The Second Sunday in Advent
December 4-5, 2010
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Dear Friends in Christ,
On an April night a man rode through the region by horseback shouting a warning. He wanted everyone to hear and take heed. He rode through several villages, yelling at the top of his lungs. The situation was dire. Everyone needed to take action immediately. There was one group of people especially that needed to take action. What was he shouting? “The regulars are out!” Most of us today wonder what that meant. In fact, many have changed what he shouted in the retelling of the events. But he did in fact shout; “The regulars are out.” Soldiers of the regular army had crossed by water from Boston to the Charlestown neck and were marching toward Concord. The militia needed to be prepared. The man’s name? Paul Revere. The next day, the War for American Independence began in one of the villages Revere had warned - Lexington, Massachusetts. When the dust finally settled eight years later, British colonials were Americans.
In the year 29 A.D. in the Roman province of Judea, a man began to proclaim a warning. He was warning people to be prepared for God’s coming among them. He told them that they needed to repent. The man’s name was John the Baptist, or more correctly if we take the Greek, John the Baptizer. He was the second Elijah that had been prophesied by Malachi. He was the forerunner prophesied by Isaiah. He was a wild man of the desert. He was also a Nazarite from birth, like Sampson and Samuel. That meant that he was to never drink alcohol and never cut his hair. He had come to warn people to repent. Preparation was all about repenting of sins.
Who was the target of John’s preaching? The religious people - the church goers. It might even be said that his target was the pastors. What? Why was he targeting these people? Shouldn’t he have been targeting the drunks and the prostitutes. That would seem logical to us. After all who needs to repent? Sinners, right? Pr. Gilbert McDonald was my high school religion instructor. He recently posted this quote on the internet: “It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord - lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness - that you are on the verge of understanding the Gospel and becoming a Christian indeed.” (Timothy Keller) There’s some meat on these bones. What is this quote saying? It’s saying that by nature we want to save ourselves. Just having the Christian label doesn’t change that desire. Yet, this is a path to destruction. It’s self righteousness. There are two things that crush this out of us. Our sins and our good works. Sins crushing our righteousness is rather obvious. If we sin, we are not righteous. But what’s this business about our good works, our moral goodness? Surely this should not be a problem. But it is. It is a problem because it is never good enough. Maybe I did something, but my heart wasn’t in it. Maybe I did it to say look at me and all the good things I do. The good that I do is always coated with the vomit of my sin. It is when we understand this that we begin to understand the Gospel. When we understand our moral goodness as failure and sin, then we understand that we need a Savior. Then we understand that we cannot save ourselves. We need God to save us.
John came to a lot of people who were much like American Christians of today. They thought that they were right with God because they were doing such wonderful things. They were fulfilling the law. They were making all the right sacrifices at the temple. They would read the Scriptures morning and night. They would tie little slips of paper with Bible verses into their clothing. They had Bible verses painted above the doors to their homes. They’d pray in the synagogue every day. They’d give alms to the poor. They were good people and they knew it. What does John say of them? “You brood of vipers!” John speaks as a prophet of God. When John says this it is God calling them a brood of vipers. There own moral goodness had made them poisonous snakes. They failed to see that they were filled with sinful pride and false righteousness.
John was preaching to us, the church goers. My Mother sometimes used to quip after church that the people who weren’t in church needed to hear that sermon. But John wasn’t preaching to the people who weren’t in church. He was preaching to the people who were in church. He was preaching to the good people. There are a number of ways we must examine this. I once had someone leave the congregation I was serving because they didn’t want to hear about sin all the time. We have some within our staunch Lutheran congregations who would have us stop talking about sin. They would have us preach silly self improvement programs instead. After all that’s something we can apply to our daily lives, they will say. But of course we cannot improve ourselves. We need Christ to truly improve us. Such preaching as these people demand of course is nothing other than preaching into hell. But of course we have a whole branches of Christianity in America that no longer talk about sin. Whether its old liberals with their social gospel or Rick Warren with his purpose driven nonsense, its all the same. Its all about not talking about sin and talking about how wonderful we are. I’m so great I’m filled with purpose. I go down to El Salvador and help the poor throw off the shackles of oppressive capitalism. There was a reason why right wing militias used to murder nuns down there. It was this toxic meld of Christianity and Marx called Liberation theology, which was being taught by the nuns. It was just another way people tried to show how good they are and ignore the sin in their hearts.
Repent! Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. This is the message that John has for us today. We need to see that it is us, the good people, the church people, who need to see our sins. We need to repent. We need to lay our sins before God. Only when we see our sins do we see that we need a Savior. That was John’s point. The Savior was coming. But the people weren’t ready for their Savior, because they didn’t understand that they were sinners. And so we also need to repent. We need to see that it is only in repenting of our sins that our hearts are ready for our Savior. Certainly, there are others out there who need to repent as well. And there are moments when we are to speak to them. But first, we must repent. We must look to our sins and cling to our Savior, Jesus Christ, who redeems us from sin and death.