“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
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[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
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor Me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise” (Isaiah 43:16–21).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In all the searching that scientists do in outer space, one of the things they are most anxious to find is water. If they can find water, it would improve the chances that other forms of life might exist in the universe besides the life here on earth. Or, if water can be found somewhere else, it could be used to support human life in other parts of the universe. Water is essential to life—whether it be plant life, animal life, or human life. Without water, there is only death.
That was true in the history of the people of Israel, and it’s even more crucial to our spiritual life. When God speaks of or uses water, it usually signals something that is literally of life-and-death importance to His people. Truly, God’s use of water is a holy matter of death and life.
Our text reminds us of how God brought about death and life at the Red Sea (vv 16-17). Israel, just days after coming out of Egypt, was trapped with water on one side and the powerful Egyptian army on the other side. God provided a way through the water for His people, but when Pharaoh and the Egyptian army entered the sea, they were drowned (v 17).
For Israel, on the other hand, the waters of the Red Sea were saving waters of life (v 16). For God’s people, the way through the sea was the way to safety, a new life of freedom. Both groups went into the water, but only one group came out alive. This was the Lord’s gracious doing.
Because of their failure to take God at His Word to deliver them to the Promised Land, the Israelites were made to wander in the desert for 40 years. Water was always a life-and-death matter. Time and again the people complained that they would die of thirst (Exodus 15:22-24; 17:1-3; Numbers 20:2-5). In fact, their murmuring against God did lead to the death of many (Numbers 21:4-6; Deuteronomy 32:48-51). Nevertheless, the Lord again saved them with water. This time He provided water so that they wouldn’t die of thirst. He brought water from the Rock, changed the bitter water to pure, drinkable water.
Water was often a matter of life and death for God’s Old Testament people. And God, in His mercy and grace, provided for their needs, often in miraculous ways. In our text, though, the Lord tells Isaiah’s hearers not to look back on all that: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, now I am doing a new thing” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).
So much of our faith and the faith of the Old Testament people is based on remembering the past. Here Isaiah urges the people to forget the former things because the new workings of the Lord will be even greater. The one who made a way through the sea will now make a way through the desert.
God will do a new thing to bring about both death and life—still using water. The new thing is a whole new era of history, which Isaiah describes in terms of abundant water. As the wandering Israelites had known so well, the wilderness was parched, inhospitable to animals and people. But in a new era, a day God let Isaiah foresee, it would be as if the desert would flow with rivers, providing abundantly for man and beast.
The more immediate context is God’s promised deliverance of His people from Babylonian captivity. Because of Judah’s stubborn rebellion and rampant idolatry, the Lord will use Babylon to chastise His people, to call them repentance. Jerusalem and the temple will be destroyed. God’s people will be marched off to Babylon. But God promises that after a while, He will bring them back home.
The Lord will break the power of the Babylonians and make these once power Gentiles fugitives. Their ships, which once carried precious cargo, in the future would transport them as fugitives. The Lord would dispatch the necessary forces to make this happen. Not only would God break the power of the Babylonians, but God would also release His people from captivity. They would find a way through the desert so they could travel back to Jerusalem, just as God once led Israel through the Red Sea and wilderness to the Promised Land.
This deliverance is greater in that it is a key event in God’s plan of salvation. More than the deliverance from Egypt, the release from Babylon paves the way for the fulfillment of a spiritual deliverance. Leaving Babylon behind, the people came back to Palestine to rebuild the temple, resettle in Jerusalem, and resettle the villages and towns of Palestine. They resettled Galilee, inhabited towns like Bethlehem and Capernaum, and made Jerusalem their center of worship once again. A great Redeemer would come from Bethlehem, begin His work in Galilee, and enter Jerusalem riding on a donkey. He would be beaten, suffer thirst, and die on a cross just outside of Jerusalem.
The people remained in the land until the coming of Jesus. One deliverance paved the way for the greater. No wonder, then, that they were to forget the deliverance from Egypt. It was a great deliverance, but an even greater one awaited. It was all part of God’s plan for His people.
This would be the age of the Messiah, the day when the Christ would come and restore the reign of God, making right all the corruption that sin brought into a once-perfect world. This age is now, the new reality established when Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose from the grave. The new age came with death, Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus’ death removed the curse of sin that turned the mists and rivers of Eden into wastelands and deserts. Jesus’ resurrection declares all things right again. The Church has long seen the Red Sea passage as a foreshadowing of this resurrection, life arising from certain death.
In this new age, God still kills and makes alive by water. Even more so than with the “former things,” water is important in our faith history. In fact, without water we have no faith history. We each share in God’s new thing by Holy Baptism.
Baptism with water kills. In Baptism, we die with Christ: “We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That means we also die to sin, putting away the deeds of the sinful flesh. We no longer wish to carry out the lusts of the old man or woman. Of course, this dying with Christ, dying to sin, is so that we may live a whole new life. By Baptism, God also makes us alive again.
Baptism is when our life of faith began. Water was used and applied to us. It’s true our rescue was not as dramatic as that of the Israelites, but it was no less important. We were in a hopeless situation with nowhere to turn.
The way out was through water, and God provided it. When we were baptized, the Holy Spirit created in us a new person. In our text, God calls us “the people I formed for Myself” (v 21), using a Hebrew word much like the one describing His creation of the world, making something from nothing. Baptism literally brought spiritual life from spiritual death.
Obviously, it’s not the water itself that does such great things. We don’t keep or revere “holy water.” Rather, Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is not the water indeed that does this, “but the Word of God in and with the water… along with the faith which trusts this Word of God in the water.”
God’s Word of Baptism is rich in promises. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5–7). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word” (Ephesians 5:25–26).
The water of our Baptism has long dried off, but the words that made that water a Baptism are still with us, and we are invited to recall them daily through contrition and repentance. So that our old sinful nature may be put to death, so the new Christ-like nature arises to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever.
Whether in ancient Israel or in outer space today, without water, there’s no hope of life. We thank God, therefore, that He has done an entirely new thing, better than giving water in the wilderness: by water and the Word, He’s delivered us from death and given us life in His Son. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins,
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen