Sermon for Midweek of Ad Te Levavi
Jeremiah 33:14-18 + James 5:7-8 + Matthew 3:4-12
The coming of the Lord is at hand, James told us in the second reading tonight. Of course, that was almost 2,000 years ago when he wrote that. So there are two ways you can hear what James says there (and, of course, Peter, Paul, John and Jesus all say the same thing). Either you hear it and say, “Ach, the Lord’s coming isn’t really at hand, then, is it? I’ll worry about getting ready for His coming tomorrow, or next week, or next year.” And I tell you, the coming of Christ will spring on such people like a trap, as you’ll hear again this Sunday. Or you can hear it and say, “This is God sending His gracious warning to me, because He wants me to be prepared. So I’d better take it seriously. It’s high time to listen to God’s Word, both Law and Gospel. It’s high time to make sure that what I believe matches with what the Bible says, time to evaluate my heart and the things that come out of it, both words and deeds. It’s high time to be living, consciously and purposefully, in repentance.”
That’s what John the Baptist is here to help with, as the Holy Spirit sets His words before us in the Gospel. John’s voice rings out every year, especially during the season of Advent where we focus on preparing for Christ’s second coming.
You heard in the third lesson what a unique prophet John was. How he dressed—in camel skins and leather belts. What he ate—locusts and wild honey. Where he conducted his ministry, out in the wilderness, along the banks of the Jordan river. And his preaching was one of repentance, in which he offered to those who confessed their sins a new ritual washing of purification called baptism, which was, as he himself confessed, a humble foreshadowing of the Spirit-accompanied Baptism of the coming Christ.
Let’s understand what repentance is. Biblically, it’s a change of mind, a change of direction, a turning from evil to good, from the hatred of God to the love of God, from unbelief to faith.
And there are two parts to that change of direction: contrition and faith.
Contrition is sadness and sorrow over sins, when a person recognizes that he has disobeyed God’s holy Law and, therefore, stands condemned before the judgment of the Law and deserves only God’s wrath and punishment. Contrition comes from looking into the dreadful mirror of the holy Ten Commandments. Because when you do, you are told that every single thought, word, and deed must be perfect, with perfect love for God and perfect love for your neighbor. Outward acts of obedience aren’t good enough. God’s Law doesn’t say, “Try to be perfect, or work toward perfection,” does it? It says, “Be perfect. Be holy.” It says that the soul who sins is the one who will die. And it declares the awful truth, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” As St. Paul writes to the Romans, By the law is the knowledge of sin. So contrition—genuine sadness and sorrow over the sins you’ve come to recognize by gazing into the mirror of the Law, together with the pangs of conscience and fear of judgment that go along with it—is the first part of the repentance.
But the second part is the even more important part: faith. Faith in God’s promise in the Gospel to forgive sins for the sake of Christ the Redeemer, who, by His perfect life and innocent death on the cross, made satisfaction for all the sins of all mankind, or, at in the words of John the Baptist, faith in the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Contrition plus faith equals true repentance.
A lot of very sinful people were coming to John—thieves, prostitutes, even pagan Roman soldiers. They heard his preaching of the Law against their sins and it made them sorrowful and afraid. They heard of the hope that God held out to them in the coming Christ and it made them hopeful and believing. In other words, by the work of God’s Holy Spirit, they were repenting. They were confessing their sins. They were receiving John’s baptism, not as the goal, but as pointing to the goal which John himself highlights: the Baptism of the coming Christ. They were finding hope in John’s preaching, because, for as brutally honest as it was, revealing their sins to them in all their horror, it also pointed them to a real solution—to the coming Christ as the sin-bearer! To the coming Christ as that Branch that God promised to raise up to David, as you heard in the first reading tonight, to the coming Christ who is the LORD our righteousness.
But there are two main problems that plague mankind. People are either like pigs willingly wallowing in the mud of their sins—like those thieves and prostitutes and pagans were before they repented—or people are like pigs wallowing in their own imagined worthiness and righteousness. That was the case with the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to John.
They didn’t come confessing their sins. They came confessing their own goodness, a righteousness in themselves. A righteousness from their relationship to Abraham. A righteousness of their own that they thought made them more worthy of God’s acceptance than the other “worse sinners” around them. John tells them very plainly, that’s not the way to escape the coming wrath.
Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.
In other words, you aren’t good people. You’re sinners, like the rest. And worse, you actually think you can earn your own salvation, that you deserve some credit from God. You’re venomous snakes who harm others with your false teachings, preventing them from repenting, even as you yourselves are impenitent. You’re not producing fruits worthy, that is consistent with, repentance.
The fruits of true repentance are works—thoughts, words and deeds that are consistent with repentance. For example, if you recognize that you are a sinner who has deserved only God’s wrath and punishment, as the Law declares, then you can’t go around comparing yourself to others, pretending to deserve God’s favor more than they do. If you recognize that the failure to love your neighbor is a sin worthy of God’s wrath, you can’t go around refusing to love. If you know from God’s Law that your works are tainted with sin, you can’t keep offering them to God as a reason for Him to accept you. If you know that no human being—whether it’s Abraham or the Virgin Mary or your parents—can redeem you from sin, then you can’t keep looking to Abraham, or to Mary, or to your parents, or to your church, to be your advocate before God or to get you into heaven.
No, the ax is at the root of the tree, ready to strike every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit.
The problem is, you can’t make a bad tree bear good fruit. You can’t produce good fruit unless the tree is first made good. And once the tree is made good, then the fruits will naturally be good, too. You don’t start with the fruit. You start with the tree.
How to make the tree good? We come back to repentance. Godly contrition, sorrow over sin, which shows you your dire need for refuge, for redemption, for forgiveness. And faith in Christ Jesus, seeking refuge under Him who died for you and rose again. Faith doesn’t remove your sinful flesh, but it does make you good before God, because it ties you to Jesus, who is goodness itself. If, by faith, you flee to Christ to be judged by His righteousness, not yours, then, in a sense, you’re already perfect, aren’t you?, because Christ is perfect, and you are clothed with Him by faith.
That’s what St. Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter 3: For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
John refers to that Baptism of Christ—the Baptism of water and the Spirit—as far superior to his own baptism that was with water only. The Christ’s Baptism actually washes away sins, gives eternal life and the Holy Spirit.
And then, when you’ve been made good before God by faith in Christ Jesus, through Holy Baptism, then you are finally able to produce the fruits that are consistent with repentance, not in order to escape the coming wrath, but because, by faith, you are already sheltered from the coming wrath.
Will your new obedience as penitent believers in Christ be perfect? Not in this life. That’s why repentance is always necessary, every day, all the time, right up until the coming of Christ. Then the sinful flesh falls away and perfection comes for all believers as the Lord gathers them as wheat into His eternal barns, as John prophesied. But the opposite will come for all those who failed to repent, who failed to mourn over their sins and trust in Christ alone before it’s too late. They, he says, will be burned up with unquenchable fire—outer darkness. That’s what happens at the coming of Christ.
And, as James told us, The coming of the Lord is at hand. Whether He delays for another 2,000 years—which is highly unlikely—or whether He comes today—which is much more likely, better to be prepared too soon than unprepared too late, isn’t it? Heed the voice of John the Baptist calling out in the wilderness. Acknowledge your sins with true contrition, and take refuge in Christ with genuine faith. Amen.