December 16, 2018 [Advent 3]  Luke 3:7-18  J.D.Roekle

 

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. 

 

True Repentance Leads to True Joy

Dear Friends in Christ,

          If you read the inside cover in the bulletin, you may have noted that the church historically has had certain Latin titles for the Sundays in the church year.  The third Sunday in Advent – today – is called “Gaudete Sunday.”  Gaudete means “rejoice.”  In the gathering rite, we lit the third candle which symbolizes joy.  We also sang “Rejoice, Rejoice Believers.”  So this Sunday is all about joy.  The lesson from Zechariah encourages us to “Be glad and rejoice with all your heart.”  The lesson from Philippians tells us: “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!”  But in the Gospel lesson – the lesson we are considering now – where is the theme of rejoicing?  It seems to be missing.  John the Baptist’s tone is very serious.  The theme of his words deals with repentance, a very serious topic.  But let’s not miss John’s point here.  His point is true repentance leads to a deep and inescapable joy.  That’s because true repentance leads to change – a change in how we think and act. 

          John the Baptist had the privilege of preparing the way for Christ.  How did he do that?  By “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Many of the people who came to John, wanted to have their sins forgiven. 

          That’s what makes John’s words here so striking.  He calls them a “brood of vipers.”  The offspring of poisonous snakes.  Jesus had once called the religious leaders of the day a “brood of vipers.”  Evidently the people in the crowd had swallowed the poison of their religious fathers.  And what poison was that?  They weren’t seeking true repentance. 

          You see, they believed that even though they were sinners, they could receive both salvation from “the coming wrath” – God’s judgment – and continue on in their sins. 

          To be saved from God’s judgment, the crowd John was talking to was relying on two things.  One was going through the motions of religious rites.  If they only lead a religious life and do all they are supposed to, then that was the magic formula for making God happy.  The other thing they relied on was their heritage.  Since they were children of Abraham, they considered themselves automatically children of God. 

          But John the Baptist made it clear that neither one of these things would mean anything on the day of wrath when Christ returns.  What matters is a living faith which will produce fruit. 

          Do we sometimes fall into the same trap John the Baptist’s crowd did?  Do we come to church because it makes up for our sins during the week?  Do we think that giving 5% of our income to church cancels out the materialism that is evident in the way we think about and utilize the other 95% of our income?  Perhaps we think that being WELS – part of the Wisconsin Synod – automatically makes us children of God.  Do we come to church to hear about Christ’s forgiveness so that we can simply feel comfortable in continuing in the same sins? 

          If any of those thoughts occupy your mind, keep in mind that they are part of the viper’s poison which has its beginning in the serpent who first poisoned the minds of Adam and Eve.  None of those things can possibly spare us from God’s wrath on the Last Day. 

          “I thought we were talking about joy,” you may be thinking by now.  Yes, this is difficult stuff.  John’s message is hard to hear.  But it is designed to crush us.  To crush our sinful selves.  To crush our false ideas and false hopes.  To make us realistic about our sin so that we can have true joy.  Sorrow over our sins can be truly healthy.  Not simply being sorry for getting caught in a sin, or being sorry that we will experience negative consequences for what we’ve done.  It is the sorrow we feel in knowing that we have offended our Creator!  It is the sorrow in knowing that we deserve his eternal damnation. 

          We need to focus on this regularly, so that we can find a greater and lasting joy.  John said that someone “more powerful than I will come.” He was, of course, pointing to Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  In focusing on our sin, we are then to focus on him.  He’s the only one who can save.  That’s why John the Baptist made a point of focusing on Jesus.  Jesus would come to “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  John then preached the Good News about Jesus to them.  And what Good News Jesus provides!  

          Think of your life as a tree.  How healthy is your tree?  How tall is it, and how much fruit does it have on it?  Now picture Jesus as a tree?  How majestic is that tree?  Since John describes fruitfulness here in terms of being generous, and kind, and compassionate, the Jesus-tree would have branches that are so heavy with fruit that they are practically touching the ground.  When God looks at our tree with very little or no fruit, he picks up his ax and is ready to chop us down.  It is then that Jesus intercedes and begs: “No, Father!  Don’t cut them down! Cut me down instead.”  And we see the Father doing just that as we see Jesus hanging on the tree of the cross. Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” tell us that God threw Jesus into the fire.  And he spared us instead! 

          This would be extremely sad, except that the Jesus tree came back to life. And it was even stronger and more beautiful than before.  Knowing this, let the truth sink in: God loves you.  He wanted you.  He chose you.  God was willing to pay anything to spend eternity with you! 

          How can that not make you joyful!  And in our joy we respond: “What should we do then?”  First of all, value the robe of Christ’s righteousness that he clothed you with in Holy Baptism.  Strive to keep it clean.  How do we go about doing that? 

          Well, look at what John the Baptist told his listeners.  To the entire crowd, he told them to share what they had.  Specifically to the tax collectors, he told them not to cheat people out of their money.  To the soldiers, he told them not to intimidate people with their power and to be content with what they had. 

          Note here that John was not telling them that they were to do anything extraordinary or heroic.  He wasn’t telling them to leave their current jobs.  He was just simply telling them to avoid the sins that are common to whatever their walk of life was.  Instead, they were to live for Christ.  That is what we are also to do. We are to reflect the love of Christ in all we do.  In whatever walk of life we are in.  In whatever roles we have. 

          John the Baptist uses some pretty heavy language.  In talking about repentance, he speaks words that are difficult to digest.  But don’t miss the joy that is implied in his words.  True repentance leads to true joy when we focus on our Savior and what he has done for us.  And this leads to the joyful realization of the perfect future he has planned for you.  In the meantime, we live joyful and thankful lives, lives that are full of fruit.  Amen.