The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the
Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 3:1 “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the
wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at
hand. 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, THE
VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE READY
THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!’ 4 Now
John himself had a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his
waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was
going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6
and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they
confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and
Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers, who
warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bring forth fruit
in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to
yourselves, “We have Abraham for our father”; for I say to you, that God
is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the
axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does
not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I
baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is
mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize
you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 And His winnowing fork is in His
hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will
gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with
When it comes to our spiritual preparation for Christ’s various advents
(Christmas, the Second Coming, and Word and Sacrament ministry) there is no
short cut. Proper preparation always requires a trip to the River Jordan, to the last
Old Testament prophet. and to his call to repent.
1 “Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness
of Judea, saying, 2 ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3 For this is
the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, THE VOICE OF ONE
CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD,
MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!’ . . . 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him,
and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being
baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins.”
As promised by the prophet Malachi, the Christ would have a forerunner
who would be sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. Here in our Gospel lesson
John claims to be that forerunner and rightfully so.
He came out of the wilderness to prepare the way by preaching a baptism
for of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, which consisted of the preaching of
the Law and Gospel, faith in the promised Messiah, baptism, and a life of
repentance. Surprisingly the people in and around Jerusalem come to the River
Jordan to hear and to be baptized.
The Pharisees and Sadducees come too. The Pharisees and Sadducees come
to the River Jordan to see what all the excitement is about. They come because the
crowds are coming an it appeared to be a thing to do as a show of their piety.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were deeply committed to their doctrine.
Both groups studied the Books of Moses. They were learned men, but they were
clueless on how to read the Old Testament Scriptures. They read and studied the
Scripture but they did so through the lense of self and works righteousness and
with the belief that they were born of a royal blood line chosen by God and
superior to others. They had been taught the wrong things and thus read those
wrong things into the biblical text.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees had strong differences of doctrine
centering on the question of whether there will be a resurrection of the dead of not.
The Pharisees believed in life after death and the resurrection of the dead. But over
time they had developed the “Tradition of the Elders,” a set of principles, rules,
and regulations that permitted them to think that they could and were actually
keeping the Law. They believed they were good and righteous people and as such
they would we welcomed as such in the life after death and they would enjoy the
full resurrection when the time came.
The Sadducees on the other hand dulled the force and understanding of the
law by teaching that there is no life after death and no physical resurrection of the
death. If therefore there is no life after death, then there is no punishment after
death and violations of the law only brought the judgment and disfavor of God in
One thing the Pharisees and the Sadducees did agreed on was the
importance of their family tree, their blood line. As Jews/Hebrews both groups
were descendants of Abraham and therefore they belonged to the Old Testament
covenant and were entitled to God’s favorable disposition. Thus John says to
them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8
Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose
that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to
you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
In these two sentences John serves notice on two things. First, they need to
repent just like all the other low life sinners standing along the banks of the River
Jordan. Second, when it comes to a person’s standing before God, blood line
counts for nothing. God is the One who creates His own children.
Also notice that John tells everyone to repent, from the lowly contrite
peasant to the rich and powerful rulers. In fact He preaches a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins, he tells the sincere and faithful to “repent,
for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” and he tells the Pharisees and Sadducees
who think they keep the law to “bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance.”
The Greek word for repentance has a rich history, in and outside of the Old
and New Testaments. In Classical Greek, the word repent deals with the sorrow a
person feels when they realize they’ve made a mistake that they cannot undo.
“Repentance” is a profound wish to take it back, to turn the clock back in order to
undo that which has be done. Either in regard to an isolated event or as a life lone
struggle with a sinful way of living.
I remember watching an interview with former Vice President Dick Cheney
after he has accidently shot his friend Harry Whittington while the two were duck
hunting. Dick Cheney told the interviewer that in that moment, he felt immense
guilt, and that it was the worst feeling he had ever experienced in his whole life.
All he wanted in that moment and the days to follow was to turn back the clock to
undo what had he had done, but recognized that he was powerless to undo what
had been done.
In the Greek there is no concept of a correction or remedy. There is no
taking it back. There is no turning the clock and no undoing what was done.
There is no remedy to that which has been done. That is one aspect of the word
“repentance.” It is a deep sorrow and hopelessness.
In the Old and New Testament, the words we translate as “repent” or
“repentance” also means to turn around. It is a military term . . . “About face!” In
the biblical and Christian usage it is a call to turn away from your sins, stop living
in them, stop letting them control you. It is a call to contriteness and it is a call to
stop being consumed by sin and guilt. And listen carefully to this. It is also a call
to stop being consumed by the sorrow, guilt, and doubt produced by them and trust
in what Christ Jesus has done for you. Christian repentance has two parts, a
contrite heart and a believing heart. The Christian usage of the word repentance
builds in to it the one and only remedy to wrong doing.
Now I admit John’s call to “repent” doesn’t sound like much of a remedy.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand … 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.”
Here John teaches that our sins are worse than we think they are. He is
telling us that all sins deserve the judgment of being cut down and tossed into the
eternal fire. Like all good Christian preaching, John’s message afflicts the
comfortable, while at the same time comforts the afflicted.
The word “repentance” in the Old and New Testament has a fuller meaning
than what is found in classical Greek. It has the answer and the power to undo
that has been done.
First, repentance receives the forgiveness of sins. Second, our God is a
redeeming God. That is why St. Paul could write in Romans 8:28 “And we know
that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to
those who are called according to His purpose.”
True repentance is not just the recognition of your sin (which is deep and
voluminous), and the sorrow, guilt, despair, and terror that come with it. True
repentance also includes the promise of grace of God in Jesus Christ which is
dispensed to you in the Word and Sacraments. Christian repentance turns you
away from yourself and your sin and sends you to Jesus and the cross.
John is a preacher of the Gospel. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at
hand.” The Kingdom of Heaven is none other than Christ. To say that the
kingdom of heaven is at hand is to say that Christ, His work, preaching, holy
baptism, the entire work of the church, and indeed your new life in Christ is at
Advent is the time of comings. John the Baptist teaches us that in Jesus
Christ the kingdom comes to us. It has come. It is coming. It will come. The
Second Petition of the Small Catechism:
“Thy kingdom come. What does this mean? The kingdom of God
comes indeed without our prayer, of itself; but we pray in this petition
that it may come unto us also. How is this done? When our heavenly
Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy
Word and lead a godly life here in time and yonder in eternity.
Repentance is the proper preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas,
in the Church Service, and on the Last Day. We will fall into sin time and time
again, but we have an Advocate. 1 John 2:1 “My little children, I am writing
these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an
advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
The coming of the Messiah is the time for each and every Christian to
forsake of their own notions about good deeds, their own ideas of piety, their own
thoughts. The coming of the Christ is a call to come to the church to hear God’s
Word preached. It is a call to make use of your baptism. It is a call to confess your
sin for He is faithful and just and forgives you all your sin. And they are. You have
just heard and received the Remedy.
May the Peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in
Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the