Sermons, Uncategorized

Baptized with the Holy Spirit for a Life of Repentance

“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Salvator Rosa

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YNk9_FyRJzQrSTm1a5Y53inMiEin65eV/view?usp=sharing

[John the Baptist said:] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Our Advent journey began last week with Jesus headed into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Today we back up a few years and take a detour through the Jordan where Jesus began His public ministry in baptism, much as we begin our discipleship in Holy Baptism. The way of the Lord is a rigorous one because we always journey “in Christ.” But we know where we are going, and we know who we are. In this second week of Advent, we remind ourselves that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance.

We will soon celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it’s clear that our destination is not an idyllic manger scene with an adorable baby. There is a cross to be suffered. And that means Jesus’ mission is serious business, not be “tagged along” by the casual traveler or the unprepared. Thus, John suddenly appears on the scene to prepare His way. An attention-getting appearance, to say the least! One that illustrates suffering and sacrifice along a weary way. A robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. A diet of locusts and wild honey. A voice crying in the wilderness.

John comes to prepare God’s people for the messianic journey ahead—to teach that the journey is one of suffering and deprivation, like Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s paths straight. Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through. It is time to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Crowds are going out to John from the entire region for just that purpose. They are confessing that they do need to repent. Then John’s baptism is washing away their sin, preparing them for the kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others, though, come as hypocrites. The Pharisees and Sadducees are sure of their own righteousness because of their bloodlines and circumcision. They refuse baptism because they feel they have no sins to wash away.

John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. Calling them a “brood of vipers” is bad enough. For John to say that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham,” is a greater insult to the Jews, for Gentiles are considered stones, so John is saying that God can create children of Abraham out of Gentiles by means of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Unless these hypocrites repent, they will be chopped down like dead trees and cast into the fire.

John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord Himself is at hand. The coming kingdom is Christ Himself. Already now He is among the people. While John’s coming on the scene has made a huge splash, John is even less before the Messiah than the lowliest servant before the greatest master.

John baptizes with water for repentance. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When will this be? Certainly, He does, in part already, in His own baptism, in His crucifixion, and at Pentecost. But the context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and refers directly to the salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when He returns in glory. On the Last Day, Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit on those who repent and look for the coming of God’s kingdom in Him, and all such will be gathered into His barn and saved. On the other hand, those who persist in their unbelief and reject God’s reign in Jesus will receive on that day the unquenchable fire of eternal judgment.

So, are you properly prepared?

John’s simple message comes in two parts. The first concerns the kingdom, which is now at hand, not because of anything the people have done or are doing, but because God is at work. The second concerns how they should respond. They should repent. The two go together; the coming of the kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent.

While the message remains much the same, the audience has changed. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, you come here after the fact. You have heard about the empty tomb and believe. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate to call you a brood of vipers. You are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

And yet, you and I still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our life are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in the words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while, the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat—but never truly repenting.

Acknowledging the confusion about repentance in their day, the Reformers spelled out true repentance in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:

 We have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it… The sum of the preaching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.[i]

John is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (Matthew 3:8). It begins with confessing sin (Matthew 3:6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance.” It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.

We say that good fruit, good works in every kind of life, should follow repentance, that is, conversion or regeneration. Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and bearing good fruit do not follow. True terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments. In a word, there is no inner repentance unless it also produces the outward putting to death of the flesh. We say that this is John’s meaning when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).[ii]

To make it clear what they were referring to, the Reformers went on to speak of what sort of fruit repentance produces:

These good fruit are what the commandments teach: prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, obeying parents and rulers, and being faithful to one’s calling. We should not kill, not hold on to hatred, but we should be forgiving and give to the needy, so far as we can according to our means. We should not commit sexual sins or adultery, but should hold in check, bridle, and chastise the flesh, not for a repayment of eternal punishment, but so as not to obey the devil or offend the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we should speak the truth. These fruit have God’s command and should be produced for the sake of God’s glory and command.[iii]

Repentance is not a one-time act. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

Is it not time that we join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our pride in who we are, our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious, yet living daily lives that deny our identity as children of God. Confessing that without forgiveness, we really will be cast into eternal fire. Confessing all our sins in thought, word, and deed, what we have done and what we have left undone for which we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.

We confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners. Yet, we confess our sins with hope, because we now walk in the way of the Lord, looking for Christ to come again soon (Matthew 3:11-12). In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.

You are a child of God. When you were baptized, you were baptized into the very “baptism” Jesus underwent—the baptism of His cross. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. That means your life is now one of walking the way of the Lord—with all the wildernesses and deprivations and hard lessons and crosses that entails. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in His resurrection—to everlasting joy in the kingdom.

What might such fruit look like in your life? Let’s take something rather simple and immediate—the observance of Advent and Christmas

Imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruit of repentance than the things we place under the tree.

It will probably include generosity and mercy—helping out your neighbor in need. There are certainly many needs and many opportunities for giving this time of year. The fruit of repentance may include reconciling with those whom you  have become estranged. Confessing to them how you have wronged them and forgiving them for their offenses against you. The fruit of repentance will include making time each day for prayer and the study of God’s Word. And the fruit of repentance will certainly include making worship a priority. Christians will not plan worship attendance around family events, but family events around worship attendance. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and to celebrate Christmas than to gather with your family for worship to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament? It is only by that Word and Sacraments that you are motivated and equipped for genuine repentance on every day.

And so our pilgrimage to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we, too, come before Christ, who visits us now at the Table He has prepared to nourish us on our way. You who are clothed in Christ, receive Him again where He gives Himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Divine Service. Come confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ Child here in bread and wine. Come to the Table, for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for 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.


[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 176). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 183). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.
Sermons, Uncategorized

The Lord Needs Them

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/16CZ7xvdNGLiGK_goLZwQbJP5fsktMhtf/view?usp=sharing

[Jesus said:] If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once” (Matthew 21:3).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The two young Galilean men walk into the village. They look around a bit and then go up to a donkey that is tied outside the gate of the garden with her colt. They begin to untie it without asking permission. A couple of peasants ask them what they think they are doing. “The Lord needs them,” is their simple answer. The owner nods and the men go on their way.

Give that a try some time. Walk over to a stranger’s house. Open up the garage door and start backing his car and pickup out of the garage and down the driveway. If anyone asks you what you think you’re doing, just tell them, “the Lord needs them,” and he’ll send you on your way. Right! It sounds like a good way to get arrested for grand theft; doesn’t it? Of course, it makes a huge difference if the Lord has actually told you to say this or not.

In this case, that’s exactly what the Lord has instructed. “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.

 Think about everything that is going on in His life. In just a few days, Jesus goes from Jericho to Bethphage and Bethany by Mount Olivet, then on to Jerusalem. Then in short order, He’ll go to Calvary, grave, hell and back again, a locked room, a few more stops, and then to the right hand of God. Today, it’s Palm Sunday. Betrayal is in the air, the cross is near, the sacrifice for sins is about to be made, the tension is thick. And, just as all of this is breaking, the Lord tells His disciples He needs a donkey—actually two of them, a donkey and her colt.

Why does He need two donkeys? He can only ride one at a time. Besides, up to this point, He’s been walking everywhere from town-to-town, village-to-village. Has He suddenly grown weary? Is He trying to keep up with the Joneses who have two donkeys? Some sort of gesture of humility? Why does He need a donkey now?

Because He says He does.

Actually, the Lord has said so for a long time, over 500 years, since the time of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). So that Jerusalem might be sure that He is really the Messiah, says the prophet, look for the King on a donkey, giving righteousness and salvation.

In other words, the Lord needs them for you. Jesus needs the donkey for you. He ties Himself to that donkey and her colt in the Old and New Testaments as one more assurance, one more prophecy fulfilled, that your King has come.

The crowd gets it. They praise God, recalling all of the mighty works that they’ve seen. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout, straight out of that magnificent messianic Psalm 118. “Hosanna in the highest,” they cry, an echo of the angel’s song when Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). This is the One the angel had promised Mary at the annunciation whom God will give the throne of His father David (Luke 1:32). All grown up now, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with peace and glory, life and salvation. That’s why He needs a donkey!

The whole city is abuzz as Jesus enters Jerusalem. “Who is this?” they ask. And the crowds answer, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” In the past, God has spoken through the voice of one of His prophets. More recently one of His holy angels. Here, the Lord uses the voice of the nameless crowds to proclaim Jesus as the Savior and King. Why?

The Lord needs them. He says so Himself. Now and 1,000 years earlier.

Just a few verses later in Matthew 21, we read: “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that [Jesus] did, and the children crying out, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to Him, “Do you hear what these are saying?’” Jesus, quoting Psalm 8:2, says, “Yes, have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise.” The Lord needs them. Their cries are the fulfillment of Scripture.

In his account, St. Luke tells us that the Pharisees, whose legalistic lives of earning righteousness have no place for a king who just goes around handing out life gratis to any old repentant sinner, are not amused. “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples,” they demand. Rather than rejoice to hear shouts that God is faithful, that He’s kept His Word and the Christ has come, they want the praise to be silenced.

To these critics, Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones will cry out.” Huh. The Lord needs these people to sing His praises: not, of course, because He’s ego driven, or because He’s losing His voice. He needs them like He needs a donkey, because this is how He has declared that salvation will be spread. He puts His Word into His people: He opens their lips, and their mouths declare His praise. Others hear and believe, and so the kingdom of God grows. No praise, no Word. No Word, no Jesus; and then all that’s left is for the stones to cry out.

And so it will be in Jerusalem, for those who reject the Lord. The stones will not be left upon another because the people do not recognize the time of their visitation. The dismantled stones of the temple will cry out of a terrible desolation, that the Lord visited with life, and sinners were so anxious to have Him gone that they put Him to death on a cross to make it so.

You’re stuck between legalistic Pharisees and those of a libertine mind and heart. On the one hand, there are those who submit to a greater teaching than themselves and insist that the way to God is by way of keeping all the rules. You’ll find one variety, who can be so insistent when they ring your doorbell. Elsewhere in the world, you find others so violent that they execute Christians who fail to comply. On the other hand, you’re daily immersed in a culture of individuals who aren’t going to submit to anything, who are going to live their lives according to their personal choices and expect that God is pleased with whatever sin they determine He should delight in.

It may seem strange to put, for instance, the legalistic Pharisee, the radical Islamist and the same-sex marriage activist in the same camp, for they surely wouldn’t get along with each other. But the teachings of all three have something big in common. All three want the Church to be silent. All three want the people of God to shut up about the Gospel. All three want to rebuke Jesus’ disciples until they are quiet.

The intimidation is strong these days. The Church is afflicted with an undercurrent of fear, and the goal of fear is silence. The devil prefers silent Christians: it prevents the praises of God from getting into the ears of others; and it discourages faith because faith is always ready to declare the praises of God.

Now, if the devil is going to silence the Church, a good place to start is on the leadership. If you are a lay leader here, you can rest assured that the devil will do his best to make your tasks as burdensome as possible so that it feels like drudgery not worth doing; unless of course, he takes the back door and inflates you with pride until you feel the congregation can’t survive without you. (At that point, he doesn’t mind if you talk, because you won’t be talking about Jesus anymore!)

And, if you’re a pastor, the temptation of pride is there for you, too, to think everything good that happens is due to your brilliant leadership and every failure is someone else’s fault. Or else the evil one will work you over until you feel useless, until you’re weary and become convinced the Word you speak isn’t accomplishing anything, so you better double down on the preaching of the Law. Or you might just as well be quiet.

You must always remember: the devil is a liar.

The truth is that Jesus needs you—at least in the sense that He needs donkeys and the crowds on Palm Sunday. He needs preachers and people who hold up prophets’ hands because He’s said so, because He’s entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel to people. Flesh and blood people. People with names written in the Book of Life at the font and called into various offices as His instruments.

If you’re called into the Office of the Holy Ministry, it is not because the Lord was scraping the bottom of the barrel that day. You are there because He calls you to be His mouth and His hands in that place for His people. If you’re a lay person, He’s given you some opportunity to serve His people in your daily vocation. Pastor and lay person, shepherd and sheep, the Lord needs them both.

This is also true of the gifts God has given you to manage on His behalf—your time, your talents, your treasures, and your testimony. The Lord needs them. The Lord who is eternal, without beginning or end, the One to whom a day is as a thousand years—He needs your time. The Lord who knows all things and can do all things needs your talents. The Lord who owns the cattle on a thousand hills needs your treasure. The Lord who is the Word from the beginning needs your testimony. Why? Because He says so!

Don’t get the wrong idea. All of this assumes that you’re abiding in the Word that He has spoken. You’re not indispensable: wander away from the faith, and the Lord can find someone else to declare His praise. Or start to take over offices that don’t belong to you, and you’re acting against the Word and starting to silence it. It is not up to anyone to decide for their own that they are going be pastors. God has made His will clearly known in His Word and He doesn’t expect you to join the hordes of outside the Church to approve of whatever you want Him to. God places certain men as His undershepherds and calls them through the Church. The Lord needs them. Not because they are in and of themselves qualified, but because He qualifies them.

The Lord needs them! Pastors and people, sheep and undershepherds. Professional church workers and laity. Not because of who they are, but because that is how He has said His Gospel is to go out, that is how disciples are to be made in all nations—baptizing and teaching what He has commanded.

To each of us, God gives a sphere of influence, people among whom we interact regularly in our vocations, our daily callings in life. It is within our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers that we have the best opportunities to witness to the love of God shown to us in the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is here that the Lord wishes us to invest the time, talents, treasures He’s placed into our stewardship for the advancement of His kingdom.

So, go home. Depart in peace and joy. The Lord watches over your going out and your coming in both now and forevermore. The One who’s been to hell and back goes with you. Sing like the crowds on Palm Sunday! Declare Christ Jesus who brings glory and peace, and who still comes in the name of the Lord to save in His means of grace. Proclaim Christ crucified and risen, knowing that it kicks death and devil in the teeth every time.

Rejoice! Go forth with praise in the name of the Lord, for the One who comes in the name of the Lord has come to you; and in His means of grace, He is with you always, even to the end of the age.

In the name of Jesus. 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.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance

4x5 original
“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Luca Giordano

Click here to listen to this sermon.

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.