Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.
Invocation. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
1. In the days leading up to the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the word of God comes to John the Baptist. The task for which he was born is now at hand. At his birth his father had prophesied about him:
[St. Luke 1.76-77]
. . . you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.
Now, the time has come for him to fulfill his role as prophet of the Most High and prepare the way of the Lord. So he begins to preach. He preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He preaches scathing sermons to those who come to hear him. He calls the crowds a brood of vipers, for their sin has turned them into veritable snakes among the people. He taunts them with questions that remind them that God will not hold back his wrath forever. John the Baptist preaches the Law in all its scathing fury. Nothing less will do. If the people are to come to knowledge of their salvation and receive the forgiveness of their sins, they must first acknowledge their sinful ways. For this mission, God has ordained John a prophet: to bring the people to repentance in preparation for the arrival of the Messiah. Faithful to this God-given task, and filled by the Spirit of God, John preaches to the crowds:
[St. Luke 3.8-9]
8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. 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 to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
2. That was John's message for the crowds from Jerusalem. Today, it's his message for us. We are the trees of whom he speaks. And God desires that we bear good fruit: the fruit of repentance. We don't want to be called a brood of vipers, but our sins turn us into snakes among the people of God. We don't like the taunting question about the wrath of God, but we do well to hear it, for it makes clear the ultimate consequence of our sin. If we do not bear the fruit of repentance, we will be cut down like trees sawed off at the roots. John preaches this way to drive us to the examination of our souls and the confession of our sins. He calls on us to examine whether we rely on Christ—or on our Christian heritage and act as though we'll be saved simply because we have a history of faith within our family. He calls us to examine our hearts and see whether there's any healthy ground there for the seeds of faith to take root and grow. He calls to examine our thoughts, words, and deeds, and where they violate the Law of God, confess them in heartfelt repentance.
3. St. John, by his Spirit-driven preaching, strips things down to the most important aspect of Advent. He reminds us that at its heart this is a penitential season. So we bow our hearts at the cross of Christ and repent of any reliance on history and family instead of on Christ. We bow our heads before Christ himself and confess that the soil of our souls is more fit for snakes than for seeds of faith. We lay our sins before our God and father, and we repent of all our thoughts, words, and deeds that are contrary to his sacred Law. As we come in humility before God bearing these fruits of repentance, by his mercy God prepares us to see our salvation. With such fruit of the Spirit brought forth in our hearts, we are able hear with joy and anticipation of the glories we shall see at the coming of the Lord. St. John recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah and reminds us what it will be like when we lay eyes on Christ our Lord:
4. [St. Luke 3.4b-6]
"The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall become straight,
and the rough places shall become level ways,
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
5. When Christ returns the valleys of the earth shall be raised up high. Every mountain shall be brought down low and level and smooth. Bodies bent by time and made crooked by disease and age shall be made straight in the presence of Christ. Rough ways shall be made into easy passage. And in our flesh, we shall see the salvation of God Almighty.
6. Only repentance can prepare us for that. Only God, working by His Spirit can move us to such repentance. Only God himself can prepare us for that great day. So today, he uses the words of St. John the Baptist to bring us to repentance and prepare in our hearts the way of the Lord.
7. That's what repentance does. By working repentance within us, God opens our hearts to receive his gracious forgiveness in Christ. He opens our souls to accept the seeds of faith and grows them into good fruit. He opens our arms to receive Christ when he comes again in glory with the angels. And it all starts with repentance, worked in us by the Spirit of God.
8. While we come before God in repentance, we do so in faith, and hope. For we know that Christ our Lord has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows. We know that he has won forgiveness of our sins by the shedding of his blood. We know that he has brought us back from the brink of everlasting destruction and redeemed our souls. Yes, during Advent we come before God in repentance, contrition and confession, just as John the Baptist calls us to do, but as we do so we do not lose our joy, for through this repentance God forgives our sins and gives us the knowledge of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.
9. That's what forgiveness does. It opens our eyes to the blessings our Lord brought as he took on our flesh. Forgiveness opens our hearts to receive the one born of the Blessed Virgin, and know that in his brith, the preparations for the Last Day have commenced, and will not be hindered. Forgiveness opens our souls to the true meaning of Christmas: God has come to us and makes his dwelling in our midst. And forgiveness opens our arms to our brothers and sisters in the faith, and says, "Together, we shall see the salvation of God."
10. While we wait for the day when we will see Christ in all his glory, the Holy Spirit shows him to us in the means of grace. As the Scriptures are read and preached, Christ makes his presence known. As we return to our Baptisms in Confession and Absolution, Christ gives us a preview of the restoration of all things. And as we feast on his very body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ gives us a foretaste of the feast to which he will welcome us at the end of the age.
11. For he himself is the salvation of God, and while we wait for his return he bids us focus on his cross. It is there that he forgave our sins. There he renewed our hearts. There he set in motion the filling of the valleys that we shall see on the last day. On the cross, Christ began to lay the mountains low and raise up the valleys as the earth shook at his death. At Calvary, Jesus straightened all things crooked and sent dead men forth from their tombs. On the cross, Christ revealed the salvation of God, for in his shed blood flows our forgiveness, our live, and our salvation from sin, death, and the devil. In Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension, we see the completion of our salvation and the beginning of the end of the age. So Christ bids us take our stand at the foot of the cross, for there, the preparations have been made.
12. There, Christ leads us to contrition. There, Christ brings us to repentance. There, at the foot of the cross, Christ forgives our every sin and grants us his Holy Spirit. By that Spirit, we bear fruits in keeping with repentance. By that same Spirit, we respond to God's call to prepare the way of the Lord Jesus Christ, trusting that he himself has prepared us fully by his suffering, dying and rising: for nothing less could save us. And Christ has saved us for nothing less than eternal life with him in the glories of heaven. For that, we are certainly prepared. Praise God.
Invocation. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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