why they were so sad, you see?) They both believed they were a part of God’s kingdom automatically just by being born Jewish. John sets them straight. “You can’t be born to it! Just being Jewish isn’t enough.”
“Repent” begins with confession. It is recognition of one’s true self and true position before a perfect God. But it doesn’t stop there it also means to reach out and grasp a hold of with the hand of faith the forgiveness that God offers through Jesus as the only answer for that sin. It means to live in the “Kingdom of Heaven” that John was talking about. You see, John didn’t just say that the kingdom was near, the best translations say, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” And he means here right now in Jesus. I love the old paintings of John. They often show him holding a little sheep in one hand and pointing to it in the other. That too, is a great definition of the word “repent.” Looking at Jesus for what we need most, forgiveness of sins.
Another great thing about John is that even his name reminds us of God’s greatest work in our lives. (Although I’d still like to call him John the Lutheran, on Baptism) it just doesn’t have the same ring to it). It’s Baptism that’s the sure sign to us of repentance. Oh, I know, lots of folks say that we are baptized because we repent… you know “repent and be baptized.” (Acts 2:38) But that’s not really the case. It’s not repent then be baptized. The people who came to see John weren’t baptized because they confessed their sins. They were baptized, confessing their sins. They saw their need for forgiveness and they saw God offering it and they took hold of it in the way that John said it was offered. After all, just like John said the kingdom was at hand. Baptism isn’t a sign of repentance because we do it. Baptism is a sign of repentance because it’s what God does. It’s the same thing in Acts chapter 2. Peter preached the law to the crowds of people standing before him. “They were cut to the heart.” The author tells us. “What shall we do?” they asked. 38And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38 (ESV) They saw their need. Peter pointed them to Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and he told them exactly how God would give them what they needed. John was doing the same thing out in the wilderness of Judea. You see, John is the Baptist!
John is really saying here that there are two responses to the coming of the kingdom of heaven: repentance or judgment. There’s either repentance and Baptism for the forgiveness of sins or facing the wrath of God. And just look how personal John makes it. 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. (v10) “Every tree,” it’s a very inclusive statement. No non-fruit bearing tree is going to be spared. And now we get right to the heart of the matter for you and me. Through faith in Jesus we don’t face God’s judgment any more. Even though as trees we don’t look like the kinds that bear fruit in keeping with repentance. God has picked up the ax at our roots. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, God has given us everything that Jesus did. St. Paul tells us that when we are baptized we have put on Christ. (Gal 3:27) Forgiveness includes what we don’t do. Luther: “[Jesus] satisfied the Law; He fulfilled the Law perfectly, for He loved God with all His heart, and with all His soul, and with all His strength, and with all His mind, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. Therefore, when the Law comes and accuses you of not having kept it, bid it go to Christ. Say: There is the Man who has kept it; to Him I cling; He fulfilled it for me and gave His fulfillment to me. Thus the Law is silenced.” (Erl. XV, 61, 63.) Never mind that your life doesn’t look like it is fruit-full. Jesus life was. He has borne all the good fruit you’ll ever need. The ax is gone for you; it was laid at a different tree.
But to get it all started, first Jesus was born. That’s what gets us back to the quite of the manger. Right there, that stable that we’ll all gaze into with wonder in a few weeks, is the “different tree.” It’s utterly amazing, totally beyond our thinking and acting, to believe that anyone would be born specifically to take the whole burden God’s anger, the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath over sin. And to do what we can’t ever hope to do, keep God’s law perfectly in every detail. But there he is, ready and willing to do it. And not only ready and willing, but able to do it.
And so he does: from his first breath to his last; from sitting on his mother’s knee to hanging on the cross. Jesus bears the fruit of a perfect life and he dies the death of a complete sinner. John said he wasn’t fit to carry Jesus sandals. In our day we’d say we’re not even worthy to be his water boy. But still, Jesus does it all for us from bloody birth to bloody death. Taking what is ours, sin. And giving us what is his, a perfect life and relationship with God.
So, as John the Baptist would say, Prepare the way of the Lord; or like the hymn says:
Then cleansed be every life from sin;
Make straight the way for God within,
And let us all our hearts prepare
For Christ to come and enter there.
Every life… Hey, there are lots of people around who aren’t prepared. There are lots of people who don’t really know what Jesus has done. They’re all focused on Christmas-Stuff; shopping till they are dropping; partying hearty; ‘tis the season; and forgetting what John tells us. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Remember, repentance or judgment? Do we leave the ax at the root of the trees, and let the trees be cut down or do we tell them the Good News of Jesus? Look, there’s isn’t a better opportunity to make it clear. Jesus is the reason for the season. It’s not hard to find people who are disillusioned about the whole holiday thing. Do what John does. Point them to the coming of the kingdom of heaven, point them to Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Pieper, F. (1999, c1950, c1951, c1953). Christian Dogmatics (electronic ed.). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.