+ Second Sunday in Advent – December 8th, 2013 +
Redeemer Lutheran, HB
Series A: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds…
The collect of the day sets the tone. Make ready. Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight. And if preparation is the hymn of the day, John the Baptizer is the choirmaster, preparing us for the coming of Christ in glory, in his body and blood among us, in Bethlehem. We can’t get to Christmas without going through John. Repentance, then joy. John, then Jesus. The wilderness, then the Promised Land. The preparation, then Christ’s coming.
But how does John prepare us for Jesus’ advent? That’s the question of the day, of the season.
Advent, as we heard last week, is about Christ’s coming. Which means it’s also about preparing. That’s what John is doing out there in the wilderness. John is the voice crying out in same wilderness that Israel was led into during the Exodus. He’s standing in the same water Israel crossed to enter the Promised Land. And he’s preaching the same message Israel heard from the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” An old message to be sure, but with a new twist.
“Repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” At least that’s what most of your English translations say. This of it this way: “Repent, the reign of heaven is near.” If Jesus is the King, what does he do? Kingdoms? No he reigns.
For the reign of heaven isn’t like some magic kingdom utopia on earth, despite our fallen attempts and desires otherwise. And it’s certainly not some kind of emotional experience, as if we had deck-the-halls for the coming King.
No, the reign of heaven is the kingly deeds of God long foretold and long expected. The “reign of heaven” is God’s intervention in creation, his “reigning.” John announces that God is breaking into human history, invading a fallen world to rescue from captivity to sin, Satan, and death. The reign of heaven is God’s gracious activity for you.
That’s what John is doing out there in the desert, calling Israel – and us - out of slavery and bondage to sin and into a new land, a new exodus. For the Day has dawned. The King is coming. The reign of heaven is near.
Again, how does John prepare us for this coming King? What does John have in mind for our preparation? It’s a rather simple, yet radical message:
Repent. The reign of heaven is near.
And according to Matthew there really were only two responses to John’s wild wilderness preaching: faith or unbelief. Many in faith heard John’s message and believed. “They were going out to him and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.”
Still others – like the Pharisees and Sadducees - had another answer. But before they could even utter a word, John cuts them off. “You offspring 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.”
All of Israel was in need of a bath. They were sinful and unclean. Whether by blood, birth, or obedience to the Law the religious leaders thought they were worthy of being called children of Abraham. They had it all backwards though. True children of Abraham aren’t given salvation as a due or a reward, but as a gift, as promise. Stones were a euphemism for Gentiles. God will raise up from the Gentiles children of Abraham. Children of promise, gift, unconditional grace. Just like Abraham.
So, according to John anything that stands in the way of Christ must be removed, stripped, and washed away. All claims to blood, birth, and obedience are not the height of faith; they are the depths of unbelief and self-righteousness. They needed John’s cleansing baptism, for repentance leading to good fruit.
But what exactly is repentance? It’s a Greek word, maybe you’ve heard it: metanoia. Literally it means to get a new mind, a new way of thinking.
In other words, the Pharisees and Sadducees needed a spiritual lobotomy. When it came to salvation they thought they had it all worked out: “Sure we’ve sinned a little here and there - but after all, we’re children of Abraham and we’ve kept the Law.”
John’s warning is for us too. Repent. The reign of heaven is near. John’s voice is jarring, offensive even. Advent isn’t for the faint of heart. You see, we’ve lost the expectation and hope of Christ’s coming again, or we expect Christ to come on our terms. Either way, John cries out: Repent. Are you good? Then repent of your goodness. You’re not good enough. Are you bad? Then repent of your badness. It’s worse than you think.
John’s work is clear: Advent repentance, then Christmas rejoicing. The fast before the feast. John, then Jesus. John’s message awakens us to the urgency of our sinful plight. No procrastination. No delay. The reign of heaven is near.
And there’s the parallel: John preached a baptism of repentance to prepare for Jesus’ first advent. So too, Jesus gives His Church a Baptism of forgiveness to prepare for His second advent.
Like the Pharisees and Sadducees we need a new mind. And that is precisely the gift you’re given in Baptism. Have this mind of Christ in you, Paul says. And it is, by water and word and Spirit.
This is why John comes. John prepares us for Christ’s Advent.
“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. 12 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.”
The people of Israel expected the Messiah to rule and reign as king, to conquer and destroy, to judge, and save.
And Jesus certainly does all of those things, just not in the ways they expected the Christ to rule and reign.
They didn’t expect this Messiah to be born in a lowly feeding trough in a lowly town of Bethlehem and grow up in the lowliness of Nazareth.
They didn’t expect the Messiah to conquer and destroy by being conquered and killed in death.
They didn’t expect God’s judgment to fall upon his own Son.
They didn’t expect the axe of God’s judgment to be laid upon the Root of Jesse.
They didn’t expect the Messiah to rule and reign as King from the crib and the cross.
And perhaps we have the same problem in advent. Not that we expect too much from God, but that we expect too little. He wants to rule and reign in mercy and compassion and all we want is to rule our desires and will over others. He wants to make us citizens of his heavenly kingdom and all we want is to be king for a day in our self-made kingdoms.
Thankfully for us, we don’t get the Savior and Messiah we expect or deserve. But rather, Christ gives us the unexpected and undeserved.
Jesus brings us the joy of the Gospel after John’s Law has exposed our valleys of lack and brought our mountains of pride to rubble. Jesus appears humble and meek. He submits Himself to John’s baptism of repentance even though He is the one perfect Jew who has not need for repentance. Instead of an axe and a winnowing fork, He comes with a cross and death. Instead of coming in judgment, He comes to be judged. The King dies and all of his subjects rise from the dead.
“Christ descended to re-ascend. Christ came down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down from humanity; down further still…to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But he came down to go up again and bring the whole ruined world with Him. Jesus was brought low for you; He stooped in order to lift, he died under the load before he incredibly straightened his back, rose from the grave, and marched off with you and the whole mass of humanity swaying on his shoulders.” (paraphrased from C.S. Lewis, Miracles, p. 179).
And that’s how John prepares us for Jesus’ Advent. He’s the butler preparing us for an exquisite banquet. Off with the old rags of sin and on with the new. Your sin is stripped and you are clothed in Christ. You are baptized, washed, and cleansed. And now you’re ready for the Advent feast.
So, Advent isn’t only about repentance. It’s also about bearing fruit. This Advent bear fruit in the pattern of John’s exhortation: hear the Word of the Lord – in church, around the dinner table with your families, in your Bluetooth connection in the car on the way to work. Bear fruit in confessing your sins and receiving the Advent of Jesus in His body and blood. Bear fruit in showing mercy and compassion to others: a card, a phone call, a visit, a word of encouragement. God loves a cheerful giver. And you know why? Because He is the biggest giver of all.
John’s words still ring true today: The reign of heaven is near. Today God breaks into human history; heaven invades earth. The reign of heaven comes as Christ feeds you with his own kingly flesh and his royal, precious blood.
You’ve been washed by water and the Spirit. You’re robed and swaddled in the finest garments of Christ’s salvation. All is prepared. The feast is ready. Christ your King draws near.
And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.