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Sermons

“Don’t Be a ‘Comfortable Christian’”

December 4, 2022 Second Sunday of Advent The text is Matthew 3:1-12.

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1In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This 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.’ ”
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7But 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? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance.

9Do 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. 10Even 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. 12His 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.”

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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.

Last Sunday we celebrated the first week of the season of Advent and the theme was preparation for Jesus’ Second Coming, when God will establish the realm of heaven on earth.  This call for expectant waiting and readiness was issued by Jesus himself.

This morning on the Second Sunday in Advent, the theme continues, as we encounter John the Baptist encouraging the people of Judea to repent, in order that they might be prepared to receive Christ’s message of the coming of the kingdom.  And again, the message from Scripture is that we are to engage in active preparation for the coming of the kingdom of God, when Christ returns; yet, we are nonetheless in the church season when we await Jesus’ initial arrival into the world on Christmas.  But the call for active preparation remains the same; God’s people are to prepare for Jesus’ coming into the world, his initial incarnation at his birth and his return when the kingdom is fulfilled.

When Jesus spoke last week regarding the need to be awake and watchful for his arrival, it was assumed that he intended this waiting and watchfulness to be accompanied by engaged preparation.  John the Baptizer adds an additional element to this preparing for Christ’s arrival.  And, he’s not in the least bit subtle about this as he addresses the people of Judea who have come to him in the wilderness.  Yes, he speaks to the necessity for baptism, the need to make the pathway straight for Jesus to travel, and the requirement for confession of sins.

But the strongest proclamation he makes, in fact it is the first word that Matthew quotes him of uttering this morning, is the need for the people to “repent”.  This is the English translation of the Greek word, “metanoia”.  This word literally means to “turn-around”; it’s a complete reversal of one’s state of mind.  This is the real implication of repentance, this requirement of “turning-around”.  True repentance necessitates a transformation not only of the mind, but a conversion of one’s purpose.  We are called to undertake this spiritual and literal change, by turning our backs to the old way of living now, as we prepare for a transformed life in the kingdom of heaven which is to come; and for which we wait in expectant preparation.

And central also to this concept of repentance, is the need to recognize that the change of mind, the turning in a new direction requires that we consider the path we’re currently on, and our present mindset.  Even then, true repentance requires more than simply apologizing for our previous sins and feeling regret and remorse for having committed them.  This “turning around” entails the abandonment of what was before, and that we no longer rely on past spiritual privilege. 

Baptizer John unleashes a pretty harsh tirade against the Pharisees and Sadducees who had apparently heard of what he was up to in the wilderness and came to him seeking baptism.  John was suspect of their true intentions; likely, they were simply hedging their bets and didn’t really feel they needed to be baptized, or to repent, or to change their behavior.  “Just because you claim Abraham as you ancestor, just because you think since you adhere to the Law of the Torah, that you are exempt from the need to change your sinful ways”.  “Not so fast”, John tells them.  Their presumed religious privilege isn’t enough to shield them from the earth-shattering change that is to come in the form of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom as it is revealed in Christ Jesus.  Their self-righteous smugness that they claim is based on their connection to long ago spiritual ancestors.  That won’t be enough to deliver them from the judgement that is to come; only heartfelt repentance and a sincere desire to change will save them from God’s wrath.

John tells them that they must repent honestly from their sinful ways and “turn around” from the behaviors that prevent them from bearing good fruit.  Now, this is where the Lutheran concept of good fruit, or “good works” as our Christian actions are called, often becomes somewhat murky.  While John the Baptist preached the need to be worthy in actions, good works themselves are not required for salvation.  Martin Luther sums this up quite succinctly; “good works do not make a good person, but a good person does good works.”  This is the lesson we learn from our repentance, that we must confess our sinfulness, repent of it, and vow to “turn around” from it and bear good fruits.  This is part and parcel of the preparation that continues throughout the Advent season, preparing for the coming of Jesus to usher in the coming kingdom.  Our repentance and subsequent spiritual and behavioral change are our way of making the paths straight for Jesus’ arrival.

And this is why Confession and Absolution are part of our Lutheran worship each Sunday, for we accept our sinful nature, are sorry for it, and mostly because we earnestly desire to do better.  We plead for God’s forgiveness and we ask God’s help to be worthy of bearing good fruit.  And this continual process of confessing and pleading for forgiveness is necessary so we don’t find ourselves mimicking the Pharisees and Sadducees whom John the Baptist accused of claiming exemption based on their spiritual ancestors.

And the reason we ought to be even more mindful of our falling into this trap of claiming spiritual privilege is the fact that we have been granted forgiveness and salvation through the work of the risen Jesus.  John the Baptist was preaching about the need for repentance before Jesus’ work was completed; we are the recipients of the grace of God which has been granted through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We know that by our faith we are saved.  So, it’s a bit easier for us to slide back into the comfort zone that the Pharisees and Sadducees felt exempted them from the need for true repentance.  They claimed their descendance from Abraham; we claim that our faith in Jesus Christ sets us free from sin. 

So, you can see the connection between our ancient Hebrew ancestors and us, as we can all easily fall into an attitude of religious arrogance.  Our Lutheran heritage teaches that we are saved by our faith in Jesus, and by the grace of God we are saved.  And we can all too easily come to proclaim this as the reason for not practicing the repentance that John the Baptist preached so powerfully about.  While our baptism is a one-time event and we are accepted into God’s family, the need for self-examination, self-reflection, and self-critique is ongoing.  We need to continually practice repentance, so that we don’t get too comfortable in our role of confessing Christian.  For, every time we consider our sin and repent of it, we are renewed, and thus we are reminded of the forgiveness we have received; and from a desire to show thanks for that gift of grace, we find that we want to bear good fruit.  We don’t have to, but we want to. 

And as we prepare for the coming of the Son of God into the world, let us redouble our efforts to make his paths straight; by bearing the good fruit that is revealed in service to others.  Let’s “turn around” and be sure we’re facing in the right direction to receive our Savior; for as John the Baptist tells us, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”.  And, when we gather on Christmas, we will find that the kingdom is near indeed; it’s as close as a hay-filled manger.  Let’s make sure we’re prepared to welcome the One for whom we wait.            

Will you pray with me?  Good, and gracious, and holy God, help us to recognize that the call to repentance is intended for all of us.  Open our hearts and minds to receive your Son with humble confession and bestow upon us your forgiveness.  And we pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, the One who makes us worthy.

God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good. Amen.

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