In those days John the Baptist appeared …

Matthew 3:1

The gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (Matthew 3:1-12) offers one of my favorite Christmas-time traditions: Our annual visit from John the Baptist. Every year, on the Second Sunday in Advent, our gospel reading features this remarkable prophet, whose sole task in life was to prepare the way of the Lord. And he does it with style, doesn’t he? Out in the wilderness, dressed strangely, living off of the land, baptizing in the river Jordan, and proclaiming a powerful message. John knew a very simple but world-changing truth – that the Messiah was coming; and it is time to get ready. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, is on his way; the long-promised Savior who would rescue Israel from its sin.

John believed what the world only hoped for – that the Savior was about to come, and with him would come the whole kingdom of heaven. And he dedicated his life to preparing the way. Fearlessly. Passionately. Without counting the cost, which would be his very life. But he didn’t care. Because he was doing what God wanted him to do. And nothing else mattered more. 

The Forerunner 

John the Baptist is sometimes called the “forerunner” because he came before Jesus, was sent in advance of Jesus, to announce his coming and to get the world ready for Jesus. And that has led me to ponder this week, what about us? Who is our forerunner? Who (or what) prepares us for Jesus? Who or what prepares us for God to come into our life and into our world? The point and purpose of John the Baptist is to be that forerunner, to call those around him to repentance, to prepare the way of the Lord. But in our busy secular world, who or what does that for us? 

Our forerunner may not be a person at all. I have been thinking, for example, of how suffering can serve that role. A new illness can sometimes prepare the way for God to come into our life in a new way. I once visited the spouse of a church member after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told me that if he ever got out of that hospital, he was going to get baptized and join my church. He did, and then he did. It was my privilege to welcome him into the kingdom of God through the waters of holy baptism. And then it was my honor to remind his loved ones of this gift on the day of his funeral. 

I could tell several more such stories. Crises in people’s lives that led them to the faith, or perhaps back for the faith. That served as forerunners, of sorts. They show us that God is still at work in this world. The Holy Spirit continues to call people in all sorts of mysterious and varied ways. Call these ways “forerunners” and then notice the ways in which they prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Suffering, as I said, can serve that role. It is not that God causes all suffering, but that God can use all suffering to lead us back to him. C.S. Lewis calls pain the megaphone that rouses our deaf world. “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Yes. But not always. Suffering can break our hearts open to the mystery and mercy of God. But suffering can also make us bitter. It can harden our hearts and close us to love and mercy. And the question that I will probably spend the rest of my life pondering is, why? Why does suffering lead some closer to Jesus, and why does it make others bitter? Why does it strengthen the faith of some and weaken the faith of others? 

John the Baptist

To consider that question in light of today’s gospel reading, we might wonder why some accepted John the Baptist, while others rejected him. Many people were going out to him, the story tells us, and were baptized by him, confessing their sins. But others were going out to him for other reasons. John saw into their hearts, and didn’t like what he saw. Why? Because he saw a sin that they were hiding away, locked up to be kept safe: the sin of presumption. They have Abraham as their ancestor. They are God’s chosen. They don’t need what John is offering. They don’t need to repent. They are wrong. And John knows it. He famously calls them a brood of vipers, and challenges them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. 

And I think that we misread this story if we don’t see a little of us in those vipers. If we don’t acknowledge a little of that same sin locked away, the sin of presumption. We are not children of Abraham in that same way, but we are baptized Christians. We are active churchgoers. We might be tempted to think, what do we need to repent of? What do we need to change? What do we need to do to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord? If we can’t think of anything, then we might have fallen into that same trap, of presuming that we don’t have to make any changes before we come face-to-face with Jesus.  

If this reading doesn’t make us just a little uncomfortable, in other words, we may be missing something important. We should be asking ourselves – not anyone else – if we are bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Are we bearing good fruit in our lives? And we know what that fruit is – it is love and joy and peace; it is patience and kindness and generosity; it is faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Are we bearing these things? What are some things we need to work on? What are some things that we know we can do better with? To honestly ask those questions is to do the hard work of Advent, the work of repenting and preparing for the coming of the Lord. 

Repentance as an “I Can’t” Experience

But once we have come up with things to work on, how do we work on them? How do we work on having more joy, or more patience, or more gentleness? It’s not like getting in shape or cleaning our house. We can’t sign up for a class and learn this new skill. It comes from somewhere else. To be called to repent tells us what not to do, but it doesn’t tell us what to do in its place. That’s because to repent is to acknowledge that we can’t do it. Not on our own. Here is how the Lutheran theologian Richard Jensen puts it:

In repenting … we ask the God who has turned towards us, buried us in baptism and raised us to new life, to continue his work of putting us to death. Repentance is an ‘I can’t’ experience … The repentant person comes before God saying, ‘I can’t do it myself, God. Kill me and give me new life. You buried me in baptism. Bury me again today. Raise me to a new life.’” 

That is the language of repentance. True repentance begins with our saying, “I can’t.” And it takes real humility to say “I can’t”. If we are confident of our standing before God, we are presuming, we are not repenting! That’s what the Pharisees and Sadducees were accused of doing. And we can fall into that trap, too. Presume that because we are Christians we have everything all tied up and secure. Repenting means turning from our presumptions, and turning toward our Lord and Savior. And saying, “I can’t.” And that take’s humility, trust, and a definite lack of presumption. 

Advent is a season when we are invited to say, humbly and faithfully, “I can’t.” I can’t do it myself. I can’t get ready for Christ’s coming by my own effort. I need help. And that does take humility. But I also find it to be something of a relief. Because it means that we don’t have to figure it all out. We don’t have to climb our way to heaven. We don’t have to make the world perfect. We just have to surrender. Give in to Jesus. Let him do his work in us, and through us. We simply repent, die to our ways of sin, and let him raise us to new life. Let grace do its work in us. 

It’s why we go to church, isn’t it? To acknowledge that we have tried everything, and nothing worked. And so we are here to give up on our own efforts and to turn to our Savior, Jesus Christ. And that is the basic life-changing message of John the Baptist. That in Christ, the kingdom of heaven comes to us; and the best way to prepare for it is to confess our need for him. The best way to prepare for Christmas is to acknowledge our need for Christ. 

A Christmas Carol

Maybe that is why one of the most beloved Christmas stories outside the Bible is really a story about repentance. What is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, if not that? His story is really one of a man who was made bitter by suffering, and who then repented. The visit from the ghost of Christmas past reminded him of the suffering that had led him to his bitterness. The ghosts of Christmas present and future showed him how his bitterness had hurt others. And Scrooge famously repents. Not to please the ghosts, or even God. But simply because he is reminded of the amazing love of God, the overwhelming beauty of this world, and the priceless gift of life, of our existence. And through his repentance, his heart is flooded with love and joy and peace. And it spills out of him in a way that blesses those around him. 

As the story concludes, Scrooge “became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world … And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!

It’s a wonderful illustration of today’s gospel reading, and of what can happen when we let our life, with all its turmoil and fitfulness, lead us closer to God, rather than make us bitter. 

Closing

The forerunners to Christ are many in our world. All helping us to prepare the way of the Lord. When our hearts are open to it. All leading us to Bethlehem, and to the true gift of Christmas. So let us bring our bitterness and our weariness and our frustration to the manger again this season. And let us open our hearts to the one who is born for us, who promises to fill our hearts with love and with joy and with peace. To the glory of God. Amen. 

5 thoughts on “Prepare the Way: My Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12

    1. Alan, thanks for your comment and for reading my post. Yes, we could have a great conversation on the nuances of being children of Abraham – on what John meant, on what those heard him thought, etc. Another day, perhaps! For today, I just changed that sentence to make my point a little more clearly. Blessings, James

      Liked by 1 person

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