Sermons, Uncategorized

Bear Fruits in Keeping with Repentance

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

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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.

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

A Not-So-Sentimental Journey

Jesus procession in the streets of Jerusalem
“Procession in the Streets of Jerusalem” by James Tissot

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And as [Jesus] rode along, they spread their cloaks on the road. As He was drawing near—already on the way down the Mount of Olives—the whole multitude of His disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:35-38).

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

Have you ever felt like you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time? Or like you know where you are but can’t figure out how you got there? So it seems today? Everything is out of whack.

It’s December, and it’s Advent, the preparation for Christmas. We expect to be transported to Bethlehem, to a manger, surrounded by animals. Instead, our Gospel takes us to Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey.

Strangely enough, the traditional Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent is the same as that of Palm Sunday—Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It seems, in a way, wrong. Out of place. Say what you will about Christ’s coming at the end of time, but Advent’s all about preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ Child. Children everywhere are already rehearsing for Christmas programs, getting ready to reenact the story of Mary, with Child, riding on a donkey into Bethlehem to give birth. And instead, we’re saddled with a story about Jesus riding on a donkey into Jerusalem to His death.

But maybe there’s something we can learn—something that, like Mary, we can take with us and ponder in our hearts. Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Ride on, ride on in majesty! In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). For this reason, our Lord came from heaven. For this reason, the Son of God became the Son of Mary. The story that gives Christmas its meaning and lasting value.

The peace and joy of Bethlehem’s cradle is won for us at Jerusalem’s cross.

Indeed, Christmas seems, for so many, to be a holiday about nothing. Or else, about the things of this world. Many, I think, have completely lost their bearings. Imagine going to someone’s house for Christmas. Watch as everyone unwraps present after present. The next one bigger and better than the one before.

At first you might be a little jealous—maybe more than a little jealous. But as the day wears on, you start to get this feeling that something just isn’t quite right. Something is missing. Or more precisely, someone is missing. For all the gifts and celebration, there is nothing to it. No substance. There is no Christ and no Mass. No mention of our Lord’s birth and no celebration of His birth in the church service. It’s hollow and leaves you feeling empty inside. Or, at least, it should.

In our society, Christmas has become a largely secular, worldly affair. We celebrate Christmas, and we even fight for the right to say “Merry Christmas” at places like Wal-Mart, but we rarely talk about why Christmas is merry. The absence of Christ has left for many a big hold, an emptiness that needs to be filled. And so many folks try to fill the void with manmade traditions, songs, and stories.

Rather than tell the story of Christ, the world tells countless other stories. Off the top of my head, I can think of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, “The Little Match Girl,” How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Nutcracker, “The Night Before Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” not to mention It’s a Wonderful Life, A Miracle on 34th Street, Santa Clause 1, 2, and 3, and Elf.

The world has its own hymnal as well, with Christmas “hymns” ranging from Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” to Bing’s “White Christmas.” Nat King Cole sings about chestnuts roasting in “The Christmas Song.” Gene Autry can still be heard singing of the advent of Santa Claus, coming down Santa Claus Lane. Mariah Carey assures us of her love, because “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

I like a lot of those stories, enjoy a couple of those songs. But if that’s all there is, we don’t have much to celebrate. Just not a lot there. No wonder Christmas tends to fall flat.

But if we’re to be honest, even for us Christians, Christmas often falls flat. Perhaps we should blame the angels for raising our expectations. “It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth To touch their harps of gold: ‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,” (LSB 366:1). A beautiful song and a beautiful sentiment. But whatever did the angels mean by singing, “Peace on the earth”?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t see much peace on earth, nor, for that matter, good will to men. So many folks become cynical. Do you remember that old Coca Cola commercial in which young people joined in chorus to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”? The hippies of the sixties really thought that with a good attitude and few folk songs, peace was just around the corner. Silly, but we still pray for peace. And for two thousand years, we’ve had nothing but wars and rumors of wars.

Again and again, the angels said, “Don’t be afraid.” Yet we live in what seems to be an age of anxiety; a low-level fear lurks just below the surface. Some of us have relatives or neighbors serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Some fret over global warming; others worry the President is a war-monger, fascist, crony capitalist, globalist or communist (depending upon who is in office and which party you belong). Social media is listening in on all our conversation, shaping our opinions, and blocking our free speech. What if Iran or North Korea gets nuclear weapons? And, God forbid, actually use them? A while back, Stephen Hawking said that the human races should already be planning for life on another planet in preparation for the time when our own planet will become uninhabitable. Peace on earth? I don’t think so. Doom seems, if not imminent, inevitable.

And so, at Christmas, when peace on earth seems unattainable on a large, global scale, we attempt it on a smaller scale, at home with family and friends. Many folks, even Christian folks, will say that Christmas at its heart is about friends and family. And this side of heaven, the family is about the best gift there is. But families, too, can be turned into idols. Indeed, many Christians don’t even go to church on Christmas because they want to be with their families.

And even at home, there is not always peace. Throw in anxieties over work, your children’s struggles at school, ailing parents, a chronic medical condition, a dispute with the in-laws, the loss of a loved one, or broken relationship, and there’s a lot of strife and sadness. Some of this of our own making—bad choices we’ve made, people we’ve hurt, relationships we’ve damaged. Our families are a mess, and often, we’re part of the problem.

Where, then, is peace to be found? Nowhere else than in the Christ Child. Not in some Precious Moments Christ Child, but in the Child who was born to die. A real-world Savior for a world with real problems. The Babe of Bethlehem who would set His sights on Jerusalem. The One whose birth was lit by a star and whose death would be met with darkness.

And so at our Lord’s birth, the angels sang, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men.” But there is still another song to sing, and we sing it as Jesus is riding on a donkey into Jerusalem: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).

Peace in heaven? What do we mean by that? There’s always peace in heaven. Heaven is the place where angels ride upon the clouds, strumming along on their harps, isn’t it? Heaven is where we escape the evils of this world.

Well, there’s more to it. Peace in heaven is not just a description; it’s good news. There’s peace in heaven because God is at peace with us.

We have to ask: “How could God be at peace with us? How could He be at peace with a world that is constantly at war? How could He be at peace with a world that disregards Him, ignores Him, and takes His blessings for granted? How could He be at peace with a world that blatantly disregards His will? How could He be at peace with a world that has taken the celebration of the birth of His Son and turned it into just another time to eat, drink, and be merry? How could He be at peace with me, a sinner?”

If we are to recover Christmas, we must, I think, recover Advent. Advent is a season of preparation—not simply of our homes, meals, and presents, but a time of preparation for our hearts. A time of assessment and acknowledgment and a time to recognize why our Lord came in the first place. A time to recognize why that Infant Child, born to be King, would one day receive a crown of thorns. A time for repentance.

“Hark! A thrilling voice is sounding! ‘Christ is near,’ we hear it say. ‘Cast away the works of darkness, All you children of the day!’” (LSB 345:1).

“Cast away the works of darkness.” Look at your lives, and turn once more from sin. Think about your lives. Your hopes. Your dreams. What are you looking forward to? Are your hearts set merely on the things of this world? On new cars and new homes? On toys and vacations? On a stable financial future? What are your goals? Are they the goals that God would have for you? Are you thinking of the life to come, or are you setting your sights only on the things of this world? Are you putting your time and money in things to please yourself, or are you giving a generous portion to the Church, and thereby investing in eternity?

The season of Advent is one of assessment. It’s a time to remember that the things of this world are indeed already passing away, a time to set our hearts, once more upon things above. A time to look at the Child who came to die, a time to crucify our sinful passions.

And so we sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” And we recognize that He comes to die for our sins. We remember that we have been baptized into the name of the Lord. Returning to our Baptism, we renounce, once more, the devil, all His works, and all His sinful ways. We don’t simply cry out against all the evils of this world, but we repent of the evils of our heart. We recognize the troubles we have caused, the damage we have done, the friends we have hurt, and the responsibilities we have not met.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, and we who also bear His name now also take up our crosses and follow Him.

Yes, Advent is a time for repentance, a time of sadness over sin. But it also a time of hope. For if we are sinners, we have Savior. And if the end is near, so also, in Christ, is there a new beginning. If we have made a mess with our lives, Christ has come to make things right. And He will come again.

For the world, Christmas is a big game of pretend—of creating an idyllic world that does not exist. But for us, Christmas is life itself. Therefore, in this season of Advent, let us prepare our hearts once more for our Lord’s coming. Let us cast away the works of darkness and be adorned with every good work and with acts of charity and generosity. Let us forgive as we have been forgiven. And let us embrace the Child who came to embrace us. And let is offer up our lives as gifts to the One who came to offer up His life as His gift of salvation for us all. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ 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.

 

This sermon is an adaptation of a sermon by Peter J. Scaer in Concordia Pulpit Supply, Volume 20, Part 1, pp 13-15.