Just about everything we buy today comes with a warning. Some of them are necessary – like the warning to never mix bleach and vinegar, or you will end up with poisonous chlorine gas. Some would seem to a reasonable person to be unnecessary and ridiculous. Clothes irons warn us not to use while we are wearing the shirt or pants – even though it would save time. My grandfather’s chainsaw carried the warning: do not attempt to stop chain with hand – a mistake I suppose you only make once. And, maybe the most common warning label we see is the one on coffee cups: caution, contents are hot – I hope so, that’s what I paid for. Why do so many products carry these seemingly unnecessary warning labels? Because someone, somewhere has actually harmed themselves by using the product in a manner it was not designed for – and paid the price for it. When we’re using irons and chainsaws and drinking coffee, we are free to ignore the warnings – but the only person we’re hurting is ourselves. This morning John the Baptist has an Advent Warning for us, and it too is one that we ignore at our own risk.
For the people living in Israel in those days (the days when Jesus was growing up in Nazareth) John’s arrival and appearance were unusual and shocking. Not so much for what he did, but for what he didn’t do. He didn’t set up shop in Jerusalem, eat top-shelf food, or wear fancy clothes that set him apart as one of the religious elite in Israel. He worked in the desert, wore camel’s hair and ate locusts and honey. Why? What message was he sending? Well, part of it was intended to remind the people that Isaiah wrote about this man coming 700 years earlier. But the other part was intended to convey nothing. His humble appearance was meant to point people’s attention away from himself and focus it on the more important thing: his message.
John’s message, that’s the really shocking part: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near. Repent! What does that mean? What is repentance? Repentance is a change of mind. It is a 180 degree change of direction. It means to look at things differently: rather than seeing things from our sinful, broken human point of view, we are to see things (especially ourselves) from God’s point of view. A synonym for repentance is conversion: from unbelief to faith, from a mind that hates God to a mind that loves God, from one dead in sin to one alive in Christ. The penitent person sees the error of his ways compared to God’s will, confesses that he deserves eternal death for his sins, and throws himself on God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrificial death. Repentance differs from worldly regret and guilt because repentance is God’s work. This is not something we can do to ourselves. Repentance is the process God began when he drowned us in the water of Baptism and continues to work in us through his message of Law and Gospel. For Christians, this process continues every day of life until God finally kills the sinful flesh once and for all by returning it to the dust it came from.
Theoretically, it doesn’t sound so bad, does it? It almost sounds like one of those unnecessary warnings because who wouldn’t want to get back on good terms with God? We all have an inborn awareness of our sin. That desire to be right with God is why so many people went out to [John] from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
But not all of those in attendance were sincere: 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 say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. What’s the difference? Why did John baptize the rag-tag multitudes and then react so fiercely when the Jewish leaders showed up? John could see from their teaching and living that their hearts were not right. They were not ready to confess their sins, acknowledge their guilt, and receive John’s baptism for forgiveness. Don’t get the wrong idea, these were very devout men. Humanly speaking, they were the very best church members. They were willing to do anything it took to be right with God – fasting and washing and sacrificing – just as long as they didn’t have to admit their need, confess their sins, open their hearts to the piercing blade of the law and their ears to the saving message of the Gospel. Theirs was a totally superficial, self-centered religion. They imagined that God was pleased because of who they were and what they did. John’s question to them, then, is best understood as ironic: who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? No one. Because they didn’t think they were in any danger. They were Abraham’s descendants, and, therefore, immune from God’s wrath over sin. When they looked at themselves, they didn’t see their utter depravity and their deep need for a Savior. They looked at themselves as people who were doing everything they needed to stay on God’s good side. To these men, who placed their faith in themselves, John was blunt: 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 question for us is: do we need this kind direct, pointed preaching today? Note: the question is not do we want it but do we need it? Our gut reaction might be: no, we’re here after all, aren’t we? Just moments ago we confessed our sins and received forgiveness. We are fine with a calm, measured, non-accusatory sermon that doesn’t ruffle too many feathers. We’re ok with fire and brimstone as long as it’s directed ills of the world, the sickness and depravity of our society, the dark and ugly sins of politicians and celebrities. We feel pretty good inside when we are led to think: well, compared to most people, I look pretty good, I don’t lead an outwardly, obviously sinful life, I’m Lutheran – which means that our doctrine and practice are faithful to Scripture, I’m baptized and confirmed and active in the church – if anyone is safe from God’s wrath, it’s me.
Do you see how easy it is to become a Pharisee? To underestimate our sin and overestimate our goodness. To make our worship more a matter of going through the motions and good behavior than the kind of worship God really desires: the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51:17) We know enough not to say it out loud, but don’t we sometimes begin to think that we deserve God’s grace now and will get a ticket into paradise when we die because of who we are and what we do? Whether we want to admit it or not, we too need John’s warning, and it needs to go deeper than our ears, it needs to pierce our hearts, because there is a Pharisee in each one of us. The warning for us today is this: God still does not accept man-made religion. There is no back door to heaven for people who want to find their own way in. If we imagine that we can have saving faith in Jesus and yet disagree with his teachings: about marriage, about creation, about the use of the Sacraments or the roles of men and women – then the only thing we have to look forward to is hearing: sorry, I don’t know you. (Matthew 7:22) If we think that God should be flattered that we’re here to listen to his Word, we need to understand that God doesn’t need us, he can make disciples out of stones if he so desires. If we think we can have a right relationship with God without ever being offended, without making the conscious effort to, with God’s help, amend our sinful lives, we need to hear that the God’s ax is still ready to chop down dead, fruitless trees.
Not much has changed in 2000 years. We are still sinners who have a Pharisaical tendency to want to justify ourselves, to save ourselves from God’s wrath. So yes, we too need to hear the clear, harsh, pointed preaching of the Law aimed at our hearts. Mine is the heart that needs to be crushed. I need be shown the depth of my sin. I need have my case for self-justification in God’s courtroom blown up and admit that I don’t meet his requirements. I need to hear John preaching the Law in all of its severity to my heart. And so do you. This is not one of those warnings we can ignore as unnecessary. If we do, the only people we’re hurting is ourselves.
But then the procrastinator in us comes out. One commentator named him professor Ja-But. Yeah, but God wants to keep forgiving me and I want to keep sinning – so it’s a perfect arrangement. Yeah, but there will always be time to turn my life around when I’m older. Yeah, but God knows that I mean good even when I do evil. Yeah, but God wouldn’t really send anyone to hell, would he, after all God is love. (1 John 4:8) If professor Ja-But ever guides your thinking or influences your faith, then these words are for you: 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. 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.
This is the urgency we face. This is why there is no time to waste, no excuses to be made. This is why it’s dangerous to think that we can always repent later or use God’s grace as a license to sin. Jesus, whose way John was preparing, has come. He has accomplished his mission of salvation. He took our place under God’s law and lived a life of perfect obedience. He demonstrated perfect love for everyone, friends and foes alike, by not telling them what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. He endured rejection from the very people he came to save. He did not complain when the rulers of Israel unjustly convicted and condemned him to death. He willingly took our place on a cursed cross and endured the hell our sins deserved. He demonstrated his power by crushing Satan’s skull under his foot and ripped the heart out of death by stepping out of the tomb. Everything that Jesus came to do – he did. All that’s left now is to clear the threshing floor of this world; to separate penitent believers from stubborn, impenitent unbelievers. Wherever God’s Word – his Law and Gospel – are proclaimed, that separation is taking place. Right here, right now, Jesus is busy gathering his wheat and burning up the chaff.
The only question left is: how will we react? Will we confess our sins, will our repentance go deeper than our lips, will we openly and honestly admit that on our own we deserve nothing but God’s wrath? Will we drop all our good works and acknowledge them as filthy rags tainted by sin? (Isaiah 64:6) If so, then John has good news for you: the kingdom of heaven is near. Pointing out sin was only the first half of John’s message, he did it so that he could follow up by pointing to Jesus: Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) Jesus is as close to you as the words of absolution you heard earlier. He is as close to you as the body and blood he shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins which you will receive in the Lord’s Supper. For when you admit that you are helpless to get to heaven on your own, your Savior says: relax, I’ve done it for you. On the other hand, if you’re not yet ready to let the Law penetrate all the way to your heart. If you want to cling to the idea that you’re really not that bad. If you can’t bring yourself to repent and change your life to produce fruit in keeping with repentance, if you ignore John the Baptist’s warning, well, you’re only hurting yourself.
There are some warnings that we can afford to ignore, some we can even laugh at. This is not one of them. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near, John warns. Let us allow the Law to do its important, preparatory work on our hearts. Let it crush us by showing us who we truly are in God’s sight. Let it lead us to despair of our own works and drive us to trust Jesus’ perfect, substitutionary work. Then we will be well prepared to receive God’s Christmas Savior and the real peace he brings. There’s no time to waste. Repent and believe: you and I are sinners, admit it. Jesus came to save sinners, believe it. Amen.