December 4, 2016 – Second Sunday in Advent
by Pastor Pete Scheele
Grace and peace to you as you live in the assurance of God’s love, from God, our Father, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the summer between my junior and senior year in college I work as the maintenance foreman for Sky Ranch Lutheran Camp, which is up in the Pouter River valley west of Fort Collins. My job was to keep all the student cabins, retreat cabins, Backpack cabins, main lodge, cafeteria, shower and restroom facilities cleaned, maintained and in good order for the whole summer and to do that I had a crew of 6 high school young men to help me. One of the other tasks that I was given during that summer was to get the road leading to Sky Ranch maintained and start preparing for its improvement. Now the road from the county road that led up to the main-lodge at Sky Ranch was just a little over a mile long and it when over a creek then it wound its way up a hill before get to the valley that Sky Ranch was built in. Each week I would choose a pair of the maintenance crewmen to work along the road cutting down trees and brush so that the road could be widened to be twice the size or big enough for two cars to travel on it at the same time. By the end of the summer we had all the trees cut down and then in that fall they brought in a construction crew who used bulldozers and other large equipment to put in a new bridge and make what was once a rugged road, that some buses and cars would travel on, to a smooth gravel road.
Preparing the path of Christ, that is preparing the way of the Lord, that is the Old Testament imagery from Isaiah that the Gospel of Matthew uses to describe the prophetic and baptismal ministry of John the Baptist. John’s prophetic message was that the Lord was coming in grace and judgment, so it was time for all the people of Judea and Galilee to get prepare. Yet due to the sinful rebellion and idolatry of God’s people it was almost as if God’s path to His people had become a dangerous road filled with rough terrain! It was John’s purpose to get the people ready for the coming of the Lord so that Christ wouldn’t find a barren wilderness where his people were suppose to be, but rather a people waiting in eager expectation for His arrival to deliver them from their sin.
Now if John the Baptist thought that the spiritual condition of the first-century Israel was challenging, can you imagine what he would think if he were preaching in the spiritual wilderness of the twenty-first-century of the United States. We have all sorts of false religions among us, from Islam to Mormons, why we have a huge segment of the population practicing the me religion and the no religion and then there is that significant portion of the Christian Church that denies justification by faith alone or the resurrection of the body of Christ. Why John the Baptist wouldn’t have had to change his message for many of the Christians today because they see no reason to get ready for Christ to come again. Why the three step process that John the Baptist proclaimed in his time is still the three step process that we need to be working on in our time, as we get ready for the Advent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and celebrate the anniversary of His coming the first time.
Our text tells us, ‘In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.”’ (Mt 3:1 – 3) Thus the first step in John the Baptist instruction to get ready for the coming Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is to repent! Or as I learned in the process of preparing the pathway to Sky Ranch Lutheran camp many years ago, it all starts with a survey of the path that leads to where you want to go. For me at Sky Ranch it was getting with the camp director, a few of the members of the board of directors and using surveying equipment to mark out the path that we wanted the road to go on.
For John the Baptist it was surveying the crowd and asking them where they were looking to go as the Evangelist Matthew records, ‘But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not presume 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. 10 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.”’ (Mt 3:7- 10) John the Baptist didn’t sugarcoat his condemnation of sinners. As did the prophets of ancient Israel, they told people straight up the deep problems they were in without the grace of God. So it is for us today we need to survey our lives and get ready to repent.
Repent does not mean just being contrite or sorry for our sins, but it also encompasses faith, believing in God’s grace to forgive sins for the sake of Christ’s life, death and resurrection done for us. Without the Holy Spirit working the miracles of faith in our lives, being sorry for sin is a dead end. Just as John the Baptist called people of old to survey their lives, repent and confess their sin, and ask God to work on changing their lives, so Advent is a special time for each of us Christians to survey our lives, repent and confess our sins and ask God to help us change our lives. Yes, Advent is a call to the believers and the unbelieving of the world to repent and get ready for the coming of the Lord.
Advent is a time for all of us to be honest with God and one another as we survey our lives and confess our wrongs, the sins in our lives. That means using those three simple words that most people, including many Christians, find difficult to say, “I am sorry.” When we transgress against God or someone else, we would rather complain, scream or argue then tell God or other people, “I am sorry.” Evidence of repentance, of faith working in us by the Holy Spirit, in John the Baptist time, was when the people came to John the Baptist to be baptized confess their sins and turned back to God for help in living out their lives. Confession of sin is the rhythm of life for a Christian. Advent is the time of the year to make sure that we are back in the rhythm of confessing our sins to God and to one another as we live our live with God’s love.
The second aspect to preparing Christ’s path is to live in our baptismal grace. For the people of God, in John the Baptist time, it was part of a ritual to wash your self in preparation for see God or to come into His presence. The Jews washed themselves in preparation for meeting God at Mt Sinai; the Jews washed themselves in preparation for going into the temple to offer a sacrifice for their sins. So for John the Baptist it was no different. As the people came to John the Baptist surveying their sin and asking for forgiveness they were plunged under the water to wash away their sins in preparation for the Christ coming. In our baptism we were washed of all our sins because of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross of Calvary for us, to get us prepared for His coming again.
John the Baptist said this about His Baptism and our Baptism, “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.” (Mt 3:11) When you were baptized, you received the Holy Spirit, who united you with all the saving work of Jesus Christ. Therefore, an important aspect of preparing Christ’s path is simply living in the baptism grace, claiming and treasuring it in your life. This can mean some work and time as God works in your life to enable your faith to grow through God’s Word and Sacraments. Advent is a time to get back to the spiritual basics, and living out our Baptismal lives as one of the spiritual foundations in our lives built upon.
The third aspect of preparing Christ path is as John the Baptist said, “Bear the fruit of repentance!” (Mt 3:8) This command sounds rather challenging, and John the Baptist goes on with stronger words of judgment for those who don’t do this by saying, “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt 3:10) So if we are sinners, then how can poor trees like us produce good fruit? By the Holy Spirit working repentance and faith in us through Jesus Christ, so it is not us who produce good fruit, but the Holy Spirit whom we have received abundantly in our Baptism as we were united with Christ. The fruits we cannot produce by nature are such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, these are all produced as the Holy Spirit works in and through us by God’s Word and Sacraments. These fruits need to be growing in us and other also so that the path to Jesus is ready to be laid out in our lives through the Holy Spirit working through us as we share God’s Word and His love with others.
John the Baptist must have been overwhelmed with his task – so much to do to prepare in Judea and Galilee for the coming Christ. We to, especially during this Advent season, may feel overwhelmed with our mission. But it all starts within each of us repenting and confessing our sins, living in our baptismal grace and bearing the fruits of repentance worked in us by the Holy Spirit. The path to our hearts is then wide open and ready for the coming Savior, Jesus Christ. We, in turn, want others to experience the undeserved love of God in Christ that we already have as we prepare for Christ during this Advent. So we call others to repent and confess their sins, we encourage others to be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit and we bear the fruits of repentance produced in us by the Holy Spirit so that the path way will be prepared for in our hearts and shared with others so that faith can be strengthened in them and grow. Amen.