Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 3

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    By nature we all want our Christianity to be comfortable.  We don’t mind if it makes some demands on us–we expect that.  But we don’t want it to rock the boat too much or get in the way of our dreams and desires.  Our old Adam inevitably tries to domesticate the faith, to make it something manageable and under our control, something that fits into our designs rather than something that places us into God’s greater design.  And so we go to church (at least somewhat regularly), we know the right answers, but we grow numb to the sin in our life, resistant to our need to change.  The Christian faith just becomes just one part of our lives rather than life itself.    

    But in today’s Gospel John the Baptizer teaches us that Christianity cannot be domesticated like that.  He calls out to us with uncompromising words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  He won’t let us settle in to this world and be comfortable with our lives.  He’s always calling us to turn away from our sins and worldly loves, to prepare for the coming kingdom of Christ and to have no other allegiance than to Jesus.  If you are to be a Christian, you can never be entirely settled or comfortable in this world.  For repentance is not just a one-time action but a way of life, daily dying to sin and self and living the new life of Christ.

    John calls us out of our comfort zones into the wilderness, away from the supposedly civilized world with its illusions and lies.  It is written that the people went out to be baptized by John in the Jordan, “confessing their sins.”  We do something like that here each week, “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to you all my sins and iniquities.”  And yet, it’s not exactly the same, is it?  For they were confessing specific things.  The problem with general confession is that we then become generic sinners.  Generalities are safe.  What’s the threat in admitting you’re a sinner, just like everyone else in the world?  Big deal.  But what is it specifically that you do that is wrong?  And perhaps more importantly, what is it that you don’t do that you should be doing toward God and others?  In what ways do you try to justify and make excuses for yourself?  The Law John preaches leaves no room to escape our need to repent.

    This is no small matter; this is no game.  For John says, “Even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  You are to bear fruits worthy of repentance, humble deeds of love which demonstrate that you are relying not on yourself and your own spiritual pedigree but on Christ alone and His coming salvation.

    “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  The Lord seeks to push down anything that stands between you and Him.  The terrain of your life will not be left the same after the bulldozers of God’s Law have plowed their path.  Everyone must become different and new.  For it is written, “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades.”  Everything we are, everything we do and accomplish is only temporary.  All this talk from John may sound a bit Scrooge-like.  But it's for our good; he doesn’t want us to count on things that don’t last.  Only the Word of our God stands forever.  And it is upon His Word, and not anything in us, that our eternal life rests.  Only what comes from the mouth of the Lord is sure and lasting.

    Hear, then, today what the Word says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  The King is coming!  Jesus is near!  He’s about to arrive!  And that’s good news!  For He comes to save every penitent heart and to help those who have been humbled and laid low.

    From the Lord’s mouth now comes a Word of Gospel, a Word of consolation, “Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.  “Cry out to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”  Christianity is not comfortable, but it is comforting.  The Lord tells His preachers, “Speak tenderly and lovingly to the Church, speak to the heart of my bride, and preach kind words to her.  Tell her that she is forgiven.”  

    Do you see how the Lord comforts us?  He reveals that His hand is not a closed iron fist waiting to pound you, but an open hand giving you the free gift of mercy.  For while every tree that does not bear good fruit is indeed cut down and thrown into the fire, there is another tree that stands in the place of our own, the tree of the cross.  Though that wood was dry and lifeless, yet it yielded the most precious fruit on its limbs, the very body of Christ sacrificed for the sins of the whole world.  Though He was entirely without sin, yet Jesus was chopped down in death for us.  He was thrown into the fiery judgment we deserved so that we would be spared and forgiven.  We are not worthy even to carry his sandals, yet He stooped down and carried us out of death through His resurrection.  He has arisen from the earth as a fruitful Vine, and we have been grafted into Him so that we may share in His life forever and bear fruit by His Spirit.

    So hear the prophet’s message:  Your warfare is over.  The battle against sin and Satan and the grave is won by Christ.  You can rest; you are at peace.  In the midst of all that would weary you, in the midst of all that stands against you, the victory is already yours in Christ.  The Lord is for you.  Nothing can separate you from His love.  You have received from Him double forgiveness for your sins, twice as much as you need, and then some.  God has given you everything He’s got, without limit, all of Jesus, so that you may never doubt that you have truly been made right with Him.  All of your sins have been answered for and taken away.  As John said of Jesus at Jordan’s baptismal waters, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  

    That’s how Jesus is mightier even than the mighty preacher, John the Baptist.  Jesus baptizes you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  Though fire means judgment, now in Christ it is a cleansing, enlightening fire.  For the Holy Spirit and fire were poured out by Christ on Pentecost.  Peter would declare that Pentecost day,“Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  And also note that John says this: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  That means that Jesus is the one who baptized you, regardless of who the pastor was.  He has given you His mighty salvation by the fire of His Spirit.

    And so you are called today, then, to live in that light of your baptism.  Die with Christ to your stubborn self will.  And rise with Him to a new life in His good and sacrificial and perfect will.  Learn to live a life in this world that is not comfortable, but that is comforted and comforting.  Trust in Christ, the incarnate Son of God, and find your real life in Him.  

    For the tree of the cross does bear good fruit for you to partake of–the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for your forgiveness and healing and comfort.  It is toward this great Feast of Christ that you repent; it is to this Food and Drink that you are turned.  For here at His Altar, the very Kingdom of heaven, the Lord Himself is at hand: not with a heavy hand, but with the right hand of fellowship–peace with Him and with each other through His mercy.

    This is your true Christmas preparation.  For here we humbly kneel before the Lord as before the manger.  Here the glory of the Lord is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠