Pastor Joel Leyrer - Advent 2 - Sunday, December 8, 2019

Text: Matthew 3:1-12

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Dear Friends in Christ, It’s a pretty safe bet that everyone present here today knows the Christmas story. And while the world tries to empty it of any religious significance and repackage it as a purely secular event, it’s also a pretty safe bet that even those outside the Christian faith are familiar with the basics of the real Christmas. They know it involves a couple named Mary and Joseph and that it revolves around a baby born in Bethlehem named Jesus.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll talk about that grand event in a couple of weeks. This is not the time for the Christmas story. However, it is time for


And that story revolves around a completely different individual. Someone our Savior once referred to as having no equals among those born of women. Someone we can rightfully refer to as the premier Advent figure. Someone we know as John the Baptist.

Through him God has a lot to teach us during this period of waiting and watching we call Advent. So, without further introduction, let’s turn our attention to this text.

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”  John the Baptist was the son of a Jewish priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who was a relative of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Like the Christ Child’s, John’s birth was also of a miraculous nature. You can read all about that in Luke chapter 1, just before the Christmas story in Luke chapter 2.

His grown-up role and the reason for which God raised him up was to announce the coming of the Savior. In carrying this out, John proclaimed a message that was blunt, direct, and two-fold: repent and prepare. We’ll come back to that message in a bit.

Our text continues with some interesting personal information: “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.”  People in Bible times didn’t dress and eat like we do today. But even for his time, he stood out as different. There was meaning to this. John’s stark dress and diet was a visual protest against the self-indulgence of his day and sent a powerful non-verbal message to everyone who met him.

John’s compelling message combined with his compelling presence had this effect: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

Not an easy trip. What kind of people made this difficult excursion into the desert?

Those who understood there was a void in their life. Those who knew something was missing in their understanding of “the kingdom of heaven” that John proclaimed was near. Those who were troubled by their sins and were looking for a way to have a right and loving relationship with God other than what they had been consistently taught by their religious leaders, which boiled down to this: It’s all up to you. “Try harder” and maybe God will love you more.

Speaking of those religious leaders… “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

Harsh language! Was it justified? We might note how the two groups mentioned here, the Pharisees and Sadducees, fell not only under the condemnation of John, but Jesus as well. Why? While these two religious-political groups differed in some of their basic teachings, what they had in common was the belief that there was no need for repentance and no need for a Savior. They made eternal salvation entirely performance based. That’s why they deservedly drew the fire and the ire of John the Baptist, and later, Jesus.

There was something else John called them on. The Pharisees and Sadducees considered themselves a select group. They loved to refer to themselves as “Abraham’s children.”  They bought into the idea of salvation by bloodline. Spiritually speaking, they thought they had it made. To that whole idea – then and now – of receiving preferential treatment from God based not on a personal relationship with him through Jesus, but through being part of the right group or denomination, John emphatically said, “No!”   

Our text reaches its climax as John again points to the only solution for sin, Jesus Christ: “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” 

Although large crowds had come out to see him, John knew his secondary position to Christ. The reference to the Holy Spirit and fire points to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. John also goes on to relate that the coming Savior will not only redeem, but will also judge at his second Advent:  “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 

All of which is to say, once again, repent and prepare to meet your Savior. This is the essential message of John the Baptist. And that is why he is the ultimate Advent figure, and the main character in the Advent story.

Let’s be sure this message is not lost on us. Especially as we look forward to the coming of Christ at Christmas, let’s consider John’s strong counsel to repent and prepare and apply it to ourselves.

But first, let’s consider the setting in which we can best do this. One of the details in the Advent story we should not overlook is the place where John did his work. People left their towns and cities and farms to go to see John in the desert. This is significant.

We know from Old Testament Bible history – and certainly the people who came out to see John also knew – how critical the desert was to the formation of God’s people. The Children of Israel spent 40 years in the desert. Moses, David, Elijah, and many of the nation’s great leaders spent time in the desert. After his baptism, which would take place in short order, and in preparation for his earthly ministry Jesus himself retreated to the desert wilderness for a period of 40 days.

We often think of the desert as a lifeless, barren place to be avoided. But in the pages of Scripture the desert is often where people went to meet God. Interestingly, in the early history of the church there were many, many individual Christians collectively known now as “desert fathers” and “mothers” who voluntarily left everything behind to live in these isolated conditions. Their reasoning – whether we agree with it or not – was so they could fully devote themselves to God without distractions.

The point for us is that in these busy weeks before Christmas it would be wise for us to voluntarily and intentionally retreat into the desert. Not a physical desert of sand and rock and relentless sun, but a symbolic personal desert; an intentional frame of mind and spirit where we can spend undistracted time in quiet contemplation of who and what we are in Jesus Christ, and how it all comes together in the marvelous and miraculous events of Christmas.  In such a setting we can truly heed John’s two-fold message of repent and prepare. In fact, we can link the two together into a single process. We prepare by repenting.

So, let’s talk about repentance. Most of us are pretty good at recognizing that mankind is sinful. The evidence is all around us. And we’re comfortable with making general statements in this regard. What we are not so comfortable at doing is owning up to our own personal sinfulness, and the fact that there are areas in our lives that need repentance and change. But we all have them.

Maybe it’s impatience. Or anger. Or lust. Or gossip. Or greed. Or stinginess. Or the way we treat others. Or the way we talk to others. Or the language we use which we know does not represent Jesus well and makes us no different from the foul-mouthed world around us. We each have our own list. And while we’ve become pretty good at maximizing the sins and shortcomings of others, we’ve also become quite adept at deflecting or minimizing or actually defending our own sins and shortcomings.

If we want to compare ourselves to the lives of others, we can always find someone who we think we’re better than. And we can always internally rationalize our sin by conceding that “yes I may do that (which is bad) but at least I didn’t do that (which we think is worse).”  That’s Pharisee and Sadducee talk. And we know what John had to say about them.

The only standard we must compare our lives to is the holy perfect standard of God’s law and will. And when we honestly do that rather than trying to defend or deflect our sins, we can only take the position of the tax collector in Jesus’ parable who bowed his head in recognition of his failings and said “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

And the good news is God does have mercy on us. And it came to us in a manger in Bethlehem on a night we will celebrate in two weeks. That child grew up to be a man, and that man died on the cross as the substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world. Which means we are forgiven.

Now in preparation for that first Advent of Christ and driven by the message of John, let us ask God for the courage to own up to our personal sins. Then let us confess them, repent of them, experience the joy of forgiveness in Christ… and, in the words of John, “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” 

What does John mean by that? Here’s what he’s telling us:  along with true repentance comes the desire for change away from sinful habits and toward God-pleasing ones. The truly repentant heart has no desire to ever again commit the sin it has repented of. In our human weakness and frailty, repeating a sin we repent of could and often does happen. And then we start the process all over again. But true repentance means a true desire to stop sinning is present.

Repentance is the response of the heart that understands the Christmas story.

But today is all about the Advent story and its message to repent and prepare. And let us prepare by repenting. Why? Because it focuses our hearts and minds on what Christmas is all about and why it had to happen.

Therefore, with penitent and grateful hearts, let us rejoice this Advent season. Because, indeed, the Kingdom of heaven is near. Amen.