Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Prepare the Way of the Lord!

Matthew 3:1-12 “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.” 
We think of preaching as what happens in this pulpit but the word that we translate as “preach” had a special meaning for the people of the ancient world.  It described the work of a herald, a member of the royal court, whose duty it was to go before the King when he took a journey and announce his arrival and make sure that all was prepared and ready in each every place to receive the royal guest.
That was the task of John the Baptist–the herald of the Messiah–the one spoken of by the prophet Isaiah who would announce the much anticipated arrival of the Savior of the world–the one whose duty it was to prepare the way for Jesus in human hearts–not by mere cosmetic changes to the outside-- but by changing human hearts through the preaching of the Word.
When Isaiah spoke of the work of this herald who would prepare the way for the king he said that: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, and the rugged places a plain.” 
John’s call to repent means that the mountains of pride and self-reliance in our lives will have to brought low–that we recognize that in God’s sight and according to the measure of his holy law that we are sinners who deserve only his condemnation.
To repent means that the low, valley places of doubt and despair and cynicism and faithlessness that fill our hearts will have to be lifted up–that these attitudes that destroy hope in ourselves and those around us will have to be confessed as what they are: a lack of faith in the goodness and power of God.
To repent means that the rough places of selfishness and impatience and anger will have to be smoothed out by selflessness, patience, and gentleness. 
To repent means to stop going in the crooked, sinful direction that we find ourselves in so often in our lives and to go in a new direction–towards God.  This is not our natural inclination.
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, they ran away from God.  They knew God was righteous and holy and powerful and they knew that they were disobedient and sinful and naked and so were afraid of God.   Sin still does the same thing.
Sin makes us forget the most important thing of all about God–that he is loving and merciful and forgiving—that he wants to be reconciled to sinners.  In gracious love, God sought out Adam and Eve, removed the pitiful, insufficient coverings they had made for themselves, and covered their shame through a bloody sacrifice of his own making so that their life with him could be restored.
What God did for Adam and Eve all the way back in the Garden of Eden was a promise of what was to come for all of us.  Sin would be atoned for.  Death would give way to life.  God himself was coming to save us.  Preparation was required.  Repentance was needed.
The false piety and frail good works that we use to hide our sin has to be removed through repentance–and that’s frightening–it makes us feel naked before God and ashamed of our sins all over again.  But God calls us to repentance, not to shame us, but to cover our sin with the blood of Jesus who laid down his life for us on the cross.
When John saw Jesus he said, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”  He knew that the kingdom of God was near and he took to heart his own message to repent and believe and his life was different because of it.  The Bible says that:  “John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.”
These details are not just interesting “food and fashion” notes from the first century A.D.  They show the radical, life-changing implications of the arrival of our King.  Food and clothing and all the other earthly things that we focus our attention on, and live our lives for, have to take on a different, lesser place in our lives.
John’s life -and lifestyle- was dramatically different than those around him, foreshadowing the words of the Messiah who said: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.  Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?”
The kingdom of heaven and its King is unlike anything or anyone that has come before.  The values and priorities of the world are turned upside down and spiritual things take precedence over material things–eternal things over the things of this dying world.  And so every aspect of John’s life was changed–even simple things like food and clothing were changed-as a reflection of his changed heart.  So it must be for us. Our lives as Christians are to be demonstrably different than the world around us because of our faith in Jesus.
But then as now, there were many more people who were satisfied with the status quo in the kingdom of this world- than there were those who would enter the kingdom of heaven through repentance and faith.  The Bible says that:
When John 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
We don’t know what the reaction of the crowd was to these words but it must have been dramatic.  Later on in Jesus’ ministry, when the people heard that if there was any chance for them to enter the Kingdom of heaven their righteousness would have to exceed that of the Pharisees, they were amazed and wondered if anyone could be saved—but John calls them a brood of vipers because their lives and teaching were deadly poison.
These spiritual leaders of the Jews were supposed to be teachers of God’s people who would pass on to each generation the truth about God revealed to Abraham: that salvation would be by God’s grace alone–through faith alone–in the Messiah alone.  But because the leaders had forgotten that Good News–so had many of God’s people, who were lost in sin and unbelief.
The religion of John’s day it was nothing more than a system of laws for the Pharisees and dead traditionalism for the Sadducees–none of it sufficient for salvation–all of it a deception as old as the serpent’s lie in the Garden of Eden–that we can have a life with God on our own terms, based on who we are and what we do.
John’s words are just as true today as they were there on the banks of the Jordan River that day.  It is not enough to come from a long line of Lutheran Christians–it is not enough that your family was one of the founding members of this congregation-it is not enough that you are an important person in this place–it is not enough that your parents or spouse are devout believers.  If you are to be saved, you must repent of your sins and believe in Jesus.
Saving faith is not just a matter of words that we say-- or religious acts that we engage in–it is a new way of thinking and believing that turns into a new way of living so that we show forth in our lives what we say that we believe in our hearts, bearing the fruits of repentance in what we say and do.
Today is the day for us to listen to John’s Advent message and repent of our sin and trust in the Lamb of God who takes away our sins.  Time is short.  The king is coming.  Judgment is at hand.  John said that: 
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.”
            These are frightening images to be sure.  We are reminded of the shortness of time–that God’s judgment is closer now than it has ever been.  We hear of the terrible consequences of failing to heed his warning–that the unrepentant and unproductive will be burned with unquenchable fire.  We learn that a true and living faith must be a fruitful faith—that without those fruits our faith is a pious lie we tell ourselves.  We must take this warning from John seriously.
But we are also reminded of the wonderful promise that God will gather to himself that which is his—that the day of judgment and the fires of hell are nothing for us to fear for the one who is mightier than John has forgiven our sin by his death on the cross and made us God’s children in Holy Baptism. 
The Good News for us today is that we have been baptized with water and the fire of the Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.  We have died and been raised with Christ so that we can walk in newness of life, turning from sin and showing Christ’s life in our own life.  We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear good fruit by serving God and our neighbor.  We can welcome our king and come into his presence without fear or worry because we are his people.    

Today we come to the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood totally undeserving of so great a gift.  Like John the Baptist, we are not worthy to carry the Lord’s sandals.  And yet our  king comes to us in a way that we can receive him and become a part of his life --and his life, become a part of ours.  And so, heeding John’s Advent message to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus, we come to the Sacrament of the Altar in sorrow over ours sins and sincere trust in our Savior-- and in true humility receive our Advent King.  Amen.

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