2nd Sunday in Advent
December 9, 2001
Sermon Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Listen to the Advent Voice of John
1. Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near
2. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance
Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 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.’” 4 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. 5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 7 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? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 “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. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The phone rings. You pick it up and say "Hello" and on the other end of the line, you hear somebody say, "Hey! How are you doing?" Instantly you know exactly who it is and you begin chatting away the time. How did you know who it was? You recognized their voice! There are certain people whose voice we know so well that as soon as we hear their voice on the phone, hear their voice cheering on the team, or even hear their voice in a crowded room we know exactly who it is because we recognize their voice. But in order for us to get to the point where we can recognize someone simply by hearing their voice at least one of two things needs to occur. Either there needs to be something unique about their voice or we need to be very familiar with that person.
Today, my friends, as you and I continue to prepare our hearts and our lives during this Advent season, we once again come into contact with the voice of someone who is uniquely associated with this particular season of the year. That individual’s name is John the Baptizer. This morning I would like us to study these familiar words of Matthew chapter three by contemplating the theme: Listen, to the Advent voice of John, Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near and produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
John the Baptizer is perhaps one of the best-known characters in Bible history. We know him as the babe who leaped in his mother’s womb when Mary came to visit. We know him as the forerunner of Christ whom God set aside to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. But most of all we remember John because of the message that he preached in the desert of Judea. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." If ever there were a message and a messenger clearly identifiable with each other, it is John the Baptizer and the call to repentance. There were, of course, a number of things that set John apart from the other religious leaders of his day and age. Scripture describes him as, a man whose “clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” But the voice of John ringing out in the desert, calling people to repent of their sins is by far the most striking.
John’s title was the Baptizer but first and foremost he was a prophet of God. And as a prophet he came to God’s people proclaiming God’s word. Telling the people to prepare for the advent of the messiah. His message – Repent!
The message to repent had become a familiar theme for God’s people. Throughout their history the children of Israel had led lives that required God to send one of his prophets to call his people to repentance. In the days of the Judges, the people would sin against God. God would call the people to repentance by allowing them to be oppressed and when they cried out to him for deliverance, he would send a deliverer to rescue them.
At this time in salvation history God was calling his people to repentance again! They had fallen away from God again! Their worship life had become one of half-hearted devotion. Performing the required sacrifices, saying the right things, and giving the outward appearance that they were righteous and upright. They were trusting in their ability to keep God’s commandments and in their good works to enter the kingdom of heaven. Their hearts and minds were far from God and God sent John to call the people to repent of these sins and the people responded. The Scriptures tells us, “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.”
God has also sent John to call us to repentance. As the people of Israel worshiped God half-heartedly, we also find ourselves guilty of the same sin. Whenever we come to God’s house and pay no attention to his word and treat worshiping him like it is work instead of a privilege we need to repent. Whenever we think that our salvation is provided by church membership rather than trusting that Jesus has paid the price for our salvation, we need to repent.
In the Bible the word, “repent” very literally means, "To change one’s mind." Genuine repentance involves a change of mind. It involves a change of heart. It involves a complete change of direction in our lives. But our sinful nature renders us completely incapable of effecting this change in ourselves and on our own. True genuine repentance is something that must be worked in us by the power of our God. Only the Holy Spirit is able to effect this kind of change in our hearts and in our minds and in our lives.
The people through the preaching of God’s holy Law had been brought to recognize the seriousness of their sins and through the power of the Holy Spirit they had been led to confess their sins. These individuals were baptized “with water for repentance.” As the Holy Spirit led people to John as he proclaimed the word of God so also has the Spirit led us to God by the preaching of his word. In our baptism the Holy Spirit has washed all our sins away and created saving faith in our hearts; created faith that trusts in God and his promises, created faith in the fact that God has done everything for our salvation. He promised to send the messiah who would save the world from their sins. He kept that promise by sending Jesus to be our substitute, to receive the punishment for our sins. Because Jesus lived that perfect life God requires and suffered an innocent death as payment for our sins, God no longer holds us accountable and we are covered in Jesus’ righteousness.
As we celebrate the advent season, we praise God for two things. First, for Jesus’ first advent. We are reminded that God has indeed blessed us by sending his one and only Son to this world to save us from our sins. Secondly we are reminded to listen to the advent voice of John as he reminds of Jesus Second Advent when he comes to judge the world. As we wait for Jesus to return John the Baptizer tells us to repent of our sins because the kingdom of God is near. But John also tells us that after we repent we are to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
Many people had come to John, repented of their sins and were baptized to assure them their sins were forgiven. But not all who came to John were truly repentant. A very good example of this is found here in our text when we read, “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 ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The Pharisees and Sadducees, people, who were proud of their own self-righteousness, people who were proud of their own skepticism, came to John. Like many people today neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees recognized the seriousness of their sins. They did not recognize their need for a Savior from sin. They did not recognize the necessity of changing their outward lives by producing fruits of repentance in their lives.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees did, however, put a great deal of confidence in the fact that they had the blood of Abraham coursing through their veins. So in a very powerful, unmistakable way John the Baptist reminded the Pharisees and the Sadducees that not only does God have the power to raise up children for Abraham out of these stones on the ground, but God also had the right to chop down and burn up "every tree that does not produce good fruit." In other words, living and dying with unrepented sins in our hearts and in our lives condemns a person to an eternity of suffering in the fires of hell. Today John the Baptist might rephrase what he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees by saying something like, "Don’t think that just because your name is on the membership roster of a Christian congregation that God has to let you into His heaven! What you think and what you say and what you do outside the confines of this building is perhaps a far more accurate gauge of what is or is not in your heart."
Since the term fruit of repentance is somewhat misunderstood by many people today, people both inside and outside of the church, I would like to discuss it this morning. First John’s call to "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" was not a call to people to earn the forgiveness of sins. Fruit of repentance is a result of forgiveness and not a cause of forgiveness. Fruit of repentance is produced without any legal compulsion. That is why we find that Scripture does not set up a code book that specifies the exact form which fruit of repentance must take in the case of every sin. While at times we might wish that the Bible would say, "If you commit this sin then do this penance and then God will be satisfied," it simply does not work that way. The Bible is not to be used as a codebook of Canon Law. Scripture does, however, give us three broad principles when it comes to the fruit of repentance in our lives.
Principle Number One: The fruit of repentance is to turn away from the sin you are repenting of.
In Luke’s account of this very same incident, we are told that people were coming up to John the Baptist and asking, “What should we do?” To the crowd in general John said, "Share with those in need." Instead of being greedy, instead of simply accumulating things for ourselves, share with those in need. To the tax collectors that were despised for collecting more taxes than the Romans required John simply said, "Don’t collect any more than you are required to." And to the soldiers who were notorious for abusing their power and authority and for extorting money from the people John very simply said, "Be content with your pay."
What did Jesus say to the woman who was caught in adultery? He said, “Go now and leave your life of sin” If our sin consists of taking God’s Name in vain by allowing our conversations to be sprinkled with curse words or suggestive talk then the fruit of repentance would include cleaning up our language. If our sin were one of neglecting God’s holy Word and Sacrament by a lack of regular attendance at worship, at the Lord’s altar and at Bible class guess what the fruit of repentance would be? Have we been disobedient to our parents or dishonored them? Have we exasperated our children? Have we harbored a dislike for someone in our heart? The fruit of repentance is to turn away from the sin you are repenting of.
Principle Number Two: The fruit of repentance is to restore, if possible, what sin has ruined.
When Zacchaeus came down from the sycamore-fig tree he voluntarily said to Jesus, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount" (Luke 19:8). It is true that sometimes a sin results in irreparable damage. A drunk driver runs a red light and kills innocent people. Hateful gossip damages someone’s reputation. But if there is a way, any way, to even partially restore what our sin has ruined the fruit of repentance will lead us to do just that.
Principle Number Three: The fruit of repentance is to do everything to the glory of God, whether we eat or drink, or work or play.
Since the root of all sin is idolatry, striving to take the glory and the honor and the praise which rightfully belongs to God alone and giving it to someone or something else, the fruit of repentance will include re-focusing our heart, re-focusing our mind and re-focusing our life so that in everything we think do and say we strive to bring glory to the God who loves us enough that He died on the cross to completely pay for all of our sins.
Our Savior often used the picture of fruit to describe the life of a Christian. Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit;” Like the fruit on the branch which needs to remain connected to the vine so that it can grow and blossom, so also do we need to remain connected to Jesus so that we can produce fruit. God because of his great love for us has grafted us into his vine so that we can produce fruit and he nourishes us with his Word and Sacraments. In his Word he tells us how he sent Jesus into this world to be our substitute. He tells us how he punished Jesus for our sins instead of us. He tells us that Jesus gave up his life for you and me and now we have peace with God.
Sometimes I pick up the phone and an unfamiliar voice on the other end of the line asks if I am Mr. Railford, not Chris, not Vicar, but Mr. Railford. Almost automatically the thought goes through my mind, "Oh, no. Here we go again." I don’t want to talk to that person. I don’t even want to listen to them because they are usually trying to sell me something I either don’t need or don’t want. The call that rings in our ears today, my friends, is a call that we all need to hear. It is the voice of John the Baptist calling out to us to repent of our sins, to prepare our hearts and to prepare our lives so that we are indeed ready to again meet our King. May God graciously grant that we will indeed listen, truly listen to the Advent voice of John. Amen.