Prepare the Way

Sermon, 3rd Sunday in Advent, December 16 AD 2012

Luke 3:1-20:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, 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. 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.’”

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.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize youwith the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. 19 But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20 added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.

Introduction- Advent, Repentance and its Fruits

What do you think of when you hear the word “repentance?” Many people think that repenting is the same as saying “sorry.” Often, growing up, when I was disciplined for disobeying my parents, I would apologize, only to go back and repeat the offense later. I would hear “If you were really repenting, you would stop doing it.” I may have been sorry, but I was not truly repenting. A drunk can feel bad about his drunkenness, but still keep getting drunk. Repentance, however, changes people.

The Christian life is a life of repentance.  This doesn’t mean we are expected to go around feeling bad about ourselves all the time; it means we are called to recognize our sin and God’s wrath, turn to Christ, and live faithfully to Him. As we observe this season of Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of Christ, repentance is one of the means by which we prepare for Christ’s coming.  The mission of John the Baptist was to prepare the people of God for the coming of the Lord through “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” But when John calls people to repentance, he is calling for more than a one-time event; repentance is to set a new course for our entire lives. True repentance bears fruit.

Faith Rooted in History

Luke opens this section on the ministry of John the Baptist by establishing that this story is an event which took place in real history.  He carefully records rulers of Rome and the high priests of Israel not only to demonstrate the historicity of the faith, though; he is establishing for us the idea that John’s message is for all people, for Gentiles as well as Jews.   It’s in this time that “the Word of God came to John,” an Old Covenant prophet with a New Covenant message.

Preparation through Repentance

John the Baptist was sent as the herald of the Messiah; his mission was to prepare the way for Christ (Lk. 1.17).  Luke quotes Isaiah to show that John is the one prophesied to be the forerunner to the Messiah, preparing the people for the coming of the Lord. The setting of John’s ministry is important: Luke tells us three times that John is preaching “in the wilderness,” and specifically near the Jordan. This would have evoked vivid historical connections in the minds of the Jewish audience of God leading His people through the wilderness and across the Jordan. God is bringing a New Exodus to His people, meeting them in the wilderness. He is again bringing them to the Jordan for baptism.

John’s call is to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” For Jews to come to John for a repentance-baptism meant that they were leaving their old way of life and believing that the day of salvation was coming. John’s baptism brought people into a new life of preparation for the climax of Jesus life, death, and resurrection. It cleansed the people of sin and set in motion their new life towards Christ. They still awaited, though, the baptism of Christ that John tells them is greater than his: He would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” But we have the greater baptism of Christ. This same message is picked up by Peter after Pentecost in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We see then that preparation for the Lord means repentance. As sinful and defiled people, we need to be cleansed to be in God’s presence. When people encounter the Holy One, cleansing is required: think of Isaiah, and of John the Evangelist in Revelation. This is why we confess our sins and receive God’s pardon each week as we come into His throne room in the liturgy of the Lord’s Service.

Repentance is a turning from sin towards the Lord; from a wicked life to a righteous life (Lk. 1.16-17). As we have received Christ, we are to be turning from sin and pursuing righteousness. From the text quoted from Isaiah, we see that preparing the way takes the form of making straight paths for the Lord- bringing the high low, the crooked straight, and the rough smooth. The Kingdom of God disrupts the ebb-and-flow of the world and rearranges it according to Gospel ethics. When Jesus comes, He brings the proud down and raises the meek; He crushes the powerful and unjust and strengthens the weak and oppressed (Matt. 5).

The Fruits of Repentance

As we continue in this text, we find that when John calls people to repentance, he means more than simply a one-time event. He is talking about a turn-around, a change in the direction of one’s life from sin to God. It’s a way of life that, if genuine, will bear fruit.

The crowds around John were counting on their “Jewishness”, their physical descent from Abraham, for their salvation. John, however, says they are in reality not Abraham’s descendants but descendants of the Serpent: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John is saying that they are in the wrong line: there is an offspring of the woman who would bless and save the world, and there is the offspring of the Serpent who would be crushed by the woman’s offspring (Gen. 3.15.) In this new era being announced by John, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” that is, salvation is extended to the Gentiles.

The crowds presumed that they were true Israel because of their physical lineage, but John says that they are known by their fruits: “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” Someone who is truly repentant will not remain unchanged. Repentance is an inward change that necessarily bears outward results; it is the root that grows and bears fruit, and for everyone who claims Christ but does not bear the fruit of repentance, the coming of the Lord is a day of fearful judgment (v. 9.)

John’s audience was in danger of presuming that they were safe because of their Jewish lineage (v. 8.) But what they did not know was that what shows that they are a good tree or bad tree is their fruit, not their family tree. God was at work pruning the olive tree of His people; the Gentiles were now being grafted in, and dead branches removed. We, too, must beware of presuming on God’s grace. Our place in God’s people is not shown by our church affiliation or our family, but by the fruit borne out of our lives.

When we hear that repentance must bear fruit in our lives, we automatically want specifics: what does that fruit look like? Fortunately, the crowds around John wondered the same thing. “What then shall we do,”  they asked. John answers with the basics of Kingdom ethics: be generous, be just, and be content. The fruit that befits repentance is borne out in our daily lives. It is carried out through mercy and justice, through loving God and loving our neighbors. We are called, then, to exercise justice and integrity in our business, family life, and community. And we are called to radical generosity, sharing with others what God has given to us.

Conclusion

Brothers and sisters, the repentance we are called to is more than simply saying we are sorry for are sin. If we are truly repentant, our lives will bear fruit that matches that repentance, the fruit of the Gospel. We have in this text the Gospel preached to us: baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (v.3, 18.) We are baptized into a life of repentance. So let us live lives that bear fruit; not simply “feeling bad” about our sin, but really changing in the power of the Holy Spirit. Be generous, be just, be merciful, and be content.

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