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” (Luke 3:7-8a).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The world gets ready for this season on one level, Christians on another. The world gets ready for just one great big blockbuster of a day on Christmas, kind of an annual consumer feeding frenzy, indulging itself in stuff and more stuff. Then when it’s over, it’s over. And all that’s left of Christmas on December 26 is a credit card hangover, a big pile of wrapping paper, and trips to the store for returns and after-Christmas sales.
Not so in the Church. For us, when Christmas comes, it stays. It lingers on through Epiphany, the Gentiles’ Christmas, and all the way clear through till Lent. We continue to ponder the great glad news that God has become man to redeem all humankind out from under the iron grip of death and hell. And we will sing our Christmas praises well into January and beyond. We make Christmas last.
But let’s not rush it. Christmas hasn’t yet begun. We’re still in Advent. We’re still getting ready. Yet our readiness is much more than just sending cards and decorating our homes, baking Christmas goodies and going to parties. It is a readiness of the heart that God desires at His coming. That’s why in our collect for today we pray: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son.”
In our text, God gives us exactly that: a ready heart, through the prophet of Advent—John the Baptist. He is the very prophet whom the Lord appointed to clear the way for His coming. And believe me, He cleared the way.
Nothing mealymouthed about John, and no tiptoeing around for him. “You brood of vipers!” he shouted to the crowd coming out for baptism. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
The people coming out to hear John’s message and be baptized by him, sense the coming judgment but are like sheep without a shepherd. They don’t know how to escape the wrath to come. John points the way: produce fruit in keeping with repentance. The fruits of faith show the genuineness of repentance.
John marched right in where angels feared to tread and laid it on the line to all who heard him: “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 at the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
In other words, “Straighten up! Judgment is coming!” Being the physical children of Abraham is no guarantee that you will escape the axe and fire of judgment. All the dead wood will be cut out and thrown into the fire.
Now that’s a little unsettling if we have the ears to hear it. And it should be. For the sad truth is, you and I don’t bear the good fruit our Lord expects. We’re barren trees! We’re dead wood! We don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength, much less love our neighbor as ourselves. Despite our best efforts, there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. Our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin. There is nothing good within us, in our sinful nature. We are indeed poor miserable sinners who justly deserve God’s wrath and condemnation.
That’s how preparing the way for the Lord’s coming begins, when you and I are laid low by the hammer blows of God’s Law, when we are brought to know the seriousness of our sinful condition, and the eternal consequences of remaining in that sin—God’s righteous wrath. Only then can we be lifted up and comforted by the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus, His Son.
The way of the Lord is the way of repentance, you see. That is, it calls for change—a change of heart and mind. A change, which only God can work within us by the power of His Spirit working through His Word. That’s what we need this Advent season: a change so that we repent, clean out our lives, littered with shame and death, so that they might be filled with the life of Jesus Christ instead.
Not that such a change comes easy, mind you. It means the death of the habits of the sinful heart. And such habits always die hard. It’s always much easier to love and serve ourselves than it is to love and serve God and our neighbor for Jesus’ sake. It always comes naturally to the sinful heart to lash out with anger when we’re hurt, to return evil for evil, to repay injury with injury. It is much easier to cut down other people than to love them and build them up. It’s easier for the sinful heart to curse and swear, to lie and deceive by God’s name, than to pray, praise, and give Him thanks.
That’s why the way of the Lord leads first to the cross before it leads to joy. That’s why the Christian life is a life of constant repentance, a continuing vigil for change in mind and heart. First, we confess our sins, then God “is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). First the cross and then the crown. Such is the way, the road, we walk.
And that road often takes some unexpected twists and turns. It might take us through some rocky terrain and rugged territory, places we would rather not go. The road of faith may lead us out even into desert lands, where it seems we walk alone all by ourselves. But we are not alone even there. The very God who washed away our sins and gave us life will not abandon us in those desert times. He who gave up His life for us on His cross and shed His blood to wash our robes and make them white will never let us go. “My sheep know Me,” says Jesus, “and I know them. And they follow Me. And I will give them eternal life. And no man will ever snatch them out of My hand” (see John 10:1-15).
The path you walk might seem rugged at times and very steep, the pathway long and hard, but it is the path of the Lord’s own coming. As we just sang in our sermon, the voice of John, the Lord’s prophet, cries out to one and all: “Then cleansed by ev’ry Christian breast and furnished for so great a Guest. Yea, let us each our hearts prepare for Christ to come and enter there.”
So let’s stir up our hearts this Advent season. It’s time for a change, a new way. Let’s lift up the valleys of our deep despair, bring down the mountain peaks of our lofty pride, and straighten out our crooked ways.
“How is this done? What does this mean?” you ask.
What this means for you I cannot tell. It means different things for different people, depending on who they are and where they are in life. You can tell that from John’s instructions to those who heard his preaching. For tax collectors, the way of the Lord meant to be fair and honest; for soldiers, it meant to be content and not take what didn’t belong to them. For everyone, it meant generosity and mercy, giving food and clothing to those who had none, for Jesus’ sake.
Notice that John suggests fruits of repentance which bring benefits to other people. But they are not the results of plans and programs. Many of them are what are often known today as “random acts of kindness.” Most are just simple acts of service performed in the regular daily activities of your vocations, your current calling or station in life. What this means for you I can’t say.
But how is this done? That I can most certainly tell you: by the grace of God, that’s how—through His means of grace. In His Word and Sacraments, the Son of God, who came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, will change your hearts and make them new. He who left the Father’s throne in lowly meekness to be cradled in a cattle trough and wrapped in swaddling clothes is closer to you in His Word than your little child with his arms wrapped around your neck.
In Holy Baptism, God, the Holy Trinity receives you into communion or fellowship with Himself. Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit works faith and so creates in you new spiritual life with the power to overcome sin. By Baptism you have been made to share in Christ’s death and resurrection. As He has buried your sin, so you can and must daily overcome and bury it. And as He is risen from the dead and lives, so you too can and must daily live a new life in Him, bearing fruits in keeping with repentance.
Then, there’s confession and absolution. As you confess your sins and receive the absolution spoken by the pastor you may receive it as from God Himself, not doubting, but firmly believing that by it your sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
In the Lord’s Supper, you receive the forgiveness of sins which Christ’s body and blood have won for you on the cross. Together with forgiveness, God gives all other blessings as well, that is, “life and salvation.” In this sacrament Christ gives victory over sin and hell and the strength for new life in Him. As Christians partake of this sacrament together, you make a solemn public confession of Christ and of unity in the truth of His Gospel.
As you receive these means of grace, the Lord Jesus will sweep the cobwebs out of your hearts and make them fit for His coming. He will straighten up the crooked paths by which you have wandered far away from our Father’s house and bring you home again. He will tear down your stubborn pride and melt your hardened hearts to enfold you in His love. He will lift you up out of the pits of your despair and grief to comfort you with the presence of His Holy Spirit and restore to you the joy of His salvation. He will enable you to bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
So get ready. Get ready for Christmas most certainly, but above all else prepare your hearts for the coming of Christ. Let this holy Advent season be your comfort and your joy as deep within takes root the reality that Christ has actually come in the flesh and will come again at the end of time. But He comes this very day in His Gospel and Sacrament to make you new and whole and free.
So prepare the way for His coming. Let this be your constant Advent prayer: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” And let these words bring you comfort and peace: You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.