The Second Sunday in Advent
December 5-6, 2009
Text: Luke 3:1-14
Dear Friends in Christ,
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?“ It sounds really impressive, echoing off of desert rocks. It’s the kind of thing that needs a special kind of voice. Oh, let see, a voice like that of Charleton Heston. Actually we don’t have to imagine that. We just need the DVD. Heston is one of many actors, famous and not so famous to depict John on film. Perhaps the other really big name would Michael York. Heston played opposite Max Von Sydow’s Jesus, in what is considered one of the poorer film depictions of Christ’s life. John Wayne played the centurion at the cross in the same movie.
Luke, is a writer of great precision. He tells us exactly when these things happened. The fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius would be 29 A.D. This fits nicely into the rule of Pilate which was from 26-36 A.D. Sometime objections are raised to placing this date at 29 A.D. on basis of Luke 3:23: Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, The claim is made that if John’s ministry began in 29 A.D. Jesus would be too old. But please note here that Luke is imprecise about the age of Jesus. He does not say that Jesus was exactly 30. Just in that general age range - thirtyish, thirty-something. So we must also be precise where Luke is precise, that is about the 15th year of Tiberius, and imprecise where Luke is imprecise, that is about the exact age of Jesus.
Thus, it was in the year 29 A.D. that this John began to preach in the wilderness. He was a wild man of desert. He lived his whole life under a Nazarite vow. Among other things, this meant that he never cut his hair. Think of Sampson in the Old Testament. He’d have fit right in at Woodstock.
Who was this man? What we know for certain is what we find in the Biblical text. Beyond this, we really just have historical guess work. Some suggest that he might have come out of the Essene community in the region of the Dead Sea. These would be the people who produced the Dead Sea scrolls. He may well have come from the Essene community. But that really doesn’t tell us much. The Essenes were a group of people who had withdrawn to the desert to wait for the coming of the Messiah. One of the interesting questions is when this happened. We don’t know. We know that the Essenes went out of business in the wake of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 A.D. But we don’t know just when their communities were established. Conventional wisdom is in the first century B.C. so say around 50 B.C. But in fact there is no evidence of the existence of Essene communities in the Dead Sea region prior to the first century A.D. So it is entirely possible that communities like Qumran, where we found the Dead Sea Scrolls, were created in response to the birth of John the Baptist. Remember that this not so very far from the hill country of Judea from which John’s parents came.
The center of John’s message is that of repentance. This is how we prepare for the coming of God among us. We repent of our sins. In fact this is the very first of Luther’s 95 Theses - the Christian life is one of constant repentance. But what does that mean? What does it mean to repent. It means to turn from our sins. The word itself means to turn around and go the other way. Repentance is not I’m sorry I was caught. In fact God knows all things, so we are always caught. It does not mean sinning with the attitude it is okay because it is all forgiven. Repentance means to turn around and go the other way. It carries with it the intent and desire to amend our lives. We are not always successful in amending our lives, but it is always the intent of the repentant heart.
Human beings have a strange relationship with sin. It is the proverbial love/hate relationship. How many movies involve fornication? And I’m not just talking about today’s movies. The tension between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann in Cassablanca was based on the fact that they’d had an affair back in Paris. We are fascinated with sin. We like our sin. St. Augustine offered an insightful quip when he said: “Lord, make me chaste, but not just yet.”
Where does repentance come from? In American pop theology, repentance comes from our will, our decision. In fact it is just the opposite. Our will is what opposes repentance. It is because of our will that we are so often unable to amend our lives. Repentance comes from the Word of God. Repentance flows out of a clear understanding of God’s Law and Gospel. But wait a minute, isn’t it the law that shows us our sins. Yes, but the Law will never lead us to repentance. The naked Law will only lead us to despair. The Law will tell us it is hopeless, we’re screwed. We’re on our way to hell so we might as well forget about our sins and enjoy the party while we can. The Gospel says, hold on, it’s not hopeless. Satisfaction has been made for your sins. In repentance there is also life and salvation. So the Law is most precious indeed, for without it we would not see our need for a Savior. We would not see our need for forgiveness. But the Law cannot save us. We must have the assurance that there is forgiveness to make repentance of any value. So repentance and the whole Christian life, flow out of God’s Law and Gospel, side by side, each fulfilling their function.
John came preaching such a word. He came warning of judgement. He came warning of God’s anger over sin. But he also preached hope, that in the Lamb of God sins would be atoned. John offers yet another insight into the Christian life. It is not lived in great quests but in fulfilling your station. Soldiers were to be faithful and honest soldiers, doing their duty and not abusing people. Tax collectors were to do their duty and collect the appointed taxes, but no more. This is the life of the Christian. It is found in every day things. It is found is simple duty and honesty. This is the life of repentance that John preached.