Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (C)
December 6, 2009
Text: Luke 3:1-20

The Baptist’s cry is heard this morning not only from Jordan’s banks, but throughout the Church of Christ, and throughout the world, and even right here in Dorr, Michigan: “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4; ESV). What St. John preaches here is repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ. He is preaching Law, so as to hammer our hearts of stone into pieces, really to kill us with the Law’s accusations, lest we rely on ourselves and our works and our merits to earn salvation. The Law of God brings us to nothing, that we might know our sin and our great need for our Savior, Jesus Christ. And He preaches the Gospel, pointing us to Christ alone, the One mightier than John, the strap of whose sandals John is not worthy to untie (v. 16). Jesus comes, the Christ, the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, to rescue us from sin and death and hell, and grant us eternal life. Jesus comes with His Baptism, Baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire.

This morning, St. John bids us repent. What is repentance? Repentance is a turning from our selfishness and sin and false gods to the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is a turning from our former masters, sin and the devil, to our new Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a turning from our self-righteousness to the One who alone can give us true righteousness, righteousness before God, our Savior Jesus Christ. This is how we prepare the way of the Lord this Advent Season. We repent. Dear Christians, repent of your sins, cast them off, submit to them no longer, and place them at the foot of the cross to be forgiven. And believe the good news: Jesus has come to take your sin away by dieing for you on the cross, and to cleanse you, to purify you, to make you His own, and grant you His righteousness and life.

The preaching of repentance is a dangerous thing. It is dangerous for the preacher, and it is dangerous for the hearer. The danger lies in the response of the hearer. For either the hearer will repent, or he will reject the preaching of repentance. Those who reject such preaching will persecute the preacher, reject him personally, perhaps try to damage his reputation, perhaps leave the church, perhaps take legal action against the preacher, perhaps, in the worst case scenario, murder him or have him put to death. It happened to St. John. It happened to most of the prophets and apostles and many Christian pastors and faithful believers throughout the centuries. It happens today. But what the unrepentant fail to realize is the greater danger lies with them. St. John is clear: “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” (v. 9). The one who rejects the preaching of repentance places himself in the mortal danger of hellfire. Yet the one who heeds the preaching of repentance, confesses his sins, and looks to Christ crucified alone for forgiveness and salvation receives eternal life.

There are actually three responses to the preaching of repentance, all three evident in our Gospel lesson. Luther points out the first two responses in the Book of Concord selection printed in your bulletin:[1] “Now one group imagines, ‘Why, we have repented!’ The other says, ‘We need no repentance.’ John says, ‘Repent, both of you. You false penitents and false saints, both of you need the forgiveness of sins. Neither of you know what sin really is. Much less your duty to repent of it and shun it. For no one of you is good. You are full of unbelief, stupidity, and ignorance of God and God’s will. But He is present here, of whose “fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” [John 1:16]. Without Him, no one can be righteous before God.'” The first group, those who say they have already repented, are like those in our Gospel lesson who claim automatic salvation by virtue of the fact that they are children of Abraham (Luke 3:8). We could think today of those who think they can claim automatic salvation by virtue of the fact they belong to the Church, or are Missouri Synod Lutherans, or some other such pride of place. But that is not repentance. Or we could think of those who say, “Yes, what I’m doing is sinful, but Jesus will forgive me because He loves me, so I’m still going to do it.” And this is not repentance either. It is a bold rejection of repentance. And then there are those who claim no need of repentance, for example, Herod in our text. John called Herod to repentance over stealing Herodias, his brother’s wife, and taking her as his own. Herod rejected the preaching altogether… “Don’t you know who I am? I’m the tetrarch, the king! I’ll do what I want. No dirty desert dweller clothed in camel’s hair will tell me what I can and can’t do.” We can think today of those who excuse their sinful actions saying: “I’m not sinning. God made me this way. God loves me this way.” Or, “I have a right to do what I’m doing. I’m an American. I’m free.” Or, “Even if I do have a few minor faults, I’m basically a good person, and God will surely take me to heaven.” This is utter rejection of the preaching of repentance. And what do you suppose happens to the preacher when the preaching is rejected? Herod had John thrown in prison and ultimately beheaded. Is it any wonder the hardest part of a pastor’s ministry is to talk to an individual about their sin, to call that individual to repentance? Yet it is part of the job description. It’s in my ordination vows. Jesus commands it, even though it leads so often to rejection. Rejection of the preaching means rejection of the preacher. And understand that rejection of the preaching is ultimately rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

There is, of course, a third response. This is the group that takes the preaching of repentance to heart. The crowds that went out to be baptized by John, many of them tax collectors or soldiers, peasants, commoners, sinners, were cut to the heart by His preaching. “What then shall we do?” they asked (v. 10). John commands them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The crowds are to share of their abundance with their neighbor in need. The repentant one takes no stock in his possessions, but feeds and clothes his neighbor. The tax collectors are not to take any more money than they are authorized. The soldiers are not to extort or make threats or false accusations, but be content with their wages. And why do they do all of this? Is it to earn salvation? By no means. The crowds have already been baptized! They already believe! Salvation is theirs! They believe in the Christ who is coming, the Christ John preaches. No, rather, St. John is describing what the lives of the repentant who have been forgiven all of their sins ought to look like from now on. Those in the crowd who heed the preaching, who ask the question, “What then shall we do,” are already saved by faith in Christ alone. But repentance always produces fruit. The fruit of repentance is the fruit of faith. Paul says in our Epistle lesson that the one who is filled with Christ’s righteousness, which is justification language, will also be filled with its fruit: love abounds more and more with knowledge and all discernment, that the child of God may approve only what is excellent, being pure and blameless until the day of Christ, which is to say, forgiven of all sin, and daily crucifying the flesh (Phil. 1:9-11). Only God, by His pure grace, can keep a Christian in this third category. Our righteousness comes from Christ, and so also our power to struggle against sin and resist temptation, our ability to repent and produce fruit. St. Paul again writes: “I am sure of this, that [God] who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (v. 6).

Beloved in the Lord, to which group do you belong? Will you heed the preaching of repentance? If so, it is God’s work. It is the work of God in breaking you to pieces with the hammer of the Law, and reconstructing you, raising you to new life in the Gospel. But if you reject the preaching of repentance, be warned. The axe is indeed at the root of the tree. The fire of hell is prepared. St. John bids us this morning to prepare the way of the Lord. For “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). We see that salvation in the preaching of Christ crucified, and the Sacrament of His body and blood. This is the Gospel, and this alone can restore the one broken by the preaching of repentance. The Gospel alone can produce faith and the fruit of repentance. You are baptized into Christ. You’re baptized into His death and resurrection. You’ve been forgiven all your sins. The Holy Spirit has come upon you. Therefore cast off sin’s yoke. You are no longer enslaved. You are freed to be God’s servant now. You are freed to serve your neighbor in love. This morning the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world comes among us with His Word and Supper. The Lord whom you seek has come into His temple (Mal. 3:1). Do not reject His preaching. Do not reject His preacher. Do not reject your Savior. But believe in Him. Trust Him. Look to Him alone for help. For though He refine you in the fire, crucifying your sinful flesh, bringing you to repentance, though He crush you with His Law, He does so only to raise you up again with the Word of forgiveness and life, the Gospel, and so to give you the only life worth living: Life eternal, life abundant, life in Christ, and Christ living in you. In other words, the life of the Baptized, redeemed, child of God. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] SA III:III30-35. McCain, et al. pp. 275-76.

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