12/8/2019 Second Sunday of Advent The text is Matthew 3: 1-12 .
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” 4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. 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 will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
It’s the second week of Advent and this morning we encounter John the Baptist; that insect-eating, camel hair-wearing, Pharisee-dunking proclaimer of the coming of God’s kingdom. And the first word out of his mouth? Repent! “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. Repent is the rather tepid English translation of the Greek word, ‘metanoia’. This word literally means to ‘turn-around’. To experience a total reversal of one’s state of mind. In a physical sense it would be as if we were to stop what we are doing and take a one-eighty; to face in the exact opposite direction. For a demonstration of this I invite you to stand as you are able, as we ‘repent’ or turn-around together. Now, if you would please turn 180 degrees, so that you are facing in the completely different direction you were standing. You should now be facing the back wall of the sanctuary. Now we are all experiencing worship from a completely new and different perspective, one that quite frankly, I find quite uncomfortable. And I will assume that this makes you uneasy as well.
That’s the thing about repentance, about ‘turning-around’. True repentance requires a dramatic change of mind, of spiritually turning our backs to the old way of living as we look toward the hope and the promise of a transformed life in the kingdom of heaven. So, does facing this new direction during worship feel uncomfortable, and a little awkward and maybe even a bit embarrassing? Good, repentance is supposed to. Truly repenting, being willing to discard a former mindset and focus our lives in a completely new direction is hard work. But it will be worth the discomfort in the end. Okay, that’s enough discomfort for one morning; let’s take our seats.
Matthew tells us that just about everyone in the ancient Middle East was coming to hear John preach the coming kingdom; and to herald that, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. And in order to help the converts coming to him to be prepared for this approaching advent, he was immersing them in the Jordan River.
In ancient Israel, custom dictated that gentiles who were converting to Judaism were required to repent their former ways and belief system. This was intended as part of the necessary preparation for inclusion into the Jewish faith. And this was evidenced by being publicly baptized. This baptism, this full river immersion served as a ritual cleansing of the sins of the past. This then paved the way for a pure, clean entrance into a new, Jewish religious piety. And all gentiles, all those who professed a faith other than Judaism were required to undergo this ritual in order to be cleansed of their sins. This wasn’t required of professing Jews. But the word had been spreading that John was performing this ritual at the Jordan, and even the hyper-religious Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to be part of this phenomenon. It seems they were willing to be baptized as the gentiles were; perhaps as an insurance policy against the coming events that John was proclaiming. And John wasn’t exactly welcoming to them. He told them in no uncertain terms that simply tracing their Jewish lineage back to Abraham wasn’t going to be preparation enough for the coming kingdom. Pious religious leaders or not, there was a great deal more to be done in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah.
The preparation for the coming kingdom does indeed begin with, and must focus greatly on, embracing the future reality with a true sense of repentance. All must accept humanity’s innate sinfulness, and be cleansed from it. And while the Pharisees and Sadducees thought themselves already sanctified, John doubles-down. He tells them that their repentance must be accompanied by living a life worthy of good fruit. That is, one who has a truly repentant heart ought to be motivated to engage in acts that bear worthy fruit. Our ancient Jewish ancestors suffered under a yoke of sin that required ‘good works’ as proof of a cleansed heart; and these worthy actions were a requirement of atonement before God. We now know Jesus’ resurrection and ascension is the final act that provided the fruit worthy of God’s grace towards us. Unlike those baptized by John in the Jordan, Christ’s sacrifice for us serves as the fruit worthy of salvation.
This inevitably brings us to the question of whether good works are necessary for God’s forgiveness of our sin. Accepted Lutheran theology places us firmly in Paul’s letter to the Romans; we are saved through faith in Christ, by the grace of God. Confirmation Class and Bible Study question; ‘What must we do to be saved? Answer; ‘Nothing’. Salvation through faith, by grace. That settles it; works are not required for salvation. So, why then does Jesus continually tell his listeners of all the works he expects us to do? Because he knows that we should feel compelled to serve others in thanksgiving for what he has already done for us. In 1520 Martin Luther wrote, ‘A Treatise on Christian Liberty’. In it he writes, “Good works do not make a man good, but a good man does good works”.
The first step toward the fulfilment of the kingdom of heaven on earth is the coming of Christ into the world. And during this season of Advent we wait and prepare for his arrival. Part of that preparation is our willingness to repent of our sinful nature; to ‘turn-around’ from self-centered lives to a life where we are determined and steadfast to perform those good works that show us to be Jesus’ disciples. Luther tells us that good people do good works!
The next step consists of Jesus’ followers living transformed lives as the new creations we have become through Christ’s willing sacrifice. The kingdom of heaven will be manifest on earth; Christ’s birth is the herald of that. But it is up to us to live lives that are supportive of God’s desire for his children and Christ’s willingness to offer himself up for us. And this type of life assumes the desire to perform those good works of which John the Baptist speaks; and which Christ exhorts us to do; and which surely please God. Again, it’s not required that we perform works to be saved, but we should want to do so, out of thanksgiving for our salvation. By living such transformed, and transformational lives we accept the title and role of Christ’s disciple.
If we do our best to mimic the benevolent, compassionate life that Christ exemplified, we inevitably find ourselves fitting more comfortably into this discipleship that Jesus desires for us.
This repentance, this ‘turning-around’, this turning our backs on our old ways, is what will result in our being willing and able to live into the grace-filled, hope-promised life that true disciples enjoy. And while we wait for Christ’s coming on Christmas, we prepare our hearts and minds through this repentant action. We have been saved through faith, by grace. Thus, all we need do is acknowledge our sinful nature, have sincere regret over it, and be motivated to being a true follower of this Jesus Christ. Maybe this whole repentance and the doing of good works thing isn’t that difficult after all!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, as we wait and prepare for Christ’s arrival, we ask that you send your Holy Spirit to guide us. Direct us where we might do those good works, so that we may show ourselves to be true repentant followers of your Son. Help us to realize that waiting hearts, repentant minds, and willing hands and feet are not hard to have at all.
And in Jesus’ name together the people of God say…Amen.
God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. Amen.