Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2 (A), December 8, 2019
The season of Advent has many themes. Last Wednesday we heard four prophetic pictures from Isaiah: A child, a sprout from a stump, life in the desert, a royal highway. There are the four “Rs” of Advent, Readiness, Repentance, Rejoicing and Revealing. And then there is this reading from Matthew chapter 3. There are many themes—really, many word-pictures. I counted eleven in twelve verses.
- There’s the image of John as forerunner.
- Making straight crooked paths.
- Offspring of vipers (which is a nest full of baby snakes).
- Vipers fleeing from the coming wrath.
- A tree producing fruit.
- Raising up children of Abraham from the stones.
- An unproductive tree being chopped down.
- John not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.
- A baptism of fire.
- Threshing shovel.
- Gathering wheat in.
- Burning up the chaff.
I think I could spend ten minutes talking about each one. And John himself seems to be a living word-picture with his rough clothing and his rough diet picturing his rough message. Instead of looking at all of these images and themes, let’s think of them as parts of a whole—pieces of one puzzle. What is the whole? What’s the big picture? “Prepare the Way of the Lord!” That’s what John was sent to do. That was the purpose of calling people a “brood of vipers” and “unfruitful trees” and warning about a baptism of fire and threshing grain and burning chaff. It was all about preparing the way for Jesus.
I. By Confessing Sins in Repentance.
- Why did John shout, “You offspring of vipers!” “Every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “[The Messiah] will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” By doing that he was holding up a mirror and showing people “You are vipers! Children of the original serpent in Eden! Liars and deceivers.” “You are unfruitful trees.” “You are like the chaff that the wind blows away” (some imagery from Psalm 1). It was shock therapy, because some of the people coming out to him were the religious people, the Pharisees and Sadducees. They saw themselves as upright, good people, the best in society. Keeping up a good outward appearance was most important to them. And now John shouts at them, “You offspring of vipers!” “Judgment is coming. Unfruitful trees will be chopped down and thrown into the fire. It will be like the threshing of grain. The good wheat will be kept. The worthless chaff will be burned.” John was holding up a mirror—really something like an X-ray mirror. “This is what you are really like, people!” “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
- Keeping up a good outward appearance while the reality of your life is something completely different, something completely awful, has not gone away with the Pharisees and Sadducees. We see it on the front pages of the paper, or on our Internet news page. Prince Andrew’s world is collapsing. Despite all the trappings of royalty, it’s being revealed that he did embarrassing things, disgusting things, things that exploited and hurt other people. The pomp and circumstance can’t hide it anymore. Now imagine your secrets being laid bare. The embarrassing things and secrets you revealed about other people. The mean nicknames you made up for people back when you were in school who did nothing to you. And now—now the dark thoughts that go through your mind. The anger that slowly burns and builds up—but you keep it hidden. The desires that lead you this way and that—serving and gratifying self—but you keep it all hidden. What would happen if you had a “Prince Andrew moment” when everything comes out in the open?
- God already knows it all. Because he is gracious, he waits for you. Because he is gracious, he does not chop down the unfruitful tree He does not do his threshing and chaff-burning now. A time is coming—either at the end of the world or at the end of your life—when you will face him. Now, he sends his messengers, like John the Baptist, who say, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near.” “Prepare the way of the Lord.” “Repent” means a turn-around of heart and life. It does not mean “find new ways to cover up your sins and evils.” That would be no repentance at all. Repentance starts with confession—confessing our sins to God. He knows it all already. He wants to hear it from you. The way we begin most of our services is meant to be a pattern for our own heartfelt prayers. “I have sinned against you in my thoughts, words and actions.” “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Lord’s Prayer also trains and teaches us the repentant life. Every day we say “Forgive us our trespasses” because every day we’ve got more. Every day we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” because we are weak and surrounded by temptation and we need the guidance and strength that only God can give. Repentance starts with confession because repentance must start with the heart. Anything else is outward, only.
II. By Producing Fruits of Repentance.
- When the repentance begins in the thoughts and attitudes of the heart—that is the root. Then we are connected to the nourishment, the power of growth. John talked about trees producing fruit. What kind of fruit was he talking about? Well, the most basic fruit of repentance is avoiding the thing you are repenting of. That has to start with attitude first, doesn’t it? –because it has to do with the desire or the will. (That’s the hardest part, isn’t it? –to change your will or desire.) That may be why we naturally come up with other kinds of “penance”—other ways we think we can pay for or make it up to God for whatever burdens our conscience. Back in the Middle Ages, people used to do all kinds of things as “penance,” that is, outward signs of repentance. They used to fast, wear hair shirts, make pilgrimages, pay money. None of those things change the attitude or change the heart. Wearing a hair shirt is easy compared to truly changing the heart. Making a pilgrimage to some holy place on your hands and knees is easy compared to changing the heart. But changing the heart is the only thing that leads to a changed action. Doing it backwards never works: that is, do good deeds until you become a good person. The first word we hear from John is “Repent.” In Hebrew it’s shuv, which means “turn around.” In Greek it’s metanoia, which means “change of heart and mind.” The heart is where it starts. That’s where it must
- The next words we hear from John are “the kingdom of heaven is near!” In the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come,” we learn that God’s kingdom is the way he rules in our hearts. We hear his Word, believe it, and then our faith moves us to live it. A changed, repentant attitude then seeks to do the will of God (which is another Lord’s Prayer lesson). That is the next fruit of repentance. This is why God gives us his commandments. Even though the Commandments were fulfilled by the obedience of Jesus Christ, they still stand as “a lamp for our feet and a light for our path” (Psalm 119:105). Pull out the Catechism and look at what the Commandments mean: “Fear, love and trust in God above all things.” “Do not despise preaching and God’s Word.” “Honor parents and others in authority.” “Help and befriend your neighbor in every bodily need.” “Lead a pure and decent life in words and actions.” “Do not tell lies about your neighbor or give him a bad name.” (Luther’s Small Catechism) Those are very basic fruits of repentance—fruits that God himself has prescribed in his Word, and real fruits that he looks for. He alone sees the heart, and he alone knows the connection between heart and action. It has been said, “We are saved by God’s grace alone, but God’s grace never remains alone.” A changed heart bears fruit.
Conclusion: Repentance and its fruits are really God’s work—the work he does within us. He prepares his own way. Our task is chiefly not to get in his way. Strangely, our old sinful flesh likes the filth—likes what feels good at the moment with no thought about consequences, earthly or eternal. We learned that our baptism is also a baptism of repentance. We remember our new birth daily as we put off the old and put on the new, all by God’s power, and by God’s grace at work in us. Prepare the way for the Lord. Get out of his way!
Matthew 3:1-12 (EHV)
In those days, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, 2“Repent, because the kingdom of heaven is near!” 3Yes, this is he of whom this was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” 4John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then Jerusalem, all of Judea, and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him. 6They were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. 7But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8Therefore produce fruit in keeping with repentance! 9Do not think of saying to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones. 10Already the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11I baptize you with water for repentance. But the one who comes after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will thoroughly clean out his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”