Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 7, 2009

Sermon on Luke 3:1-6

REPENTANCE IS SERIOUS BUSINESS!

  1. Isaiah previewed John’s call to repentance
  2. John proclaimed God’s call to repentance
  3. God desires that we come to repentance

Text: Luke 3:1-6

Introduction

We Lutherans can be some pretty odd creatures!  I’m sure that members of every Christian denomination poke fun at themselves and say similar things about themselves, but we Lutherans certainly have our unique quirks.  As the stereotype goes, Lutherans will drink coffee at any gathering regardless of the temperature outside.  It could be 110 degrees, but we still want our coffee!  Another stereotype about Lutherans is that we don’t like to change.  Maybe you have heard the joke: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?  The answer: Change?  Lutherans don’t change!

I’m not so sure those stereotypes are entirely accurate, but here is a characteristic about Lutherans that I have found to be true on many occasions.  Ask a Lutheran what his or her favorite seasons of the church year are.  When I have found myself in those discussions, the answers are usually not Christmas or Easter, the celebratory seasons.  I have no scientific way to confirm this, but in my experience it seems like the favorite seasons of the church year among Lutherans are Advent and Lent.  Think about that.  Advent and Lent, the preparatory seasons; not Christmas and Easter, the celebratory seasons.  Advent and Lent, the time you talk about sin and repentance; not Christmas and Easter, the joyous Christmas song of the angels and the joyous resurrection announcement from the angels.  Could anything be so odd as to prefer seasons that focus on repentance instead of victory?

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent.  Of all the Sundays in Advent, this is the Sunday that we especially highlight God’s call to repentance as a way to prepare for the coming of Jesus.  This appears to be a day when Lutherans can really get their fix of “Adventy” talk about repentance.  But before we assume that a repentance focus is just some odd Lutheran quirk for Advent and Lent, we should take to heart what Luke has to say in the Gospel for today.  Luke takes us to the Judean wilderness where John the Baptist called people to repentance to prepare them for the start of Jesus’ ministry.  It should become fairly obvious from this reading that Advent talk about repentance is not some odd Lutheran liturgical quirk, but a very sober and serious statement from God Almighty.  Repentance is serious business!  And that’s why Luke includes all the details he does in today’s Gospel.  He wants us to understand that repentance is serious business!  He reveals that Isaiah the prophet previewed John’s call to repentance.  He records how John the Baptist proclaimed God’s call to repentance.  And he reports why God also desires that we come to repentance.

I.

We’re going to start our study of Luke’s words at the end of our reading.  Luke maps out the historical circumstances surrounding John the Baptist’s ministry and describes his message in the first half of our reading.  But in the second half of our reading, Luke shows us that Isaiah, one of the greatest Old Testament prophets who served God’s people, previewed John’s work of calling people to repentance.  Since Isaiah’s work really preceded John’s work, let’s take a look at Isaiah’s message before we look at John’s message.  “As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.  Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low.  The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.  And all mankind will see God’s salvation.”’” 

If those words from Isaiah sound familiar, it’s because all four Gospels quote a portion of this section of Isaiah’s book and connect it to John’s ministry.  Quite a few hymns have been inspired from these words.  But what does Isaiah have in mind when he imagines John calling for raised valleys, flattened mountains, and smooth, straight paths?  Remember that John’s job was to get people ready for Jesus.  God incarnate was coming among them, and it wasn’t simply a “get to know you” visit.  God incarnate was coming to bail them out of hell and buy them back from Satan.  Jesus, God in human flesh was coming to undo the damage done by the sin—and that meant that everyone who heard John’s message needed to think about the sin in his own life.  Sin is not merely a “no-no.”  Sin is not a spiritual “oops.”  Sin is the barrier we have put between ourselves and God.  Sin is the baggage that has been attached to our hearts ever since our first parents decided to listen to Satan’s lies rather than God’s goodness.  Sin’s steep mountains and deep valleys will keep Jesus removed from us.  So John’s job was to call people to repentance so that he could then bring them the good news of Jesus’ work—and Isaiah previewed that very serious message about repentance.

But if we thought that this was just a historical message for a particular time and place, or if we thought that Isaiah’s preview and John’s proclamation has little to do with us, then we’d be sorely mistaken.  Luke included a very important thought from Isaiah’s preview of John’s work: All mankind will see God’s salvation.”  One of the threads found throughout Luke’s Gospel is the all-encompassing nature of Jesus’ work.  Jesus is not only the Savior for one ethnic race, or for generations from days gone by.  Jesus is the Savior for all mankind—and that means none of us can come up with an “excuse clause” exempting us from taking John’s repentance message seriously.

II.

Repentance is serious business.  Luke does not encourage us to weasel our way out of this very serious discussion.  At the start of our reading, Luke underscores that John’s message was a very real message.  Unlike a fairy tale, Luke doesn’t start out chapter three with the words, “Once upon a time.”  Luke puts John’s message into its factual and historical context.  “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”

If we were in Bible Class right now, I might offer background information about each government official that Luke mentions.  Bible Class is meant to give you information.  Sermons give information also, but the pastor’s main goal in a sermon is not to fill you with information that will increase your knowledge, but to fill you with a message that will strengthen your faith.  So let it suffice to say that the information Luke gives us takes us to the year 26 A.D. as the start of John’s repentance-preaching ministry.  And since Luke surrounds us with a historical context, this shows us that John’s call to repentance was real.  It was fact.  It was historical.  This is not “once upon a time.”  This is not a baptized version of Aesop’s fables.  John was a real person predicted by Isaiah and sent by God with a serious message about repentance.

Since John’s message is factual and serious, doesn’t that warrant a closer look at what he said?  Next Sunday’s Gospel will complete this account and look at the verses that follow, but in today’s reading, we look at the simple summary of his message in verse three.  “He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  John the Baptist is known as John the Baptist because of a special command he received from God to baptize people.  But he didn’t merely baptize someone as an empty religious ceremony.  This was a baptism of repentance.  The people who came to John for baptism came because they took his message of repentance to heart; they wanted a real seal and promise from God that their sins would be washed away through the Prophet of prophets who followed John’s ministry.  John’s baptismal ministry was another facet of his proclamation of repentance.

III.

We’ve spent ten minutes or so talking about the way Isaiah previewed John’s message, and the way John called the crowds to repent.  This information might seem like it is far removed from our lives today, but there’s one little word in our reading that says otherwise.  When Luke quoted Isaiah’s words, he introduced the quotation this way: “As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet.”  On the one hand, that’s a standard way for a New Testament writer to quote an Old Testament writer.  But on the other hand, there is a subtle point in Luke’s word that we ought to consider.  When Luke said, “As [it] is written,” he wrote the original Greek phrase and grammar in a way that indicates that the past quote from Isaiah still has lasting value long after Isaiah first wrote the words.  And we could say the same thing about Luke’s record of John’s ministry.  When we read about John’s proclamation that called the crowds to repentance, those words have lasting significance for us today.  John may have verbally called first century people to repentance, but his recorded words in Scripture call twenty-first century people to repentance.  That call to repent has little to do with a Lutheran tradition or expectation.  It has everything to do with our sinful and lost condition.

But I have to be honest with you.  I wonder sometimes how seriously we take God’s call to repentance to heart.  I wonder if we don’t listen to preaching with “Lutheran ears.”  We know that the pastor has to preach the law, and he’s going to try to make us squirm a little bit; but eventually he’s going to preach the gospel, and then we will all “live happily ever after.”  Knowing that you are going to hear law and gospel is not a bad thing.  Tuning out the law and failing to heed the call to repent because you know the gospel is coming next—that is a bad thing, and I shudder to think how often we fall into that kind of thinking.

Some of you have no intention of returning to church next Sunday because you were here today.  You don’t come two weeks in a row.  You know that God says you should be in his house, hearing his Word, receiving his Sacrament, and growing in faith regularly, but you have no intention to change your sporadic attendance.  If you plan to leave those doors today and not come back any time soon, you ought to ask yourself where you stand with God, because that doesn’t sound like repentance.

Some of you use some pretty harsh language.  Your comments about others, even family, make it seem like you have no love for them.  Your language and attitude make others wonder what kind of Christian you are, even though they’ll never ask you that.  You know that God calls us to speak decently and to take others’ words and actions in the kindest way, but you have no intention of fighting your sinful flesh’s rough ways.  If you plan to let God’s Word go in one ear today and out the other tomorrow, you ought to ask yourself where you stand with God, because that doesn’t sound like repentance.

Some of you have disregarded God’s will for sex and marriage.  You think that if the church doesn’t know about it, then God must not know about it.  You knew that shacking up was wrong when you did it in your earlier years, but “why fuss now about something that’s in the past?”  Or you know that it’s wrong now, but instead of resisting the temptation you’ve put yourself right into it.  If you plan to outright ignore God’s will and design for marriage and sexuality, or if you have created your own excuses why it was okay then or is okay now, you ought to ask yourself where you stand with God, because that doesn’t sound like repentance.

I’m not speaking about the person who struggles with a particular sin, even to the point of losing that struggle more than winning.  I’m talking about the person who is apathetic about sin.  I’m talking about the person who is “okay” with sin.  And it doesn’t take much to find someone who fits that description.  Sometimes all it takes is a mirror with your own image staring back at you to find someone who needs to hear the call to repent.  Sometimes all it takes is a mirror to find someone who doesn’t seem to grasp that hell is real and permanent and God’s righteous answer to our sinfulness.

Why do we need to hear this?  Why do we need to consider John’s repentance message?  Is this some sort of Lutheran self-loathing exercise we do each Advent?  Or maybe this is exactly what Jesus, our spiritual Physician, ordered?  Maybe Jesus wants the law to hit our sinful nature like a bucket of cold water splashed in our face.  Maybe Jesus wants to eliminate the valleys of our sin and topple the mountains of our iniquity that separate us from him.  Maybe, just maybe, the hard, cold reality of God’s just judgment and call to repentance has a very good purpose.

When you realize that you are lost and condemned in sin, is there any better news than that Jesus “purchased and won [you] from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death” (Apostles’ Creed, Second Article, Luther’s Small Catechism)?  When you feel the flames of hell nipping at your feet, is there any better news than the shower of God’s love and forgiveness that he gave you at your baptism?  When you finally recognize that sin has trapped you in its snare, is there any better news than the arrival of Jesus Christ, God’s “eternal Son, whose advent has our freedom won” (CW 16:5)?  When you feel the spiritual starvation of your sinful ways, is there any better news than the Savior’s invitation, “Take, eat, and drink.  This is my body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”?

Conclusion

Repentance is serious business.  Critics of Christianity will say that it’s just the church’s way to control people.  Our sinful flesh will say that it’s a message that someone else needs to hear.  But the call to repent is a message we all need to hear.  God desires that we come to repentance, not to control us with his law, but to console us with his grace.  God wants us to come to him in sincere repentance so that he can come to us with the forgiveness his Son came to win on the cross, and the promise of eternal life that his Son came to win by his resurrection.  That’s not child’s play.  That’s serious business.  Don’t take God’s call to repentance lightly.  Take it seriously, but know that God is equally serious about saving you, adopting you, calling you his own, and taking you to be with him for all eternity.  Amen.

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