an advent sermon

Luke 3:1-17

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
And every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”

I got a call from an old roommate the other day. He’s just been engaged to be married next August. Now, that’s a long time from now; but his relationship with his girlfriend—rather, his fiancée—is immediately going to look different.

For one, this couple is going to start meeting with a pastor or spiritual advisor who will teach them what to expect from married life: what to do when certain problems arise (those of you married are thinking, “and arise they shall!”); how to handle issues like sex and shared finances. You see, this event—marriage—demands of them fundamentally new behavior. They have to prepare for it.

But they’re also going to begin reshaping their attitudes toward one another. Now that their relationship involves a lifelong commitment, the emotional landscape they share must be reoriented to account for this new horizon. The Christian understanding of marriage calls for a transformation of both heart and will in the believing couple. More importantly, such a transformation doesn’t occur overnight; it must be learnt, practiced. Marriage invites them to become man and wife inwardly and outwardly long before they are pronounced as such.

Sounds odd—doesn’t it?—that a future event should have that power over our present lives. But that’s how marriage is. Ask anyone who’s married and they’ll tell you: if they didn’t start preparing for it beforehand, they soon wish they had!

Folks, our text today speaks of precisely this kind of event, but one far more serious and global than any couple’s vows. It speaks of the coming of Christ.

Alright, I’m going to suggest three things that we see in this passage.

a)     A breaking of the silence;

b)    A call to repentance; and

c)     The promise of forgiveness.

First, a breaking of the silence. OK, let me give a bit of theological background to this text. If you have a Bible, turn to the last page of the Old Testament. The last page of the Old Testament. You there? This is a book by the prophet Malachi, whom scholars think probably died before 400 BCE. That’s 400 years before the central speaker in our text, John “the Baptizer,” comes onto the scene. Now, this doesn’t mean the period between Malachi and John the Baptist was uneventful, or that no one presumed to speak on God’s behalf. On the contrary: the encroachment of the Roman Empire into ancient Palestine brought all sorts of eventful consequences and stirred many to prophetic pronouncements. But these “wannabe prophets,” so to speak, never garnished wide support—they weren’t compelling like the prophets of old. So most people resolved to accept of God’s silence.

And then—look at vv. 1-2 of our text. Luke tells us that

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitus, and Lysanius ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

Does this introduction sound familiar? Here are a few similar examples:

  • Jer. 1:1-3: “The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, to whom the word of the Lord came in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign.”
  • Ezek. 1:2-3: “On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi in the land of the Chaldeans.”
  • Hos. 1:1: “The word of the Lord that came to Hosea son of Beeri, in the days of Kinds Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah.”
  • Joel 1:1: “The word of the Lord that came to Joel son of Pethuel.”
  • Jon. 1:1: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai…”
  • Mic. 1:1: “The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah…”
  • Zeph. 1:1: “The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedeliah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah.”
  • Hag. 1:1: “In the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest.”
  • Zech. 1:1: “In the eight month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah son of Iddo…”

OK—you get the point? Luke is making it very clear that the God of ancient Israel, the God whose silence the people of Israel have mourned for over 400 years, is speaking again. “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah…”

Let me make this more concrete for you. Do you feel like God has been silent in your life lately? Do you mourn for a time, perhaps when you first became a Christian, when God’s voice was audible and real? When God’s presence was tangible?

Well, I have good news, folks. That time of silence is over. Do you hear me? Over. Gone. Why? Because Jesus is coming. The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness and it told him that Jesus—the Messiah, the Christ—was coming.

And what did John do? Let’s look at v. 3.

“He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins.”

People, John understood that the message of Jesus’ coming meant a call to repentance. But don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an attempt to win God’s favor by brushing up and looking good when he arrives. Surely you’ve seen those bumper stickers: “Jesus is coming—look busy!” But the witty penman of these stickers has missed the point entirely. Jesus isn’t some tedious and tiresome employer, peeking in on his Creation to ensure everything’s performing at quality specifications. That’s not what John is saying. Jesus is the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, to whom is rightfully ascribed all glory and honor. When such a figure draws near, one’s behavior, one’s attitude, necessarily changes. It’s like the change that occurs in a room of slouching, leisurely naval officers when their captain strolls in, unexpected. What do they do? They stand up straight, give the proper respectful salute, and wait—eager to perform any task their leader solicits.

Listen to what Isaiah says about the coming presence of God in Jesus:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight.

Every valley shall be filled,

And every mountain and hill shall be made low,

and the crooked shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth;

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

(vv. 4-6)

You see, God’s presence reveals the true nature of our existence. When God is on the scene, no valley seems so deep; no mountain appears mountainous. God is the great leveler. All creaturely distinctions merge and consolidate on one side of an indelible boundary between God, who is righteous and whose path is straight, and us, we who are broken and whose paths are crooked. Just as the proper response of my newly engaged friends to their upcoming marriage is to prepare for that event, to strive to enact (in heart and will!) the reality of the vows they have yet to make—so is the proper response to Jesus. Friends, when Jesus draws near, it is impossible to deny our brokenness before Him. We must repent, confessing that only He is whole. This is the meaning of repentance.

Yet repentance also involves action.

“And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”

(vv. 10-14)

Let me ask you this morning: Do you have enough when it comes to clothes and food? Do you have more than enough? Can you think of someone right this moment who doesn’t have “enough” of one or both of these? It’s that simple. Or how about John’s response to the soldiers? “Don’t be corrupt”—OK, everybody on board? But his second suggestion is more difficult. It is a question of contentment. Are you content with the compensation you receive for the work you do? Do you grumble against your employer—or, if you are self-employed, against “the recession”? Consider that this morning.

Alright, let me wrap things up here. Repentance has internal as well as external dimensions; it is a matter of the heart and of the will. But again, people, the motivation is not to win brownie points with God. Rather, the driving force behind John the Baptist’s call to repentance is hope—the hope of forgiveness.

Turn to vv. 15-17.

“As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’”

The people of Israel were filled with expectation because they knew that the arrival of the Messiah was to be a joyous occasion, when God would finally set them free from their sins and make things right with the world. We hear words like “powerful” and “unquenchable fire” and think the worst, because we live in a world where the powerful exercise their authority with injustice. We have not truly grasped the concept of a just execution of power. But hidden within these seemingly harsh words, there is a message of profound hope. Let me explain.

You see, the images John uses here to prefigure Jesus—the metaphor of the threshing floor and the oven for burning the chaff—they’re taken directly from the fourth chapter of Malachi. Remember turning back there earlier? Yeah—there. The very last words of the canonical Old Testament. John’s immediate hearers would have caught this connection—they would have known exactly what he was referencing and mentally supplied the rest of the passage in context. In the words of a contemporary songwriter, here’s how that passage in Malachi, chapter four, reads:

“But for you who fear my name

a sun of righteousness shall rise

with healing in his wings;

and you shall go forth again

and skip about like calves

coming from their stalls at last;

you shall be my very own

on the day that I

cause you to be my special home;

I shall spare you as a man

has compassion on his son

who does the best he can.”

Listen, people: God is not silent. This is his word to you—each one of you—which he spoke through his son, Jesus, who comes to us at Christmas. It is a word demanding repentance, but it is also a word of profound and eternal hope; and it is true.

Amen.

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3 responses to “an advent sermon

  1. amen, indeed.

  2. Scott, We are so proud of you and the man you are becoming. God truly has his hand on you. All our Love, Mom and Dad

  3. Thomas Dixon

    This is a really good sermon bro–edifying to read.

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