December 5, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’”
“John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” It is an interesting place to start a ministry. It probably wouldn’t be the place where our Synod or District Mission Boards would suggest as a target area. But that is where John goes, just as the Prophet Isaiah had foretold centuries before: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.”
The wilderness is where such a message of repentance needs to be heard. The wilderness is untamed, desolate, disorderly, full of hazards. But that is where the kingdom of heaven was going to arrive. The Messiah was coming, bringing with Him a restoration of order. He was going to come to bring life where death reigned.
So John gets the people ready for this great appearance of the Messiah: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” The wild hearts of the people were to undergo a change. They would be brought back to the Covenant which the Lord had made with His people. Their wills would be reformed, brought into line with what the Lord declared to be righteous and desired to see in them. The people would be returned to the favored status which they once had.
John’s work in the wilderness was not ignored. His preaching garnered attention: “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.” The wildness of the people’s hearts and souls was being cut down and pruned. In its place, a new way of life was found. Their faith was being revived; their place within the Lord’s covenant was being reaffirmed. This did not happen because of John’s eloquence. Nor did his exotic attire accomplish it. The good result was not John’s doing. Rather, this was the Lord’s work done through John.
Whenever and wherever the Lord’s Word goes out, it fulfills its purpose. Where it is received and believed, it creates faith and forgives sin. It delivers everlasting life. But where it is not heeded and is ignored, the Lord’s Word confirms the condemnation that sin brings to humanity. That second result is seen in the exchange between John and the religious leaders of Jerusalem: “But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’”
John’s message shows the two results that the Lord’s Word accomplishes in the wilderness of human hearts. It can transform that wilderness into an orchard full of trees that bear good fruit and a field of plenty. But it can also pull up all the weeds and cut down the gnarly trees of sin and unrighteousness to be burned for eternity. That is what the Messiah was going to accomplish. John was preparing the people for that event by promising that the Messiah would do just that: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So the Lord’s Word comes to you in the wilderness. You need not go out to the Jordan River to hear it; it is found here. The setting might look different. There are no rocks and crags. No one dressed in camel’s hair and leather belt are found. But the Lord’s Word is still spoken. And the message is still the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Like the people of Jerusalem and Judea, you need to have the Lord’s Word encounter you. It must strike at the roots of your hearts to remove whatever does not bear good fruit. And when it does, you must hear and confess your sins.
But the Lord’s Word does more for you. It also brings to you the hope of what He has for all who do not trust in themselves but instead rely in Him. That is the goal of His Word coming to you. It was that way with the people of Judea and Jerusalem who came out to receive John’s preaching. They were not left in their sins, left to be condemned. Instead, they were brought the salvation which the Lord’s Covenant promised. The same is true for you. The Lord’s Word coming to you is meant to cut down all the deadwood and chaff, but to bring fruitful branches and plentiful harvest in their place. That is what the Apostle Paul wrote of to the Roman Christians: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope.”
Hope is not found in the promise of condemnation and judgment. No, such things are truly hopeless. There is nothing good in them. But hope is found in the promise of salvation and forgiveness. And that is what the Lord’s Word brings to you. John’s message included it: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Yes, there is the statement of judgment. But just as importantly, there is the promise of deliverance: “He will . . . gather His wheat into the barn. . . .” That is a guaranteed good fate!
But who will receive such goodness? It will be those who have recognized the evil within themselves, who acknowledge that they deserve condemnation, and who put aside any trust in themselves. They are the same people who recognize the Lord’s greatness, that He has something which they desperately need but cannot find in themselves or through their own actions. They are those who have had the Messiah and His work come to them.
The Messiah and His work is what the Prophet Isaiah spoke of: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” This is He who has what you need. This is He who John spoke of. And the prophet spoke more about what He would do: “He shall not judge by what His eyes see, or decide disputes by what His ears hear, but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and He shall strike the earth with the rod of the mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall kill the wicked.” This Messiah will speak and His words will accomplish great things.
But note well who gets the good things the Messiah brings: the poor and the meek, those who are nothing to look at, who have no greatness in themselves. That is exactly what you are, when you have the Lord’s Words of judgment come to you, pointing out your faults, and you acknowledge the truth of what He says. And the receipt of the Messiah’s benefits is meant for you, as He does not treat you as you deserve, but elevates you out of your low state and grants you His righteousness and equity.
What the Messiah fully does for you is spoken of by Isaiah in his description of the world’s future restoration: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain.” No more wilderness there! No more desolation, disorder, or hazard. And why? “For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” It will be as if the entire world came out to hear John and receive and believe the Lord’s message.
You have a share in what the Messiah brings, as you believe in the Lord’s Word. First, it must cut at the dead roots and remove the brambles of your hearts’ wilderness. This is accomplished, as you do what John said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Then, second, the Lord’s Word also delivers the promise of restoration to you. It points you to the Messiah: “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of Him shall the nations inquire, and His resting place shall be glorious.” This is Jesus, who has atoned for the sin of the world through His death and brings new life through His resurrection. That forgiveness and restoration is for you. It is your great hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.