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 05, 2010

Second Sunday in Advent

Second Sunday in Advent (A)
December 5, 2010
Text: Matt. 3:1-12

“Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” (Matt. 3:3; ESV). John the Baptist’s cry still echoes from the wilderness of Judea. We hear his call nearly 2,000 years later here, in Dorr, Michigan. For the Lord still comes, comes to us in His blessed Word and Sacraments. In a few short weeks we will once again celebrate His coming in the flesh as Mary’s Son, our Immanuel, God with us, who came to die for our sins on the cross. And He will come again, on the Last Day to judge the living and the dead. He comes, and this requires preparation on our part. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But how? John doesn’t mince words. “Repent!” he preaches. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 2). The Kingdom of Heaven is not a place, a physical location. The Kingdom of Heaven is nothing less than the reign of God in Jesus Christ. When Jesus comes, the Kingdom is here! Jesus is coming to bring us out of the devil’s kingdom and into His own Kingdom, a Kingdom of grace and light and righteousness and truth. We prepare by repenting.

So what is repentance? We must know if we are to prepare for the coming King and His Kingdom by repenting of our sins. And, in fact, the daily life of the Christian is a life of daily repentance. So we must know what repentance is. Narrowly speaking, repentance means being sorry for our sins, sorry for having offended our righteous and loving God, sorry for not living according to His good and gracious will for us. In theology this is also called contrition, and we speak of having a contrite heart, that is, a heart that sorrows over sin. Broadly speaking, repentance includes both contrition and faith in Jesus Christ, and this is important to know because the Bible speaks of repentance both ways. This morning, when St. John calls upon us to repent, he is speaking in the broad sense, which is really the fullest sense. John would have us examine ourselves, that we might know our sins and our deep, dark, deadly sinful condition. And such an examination will lead us to great sorrow, for we have merited God’s eternal condemnation. He who loved us so, who gave us life and every blessing, all we have, and who has also provided for our salvation, Him we have disregarded, rejected, denied by our every sin. And all we can do in and of ourselves is sin. We cannot help ourselves out of this sinful condition. We cannot save ourselves. We cannot earn God’s favor back. So we are led, in great sorrow, to despair of ourselves, and this is the first part of repentance. But repentance cannot end there, or we will be left in the despair of Judas Iscariot, who took his own life in unbelief. Beloved, God is gracious. In His grace, His unmerited favor and love, He sent His Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior. The repentant look in faith to Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness of sins, salvation, and help to amend their sinful lives. And so in this sense, we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ by clinging to Him in faith, trusting Him, holding Him to His promises. We see here clearly, too, that only the Holy Spirit can give us the gift of such repentance. We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ. Since the key component of repentance is faith in Christ, this can only be the activity of the Holy Spirit working on us through His means of grace.

The Holy Spirit was bringing the people to John in the Jordan River, including some who would become Jesus’ apostles, that they might repent. They were baptized by John in the Jordan. It was a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And notice that their repentance was concrete. It wasn’t just a general feeling of inadequacy and a desire to do better. That is not repentance. No, the people came to John “confessing their sins” (v. 6). This was not just a general acknowledgement that they were sinful. The people were actually speaking their sin to God in the presence of the prophet called by God to announce forgiveness. They were naming the sins. “Dear John, this is what I am: I am a poor, miserable sinner. I have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. I have cheated in my business dealings. I have lusted after women who are not my wife. I have been lazy and negligent in my duties to my family, my employer, my community. I have cursed and misused the Lord’s Name. I am sorry for all of this, and I ask for grace. I want to do better.” And then John would point them to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord. He would absolve them of their sins. And finally, he would admonish them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, to amend their sinful lives, to live the Christian life, to love and serve the neighbor. Repentance is concrete for John.

And it must be concrete for us, too. Do we really examine ourselves? Do we really come face to face with the reality of our sins? Do we name them before God? You see, when we just say in a general way that we are sinners and we feel really bad about it, we have not really examined ourselves. We have not really looked our sin and our death in the eye. We are always so reluctant to name the sin, even in our private prayers before God much less before the pastor in private confession, because naming the sin makes it real to us. And we are scared of the reality. And we should be scared, because the reality is damning. But beloved, your sin is real whether you name it or not. Not naming it only casts the illusion that you have not sinned. But the comfort that illusion gives you is only temporary. That comfort is not real. The curtain of that comfort will be torn away on Judgment Day. The only real comfort is that which absolution gives. For “Confession has two parts. First, that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven before God in heaven.”[1] Confession places the sin before God’s throne for judgment now. And absolution seals the sin in the tomb of Christ, never again to be brought against us. The two parts of confession correspond to the two parts of repentance. Contrition leads to confession. And faith clings to the absolution as the Word of forgiveness from Christ Himself.

There are those who will not confess, however. They will not repent. They do not believe they need to repent. They do not believe they have anything to confess. In our text, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious elite, come to John in the wilderness. But they do not come to confess and be baptized. The Pharisees were known for their self-righteousness. They prided themselves on their keeping of the Law. “What sins would you have us confess, John? We are not like other men. God loves us because we always keep the Law down to the tiniest detail.” The Sadducees, on the other hand, were known for their licentiousness. For they did not believe in heaven or the resurrection of the dead or angels or miracles. They were the theological liberals. And of course, if none of those things exist, we can do whatever we please. There is no judgment. “Why should we confess negative things like sins, John? Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. Let us live in the pleasures of our flesh now, for the flesh will soon be gone.” John has a word for both groups. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (v. 7). The Judgment is coming. The same Lord who comes as Savior will come again as Judge. And those who did not repent, who did not turn to Him for salvation, either because they believed they were beyond His power to save, or because they did not believe they needed salvation, these will be thrown as chaff into the unquenchable fire of hell. And by the way, being a Pharisee or a Sadducee or a Lutheran won’t help you on the Day of Judgment if you are outside of Christ, not any more than physical descent from Abraham will help you. You are either in Christ, or you aren’t. You either offer up real sins to be forgiven by your Lord Jesus, covered by His real blood, or you go on pretending there isn’t any sin to confess.

But be warned, the Judgment is coming. John’s warning sounds. He baptizes with water for repentance. But One is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Understand, every person will be baptized with one or the other. You will either be baptized with the Holy Spirit, which means that you will repent of your sins, believe in Jesus Christ, and so be judged righteous with the righteousness of Christ on the Last Day. Or you will be baptized with fire, which means you will not believe in Christ, not receive His forgiveness, remain in your sins, and so be condemned to the fire of God’s eternal wrath on the Last Day. Beloved, in the Lord, you have been baptized by Christ into the Holy Spirit already in the water and the Word. Cling to that Baptism, and so cling to Christ. Repentance is a daily return to that Baptism. It is a daily drowning anew of the Old Adam in you, and a daily rising again of the new man to live in Christ.

John calls upon us to prepare the way of the Lord by repentance, confessing our sins, and clinging to our Lord Jesus Christ in faith. That is what Advent is all about. It is about returning to our Baptism and confessing our sins, that we might be forgiven. Advent is a penitential season, and so we are to examine ourselves, to name the sins we commit before God, to confess our sinful condition, and to cling to His promise that the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, covers all our sins. We are to cling to the Word spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ through the mouth of His called and ordained servant: “I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.” Thus having been forgiven, we can stand before God confidently as His redeemed. We are washed clean. Our hearts and hands have been cleansed. We are prepared to receive our Immanuel, God with us, who comes to us by His grace. Beloved in the Lord, repent. And believe the Good News. Christ Jesus comes, ushering in the reign of God, bringing you into God’s Kingdom as beloved children. “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the LORD!” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

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