Posted by: St. Mark Lutheran Church | December 14, 2009

Sermon on Luke 3:7-18

Rejoice in How Ready Christ Makes You

In the Name of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh.

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”  He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”  15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The third week of Advent stands out from the rest.  The other weeks are preparation and repentance, getting ready for that greater One, the One more powerful than John, getting ready for Jesus.  But this third week is different.  Paul told the Philippians:  Rejoice in the Lord always. The prophet Zephaniah explains:  Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. We take a break from Advent preparations to burst into song.  And yet, our Gospel lesson doesn’t seem to fit in with that theme, does it?

Once more we find ourselves taken to a moment from the ministry of John the Baptist.  Jesus’ cousin didn’t mince words, did he?  He calls people snakes.  He says God could find better among the stones.  He says the tree is about to be cut down.  He says that the more powerful One comes to separate useful wheat from worthless chaff.  He says a fire is being prepared and some of you will be thrown into it.  That message just oozes joy, doesn’t it?  Where’s the comfort and peace?  It seems John didn’t get the Advent 3 memo, did he?

But that would be putting our expectations on John and the Word.  Later on, when John languished in prison, he asked Jesus if He was the one who was to come. Jesus responded by saying, “Look at what I say and do.”  Then about John:  What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?  If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. The prophet speaks not words for itching ears, but the words of God.  He can do no other.  And John’s message gives us reason to rejoice.  REJOICE IN HOW READY CHRIST MAKES YOU.

Even in this sermon, John gives us reason to rejoice.  I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This is what Christ came to do.  He came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, that is, to give birth to the Holy Christian Church, that assembly of believers following her Good Shepherd.  This work was done throughout Jesus’ ministry, and most visibly at Pentecost, when he literally poured out fire upon the apostles, allowed them to speak in tongues, and reversed the curse of Babel by allowing the Gospel to be heard in so many languages, eventually including yours.  And with that preaching came faith.  Christ came and baptized you.  He made you a member of this Church.  He gathered you as wheat, into His barn.  That was John’s good news:  Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel. And Jesus the Savior was revealed by John.  John baptized Him, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on Him. And this more powerful One died and rose so that you know – it’s my sins He was talking about, so that you know that because you have been justified by faith you have peace with God through Jesus.  Cling to that, rejoice in that.

But there is a second part to our Advent joy.  We rejoice not only that Jesus saved us.  We rejoice that He baptized us with the Spirit, who fertilizes us.  He makes us good trees, able to bear fruits, fruits of faith.  Our Lutheran confessions offer this constant refrain:  Faith precedes, love follows.  It’s a natural result.  God gifts us with faith apart from any works we can or will do.  But then something incredible happens:  that faith works.  “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered…. Sometimes we shy away from discussing good works because we’re so afraid of slipping back into a work-righteous faith.  But if we understand works rightly, we can talk about them safely.  And the right understanding of works is that proclaimed by John:  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The repentant sinner, filled with faith in Christ who saved him, will, like that plant in your backyard, produce the fruits it was meant to produce.  As the apostle John says so simply, We love, because He first loved us.

Thus, saved by Christ, our sins taken away, His perfect deeds accounted to our account as righteousness through faith, we ask with these crowds, “What can we do?”  It’s just what we do.  And it’s something to rejoice in.  It’s not a grudging obedience.  It’s not slavery.  It’s not forced labor.  It’s your new life.  Paul writes to the Romans:  You also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

What a breath of fresh air!.  Freed from the punishments and coercions of the law, we simply ask for information:  “What should we do?”  And John gave specific answers to specific groups of people.  To the crowd in general, share what you have with those who don’t.  Tax collectors, stop cheating.  Soldiers, stop abusing your power.  In other words, Love your neighbor, which is the surest way to show your love for Jesus.  It is the life of faith.  How would John answer that question for you?  It depends on your situation.  Compare your life to the Ten Commandments.  Which one, or more, of them is the one pointing out the necessary changes, the fruits of repentance in your life?  Produce fruits based on the repentance you need to display.  And with it comes this incredible promise:  those who have such a fruit-producing faith will hear on Judgment Day, Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

But none of this is heard because of your works.  Remember, on Judgment Day, the righteous ask, “When did we do these things?”  The righteous have no recollection of their deeds.  They don’t keep track of them.  They forget them.  Because these deeds, these good works, these fruits of faith are not the cause, the source, or the increase of your salvation.  It cannot be said in any way that they merit you eternal life.  They are not that on which you rely.  Rather, rely on Christ.  Rely on Christ who had nothing to repent of, but produced perfect fruits of faith anyways.  Rely on Christ who did not owe sin any death, yet died.  Rely on Christ who did not return to dust, but rather was raised to life for our justification!  Rely on Him who baptized you with the Holy Spirit and gave you new birth.  Rely on that, and everything else follows.  As Paul says, Christ’s love compels your love.  What a joy-filled message.  As weak and sin-filled as even your best good deeds are, you can say, There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Our punishment is taken away.  We need fear no harm from the Lord.  Rejoice!  Amen.

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