Luke 3:1-14 / Advent 2C / 09 December 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
When John appeared in the Jordanian wilderness in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when his voice was heard crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way o of the Lord,” when the Word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, it was the end of 400 years of silence.
Four hundred years before, the Lord had spoken through the prophet Malachi, the last of the prophets of Israel. “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.” And then nothing but prophetic silence for four hundred years. There was history, as Israel was passed like a football from the Persians to the Greeks to the Romans. There was the Maccabean uprising and the reclamation of the temple celebrated at Channukah. God took care of His people, His nation. God kept His Word and promise. Yet He did so in silence.
In a way, it seemed as though time had run out on Israel. The nation was under Roman control. Divided into four parts. Pontus Pilate ruled over Judea and Jerusalem. Herod had the north country of Galilee. His brother Philip had the regions of Ituraea and Trachonitis. Lysanius ruled of the region of Abilene. Hardly the glory days of King David or Solomon. Israel was a vassal state of Rome under the rule of Tiberius Caesar. The priesthood? It was in a shambles. Records had been lost. Family lines obscured. Who were the sons of Aaron? The priesthood was an appointed position, a political position, shared by Annas and Caiaphas. If you were an Israelite at that time, you might have concluded that God had forgotten you.
And then came a voice, nor from the temple or from Jerusalem, but from the wilderness. Literally from out of nowhere. A strange figure appeared at the Jordan, the place where Israel entered the promised land, the place where the waters parted as at the Red Sea, the place where twelve memorial stones had been laid to mark the event for posterity. In the place where Elijah had been whisked off to heaven, John appeared.
He came as prophet. He looked like a prophet. He sounded like a prophet. He identified himself with the Voice of Isaiah, the voice calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He came preaching and baptizing. Something new. A washing of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the OT, sins were dealt with by blood sacrifice, the animal’s life in place of your own. But John calls the people to something new and wonderful, not the blood of sacrifice but a washing of repentance for forgiveness.
John came to prepare a people for Jesus, the coming Messiah. His message could be summarized in a single word: Repent. Change your mind, your thinking, your notions of who God is and who you are. Repent of your sins. Disown them. Wash them away. Repent of any notion that you can atone for your sins. Even the temple sacrifices could not take away sin. Repent of your religion, all the ways you try to bribe God and obligate Him.
Crowds of people flocked to John. He was a novelty. We always flock to the religious novelties. And yet they hardly received a warm, fuzzy welcome from John. John was not your warm and fuzzy sort of preacher. “You brood of vipers! You bunch of snakes. Who warned to flee from the wrath to come?” John said to them. Hardly the friendly, smiling preacher we might expect. Is this any way to start a movement, much less a religion? Insult your first hearers?
Church bureaucracies wouldn’t put up with John. Voters assemblies would vote to get rid of him as quickly as possible. Ecclesiastical adjudicatories and institutions would find a way to shut him up and ship him out to some far reaches in a nest of cubicles where he would never be seen or heard from again. We don’t want to hear all this repentance talk, John. It’s a downer. We don’t like to be reminded that we’re sinners, John. And what’s with this baptism business anyway? That’s not what Moses commanded. And besides, you’re scaring the children, so knock it off John.
You can leave your credentials at the door when it comes to John. He doesn’t care who you are,what you’ve accomplished, who your father is. Flash your “son of Abraham” card, and John will remind you that God can make sons of Abraham out of stones if He wants. And that goes for the “I’ve been a Lutheran all my life” or “I gave my heart to Jesus when I was sixteen years old” or whatever religious cookie you want to hold out to justify yourself. Credentials will get you nowhere. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The axe is already laid at the root.
When people asked John what they were supposed to do, John told them. Share your food and clothing with those in need. Do your vocation honestly. Tax collectors – collect no more than the authorized tax. Soldiers – don’t use your power to extort, be content with your wages. He’d say the same to us. Tend to your vocation and your responsibilities. Stop whining, stop taking advantage of the weak. Be content with what you make. Share with those in need. And don’t think for a moment that you’ve done enough or that there isn’t more to do. Do the goodness and mercy of God to those around you in need, and don’t you dare hold up one good work before God to dazzle Him. Good works are for the neighbor, not for God.
The atheist Richard Dawkins asks this question: If you do good works out of fear of punishment or seeking reward from God, is it really a good work? If you give your coat to someone who is cold and in need because you think God will be pleased with you and will reward you, is that really an act of love for the neighbor? If you do your job honestly and faithfully, giving an honest day’s work for a day’s wages so that God will reward you, is that really a good work? No, Dawkins is right. It’s bargaining, transacting, self-centered, self-justifying. It calls for repentance, rethinking, a re-cognition of who God is as the One who kills and makes alive.
John was God’s bulldozer, filling valleys, leveling mountains, straightening the crooked, smoothing the rough, building a highway for God. He was the forerunner, the preparer, the warm-up act. And he was the Law personified. If you want to know what the Law of God is all about, look no further than John. If you’re looking for comfort, mercy, forgiveness, you’ve come to the wrong person and place. John is there to look you square in the eye and call you a snake who deserves to be crushed underfoot.
John is Law to Jesus’ Gospel. With John, the axe is laid to the root. With Jesus, the axe falls on Him. With John, every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is thrown into the fire. With Jesus, bad tree of the cross becomes the good tree of salvation, the fire of God’s wrath becomes His burning passion to save, the good fruit that He bears becomes ours by imputation.
With John, you get commands and threats and punishments and things to do. That’s how the Law works. It heaps up demands on you and threatens you will an axe and fire if you don’t shape up and get with the program. With Jesus, you get “come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” With Jesus, it’s not about your doing but about His doing. It’s not about your repentance but about His becoming Sin for you, about HIs exchanging your Sin for His righteousness, about His dying and rising in order to save you from the wrath to come when He comes in glory.
There is a coming wrath. Don’t be deceived. The Scriptures are very clear on the wrath and destruction that marks the end. Every valley will eventually be filled. Every mountain laid low. Every crooked path will be straightened. Every rough place will be made smooth. God’s Law will have its way against Sin and sinners.
There is but one way to escape that coming wrath, the axe laid to the root, the unquenchable fire reserved for fruitless trees and dead branches. Hide. Hide in Jesus. Be sheltered in His death through Baptism. Be buried with Him in His death where the Law has nothing to say. Cling to Christ. Not to your works, your repentance, your religious deeds. Cling to Christ. Repent. Recognize that you are nothing and you have nothing to offer God. But Christ is everything and He has everything to give to you.
He is your righteousness, your strength, your healing, your shelter. The axe of the Law was laid on Him. The fire of God’s wrath consumed Him. As John would later say: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Repent. It’s a good word. It doesn’t mean you’ve been bad and you need to try harder. It mean’s you’re a sinner and you need to die and rise in Jesus. Repentance is God’s work in you, paving a highway for Himself. Repent is an Advent word. It’s how God prepares a people to welcome Him. Repent.
In the name of Jesus,