December 9, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Lord promises that a messenger will be sent to His people: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” This messenger will make the people ready for when the Lord arrives to perform His task of purification: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”
The Lord’s promise indicates that a change will take place among His people. There is going to be a reformation. It would benefit the people, even though it would not be the most pleasant of experiences. Who wants what the Lord says would take place: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourners, and do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts.” No one would enjoy the entire process. And yet, the outcome of this would be for good: “Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years…. Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
So the promised messenger appears. He begins to do what was foretold: “The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John fulfills what Malachi prophesied and what Isaiah foretold: “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’”
What did this messenger say? What great words flowed from his mouth? The honest evaluation of the people did, the cutting statements concerning them: “He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin 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 good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” This is how the Lord’s messenger prepares the people. He is blunt and forthright, even if the words cut the people down to size.
But such blunt and forthright words need to be heard. Polite or circumspect speech will not do. For what John preaches is the Law of God, the judgment poured out against unrighteousness and sin. It is preached for you to hear. John’s statement—“You brood of vipers!”—is directed at you, just as it was spoken of all who came out to be baptized by him. Why is it said? Because it is true. Through His messenger, the Lord speaks about your faults, your guilt, your transgressions. When evaluating what is in your hearts, there are no other types of words to use.
The Lord gave John the harsh words to speak. Their cutting edge and pointedness do not make them false. This is what the Lord promised to declare. He becomes a swift witness against your violations of His Law. Just as the Lord promised to expose the sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, oppressors, and unbelievers of old, He also exposes your misdeeds. Your vain use of the divine name; your failure to set aside time for hearing the Scriptures; your anger when parents or superiors put demands on you; your violent and cruel behavior; your lustful looks; your joy at pulling one over the buyer; your passing on the best rumor about someone’s foibles; your refusal to be content with what you have—the Lord points it all out, exposing every nook and cranny of your souls where these are found. When that happens, the venom of your hearts is revealed. And so the moniker “brood of vipers” fits you well.
But this witness against you is spoken with a purpose. That purpose is seen in John’s preaching. He says: “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.” And those words get the attention of the people that they deserve: “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’” That question is meant to come from your mouths. It is the question that the Lord wants to hear from you, after He speaks His judgment through His messengers. For the Lord has the answer to that question, one that brings undeserved benefit to you: “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
“Return to Me” is one of the great exhortations of the Advent Season, just as it is in the other penitential season of Lent. “Return to Me” are the Lord’s words spoken to you. Return to what? Return to His covenant promises made, the ones that do not change, just as He does not. Return to His way of life that is spelled out for you, not only the directions for your thoughts and behaviors, but the way that salvation is given. The call is made for you to be reconnected to the salvation that the Lord gives through the work of the Messiah. You are to be brought back to full participation in the gifts that He bestows to you—back to hearing the record of what the Messiah has done for you, back to the identity given to you in baptism, back to the place where absolution is pronounced, back to the meal that connects you to the sacrifice offered for your sins. That is all part of the returning to happen in Advent and all times and seasons.
John’s preaching fulfilled a prophecy. But that prophecy did not speak only about the sins of the people. It also spoke about what they would see from the Lord: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The salvation of God has been displayed in the work of Jesus. The Messiah who came, the One who is mightier than John, brought divine salvation. It is effected through His sacrifice of Himself. This is the offering that is pleasing to the Lord, the offering made on your behalf. As you return to the Lord, that benefit of the Messiah’s offering becomes yours. His offering covers your guilt. It makes you the Lord’s people, the true heirs of Abraham. Though you were as spiritually lifeless as the stones, now you are living and active.
This is the change that happens among you. You hear the Lord’s words of judgment spoken against you. You hear His messengers call you a “brood of vipers.” So you acknowledge your guilt, how you have failed to keep His Law. But then you hear the exhortations to return to the Lord, to His way of life. You hear the work that He has performed for you. So your hearts and minds are set on the salvation of God that has been accomplished for you. His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation are granted to you. You hear His messengers call you the Lord’s beloved children, the trees that bear good fruit, the partners in the gospel. Those honest and direct words are also to be heard and believed.
Then you begin to act according to the way of life that you are called to. The question—“What then shall we do?”—is answered for you. The Lord gives you the instructions that you are led to follow. For after you have returned to Him, you are given direction, just as John gave the crowds. Those instructions are the teaching of what your life is to look like: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” They are words that guide our parish’s actions—why we hold our clothing closet, why we collect the foods for New Hope, why we gather socks for the Helping Hands Ministries, why we’ve begun to institute the Mobile Meals for Members. These are part of the good fruit that you bear.
But there is more than just the call to be charitable. You are also called to keep the commandments in your daily lives. This is why John gives the instructions to the tax collectors: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And he tells the soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Their daily living, the fulfilling of their vocations according to the Lord’s will is also the good fruit that they bear as His people. So it is for you. Governed and directed by the Lord’s will and receiving the benefits of Jesus’ work, you also make this your way of life. You bear the good fruit of acting according to the righteous way that the Lord spells out for you. Instead of venom in your hearts, there is the love that the Lord puts there when you have returned to Him. He stirs up your hearts, so that you are enabled to serve Him with pure minds.
So the Lord’s messenger speaks another word for your hearing: “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ…. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Having been called out for your sin, having returned to the Lord, having the benefits of the Messiah’s work, and having been set right again: this prepares you for the time when the Lord will suddenly appear in glory. You have been made ready. That is the fulfilled purpose of Advent, just as the Lord decreed: “Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me.”
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.