Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sermon: Wednesday of Populus Zion (Advent 2)

9 December 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Luke 3:1-20 (Mal 3:1-7, Phil 1:2-11)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

To the unbelieving world, history is only the stuff of the past. We might be able to learn from it, to be sure, but to those who do not believe in God, history is a bunch of things that just so happen to happen. There really is no beginning – at least no beginning by design – and while there may be an end in the sense that there will be a finish, it will not be an end in the sense of a conclusion or completion or fulfillment.

St. Luke is a thorough and gifted historian. He is careful to explain to us in crisp and precise Greek that the transition from John the Baptist to Jesus, that is the shift from the Old Testament to the New Testament, is no sloppy fairy tale. It is not the stuff of “once upon a time,” but rather Luke’s account reads like any well-versed historian and reporter: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” St. Luke further identifies Herod and his brother Philip as the tetrarchs of Galilee and of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and informs us of another tetrarch named Lysanias of Abilene – not to mention the priestly reigns of Annas and Caiphas.

St. Luke is not just being careful for the sake of accuracy. For he has a different and deeper understanding of history than do today’s skeptics. The Christian Church understands that history is no series of random events, but is rather being directed by God and is moving inexorably toward a conclusion. There are prophecies and fulfillments. There is a beginning and an end. There are warnings and there are consequences. And the Lord provides prophetic voices – like that of Malachi and St. John the Baptist – to not only give us a roadmap of history but to call us to repent, to warn us of what is to come, and to give us hope in the coming of the good news of the kingdom of God in our midst.

Jesus is not only the reason for the season, but history itself is “His story,” the continued revelation of the narrative of the victory of our Triune God over evil, and our redemption in the process.

The last great prophetic voice to herald the ministry of our incarnate God was the Lord’s own flesh-and-blood cousin, St. John the Baptist. Four centuries prior to his birth, the prophet Malachi spoke the Word of the Lord: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me.” And blessed Malachi even prefigures the preaching of John: “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.”

As the crowds came to be baptized by John, they heard him preach. For even before our Lord’s public ministry, the Father had revealed the pattern of worship and of the forgiveness of sins through Word and Sacrament. The people heard this consistent sermon from St. John: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” John warns the people not to take false comfort in their ancestry, but rather to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, exhorting them to confess their sins and to turn away from them.

“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’”

St. John called them to repent. And he did so specifically and practically. Those who have been blessed with abundance are to repent of their selfishness and bear the fruit of repentance of sharing. Tax collectors are bidden to repent of their thievery and bear the fruit of repentance of leading an honest life. Soldiers are exhorted to repent of abusing their power and bear the fruit of repentance of using that power for the public good and to be content with their wages.

Repentance is not some theoretical theological abstraction. Repentance is real and personal. Your repentance will be different than your neighbor’s. To repent means to have a change in attitude. It means to fight back against our fallen impulse to sin. It does not mean we will be perfect, but repentance signals a shift in priority, a change of heart. And this change will bear the fruits of sanctified behavior.

But St. John does not leave this monumental task to us based on our own willpower. For we would surely be lost if left with no Savior. Rather John points us to the One greater than he. John tells us that this coming One will “baptize [us] with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” This spiritual rebirth, this mystical bond with the very Holy Spirit of God Himself not only calls us to repent, but empowers us to do so. The Holy Spirit, given to us by virtue of the Word of the Lord and His work on the cross gives us the new nature, the New Adam, that drives us to repent of our sins, seek forgiveness, live in baptism and daily repentance, and impels us, like the crowds that came to John, to yearn for the prophetic Word and the mystical Sacraments, forsaking our sinful nature, renouncing Satan, and pushing back against our enemies of the world, of sin, and of death itself.

John is truly pointing out the way that leads to life, and he does so by pointing to the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And “so with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” For exhortation goes hand in hand with the Gospel. Part of the good news is the call to repent. The very fact that we are deemed worthy to be called to repentance, the reality that our Lord loves us enough to send His prophetic Word to us to bring us into His Kingdom through turning away from sin and being born again by water and the Word is part and parcel of the good news and the cause of rejoicing.

And we are still proclaiming this Word and this Gospel today, dear friends. We still exhort one another to bear the fruits of repentance. We still baptize with water as did John. We still preach the good news of the coming of the Lord’s Kingdom. And best of all, we still proclaim Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the one who saves us by His grace and mercy, He whose sandals we are unworthy to untie, and yet the one who washes our feet as a humble servant.

And like the prophets before him, John’s preaching was not received well by all. For some will heed the call to repentance. Most will ignore such preaching. And some will actively oppose it. John was arrested and put to death – which prefigured the arrest and execution of the Lord Jesus Christ – in whose footsteps we, His disciples, follow. The path of John the Baptist and of our Lord Jesus is a narrow way. It is the way of the cross, and yet it is the way that leads to life. And like all of human history, it is leading somewhere, dear friends. We march with the prophets and apostles, we walk with the saints and tread the path of our Lord Jesus Christ. And that road leads to life.

Along with St. Paul:

It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and 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.”


In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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