Advent 3 December 16th, 2012
As Christian people, we can slip into a rut of thinking that our sins are ok. We get tired of fighting against the same old sins. We may tell ourselves that this is just the way it is going to be, and that it’s ok because God forgives sins. God needs to shock us back into the reality that sin is never ok.
Your loving Father in heaven doesn’t want you to live in your lovely little world of self-deception and then be shocked by his anger on Judgment Day, so he has given us his Word with messages like what we have in the Gospel today—a spiritual wake-up call, so to speak. God gives preachers the job of applying this Word to your life, so that you see where you have been wrong. John the Baptist did this: Good, church-going people came out to see him. He said, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” I doubt anyone had ever called those good religious people a “brood of vipers” before, but it is very true, and very possible that so-called good religious people are not producing fruit—not doing the things that a Christian person should do.
We need to be shocked out of our sins so that we don’t miss what Jesus is all about. If church is boring to you, and all this talk about Jesus and forgiveness doesn’t seem like it applies to your life, then the problem is that you don’t really understand what it means that you are a sinner. You don’t appreciate the seriousness of that situation. If you are bored with hearing about what Jesus did for you, then you need be shocked with the message that our sins are serious—so serious that we would go to hell if Jesus did not wash us clean.
John the Baptist shocked the people who came to him so that they would not miss the importance of what Jesus was going to do. He shocked them so that they would know why they were coming out to be baptized. But more than that, he wanted them to look forward in eager anticipation for the greater one who was coming, and the great things that he would do. Jesus, the Son of God, was coming to purge the world of evil—either by the Holy Spirit or by fire. By the Holy Spirit he would purify the sinner’s heart; but if any would not have that, he is coming again to destroy the wicked world and all stubborn unbelieving people with the fire of judgment.
There is nothing to be bored about here. The situation is urgent. Jesus is coming again, and we need to take him seriously.
Hear John’s words:
“I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Either by the Holy Spirit or by fire,
1. Today and every day, he gives the Holy Spirit to purify your heart.
John said, “I baptize you with water… [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” We need to understand that John used the word baptism in a few different ways here. Very basically, to baptize means to wash something so that it will be clean. John said that he was baptizing them with water, because they were about stand face to face with God when they would see Jesus, and they needed this spiritual bath to wash their sins away. But the Holy Spirit does the real purifying work, as he works through baptism at first, and throughout your life when you hear the Word of God and when you receive the Lord’s Supper. Jesus gives you the Holy Spirit to do this cleansing work, and in this sense he “baptizes with the Holy Spirit.”
This baptism is no ordinary bath, and the Holy Spirit’s cleansing work through the Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper is not to be taken lightly. It’s serious business, because, as John said, Jesus would also come to baptize in a third sense—with fire, the fire of judgment. Jesus will “baptize” the entire creation, purging God’s world of all the people who have not believed.
Cute little baby Jesus was born for serious business, so prepare to be humbled. God doesn’t accept people who think this is a game. He sent John the Baptist to shock us out of our complacency. “You brood of vipers,” he said, because the people were not coming to him in sincere sorrow over their sins. They didn’t know what they were coming to be baptized for. “Produce fruit,” he said, with the implication that they were not doing the things that God requires. Some were pricked in their conscience and asked what they should do—Consider what John said to them. “The man who has two tunics should share with the one who has none”—which means that if you have enough to share, you should. Then he gave special instructions to soldiers and tax collectors. He anticipated their objections—that they thought God would accept them just because of who they were, because they were Abraham’s children, part of the chosen nation. John said “Nonsense! God doesn’t care what family you come from!” In his words, “Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”
What would John say to us? He would tell us that God is not impressed by our Christian pedigree. The fact that you have a Christian family and that you have been going to church for 60 or more years does not impress God. He wants to see fruits of your Christian faith in your Christian actions and Christian thoughts.
If you are married, he would tell you to be loving and supportive. Don’t cut the other person down, but cherish your spouse and value him or her as a gift from God.
If you are a parent, he would say: Teach your children to do right, but don’t be overly harsh with them. In the words of Colossians 3:21, “Do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.”
To children he would say: Be obedient and respectful. Share with your siblings. Don’t look down on them because they are younger and don’t know as much as you do, and don’t get angry when your older brothers tell you what is right.
To those of you who have a job, John would say: “Do your work in perfect honesty. Do the good work that you are paid to do, and don’t be lazy.” If you don’t have a job, he would say “Don’t live off the state unless you have to. Be useful in whatever way you can be, so you can help others.”
John would say to students: Do your homework faithfully, so that you don’t have to cram, or worse yet, cheat on your tests. God has given you this opportunity to learn so that you can be useful people in his world.
Do you see why you need to be cleansed? So many of the things we do and think are not fit for God’s presence! How greatly we need the cleansing that Christ came to bring us! Remember your Baptism. God used the water to wash your sins away. He began a new life in you, and gave you the right to consider yourself his child. Because you have been baptized, you can expect him to be with you and teach you, and always wash away your guilt when you come to him.
How greatly we need the Holy Spirit’s work, which began with Baptism and continues as he cleanses us through the Word and Sacrament. We continue to sin and continue to deceive ourselves into thinking that it’s ok. We need him to wash away our guilt and teach us again. We need to hear the Word and receive the Lord’s Supper, so that he will do his cleansing work in our hearts.
If you spend a little time every day examining your life and thinking about how you have sinned, it is going to be pretty hard to think that our worship service is boring—because it is the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus told the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector to show us how he wants us to feel about church. Not like the Pharisee, who thinks that he has been good and everything between him and God is ok. We are to be like the Tax collector, who knows that he has sinned and is deeply sorrowful, and deeply desires God’s mercy. Church was no silly thing and no burden for that tax collector—he knelt in the corner and beat his chest saying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” For him, church was serious business, and God was pleased.
If you still think church is boring, and if you think you’ve heard enough about baptism and forgiveness and you’re ready to move on now, John the Baptist has something else to say to you.
2. Jesus will purify the world with the fire of Judgment Day.
You need to see the result of your sin to understand how serious it is. John said about Jesus:
“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” Jesus is going to purify the earth of all the people who haven’t cared about him and the forgiveness he gives. His judgment of them will be that they are like chaff. He will be like one of those farmers back in those days who harvested the grain field, crushed the kernels of grain, and then threw the pile into the air so that the heavy kernels of grain would fall to the floor, and the worthless grass and husks would blow to the side where they could be gathered up and burned. Like the grass and husks of grain, the “chaff”—those people who have not cared about the forgiveness that Jesus gives now will be considered worthless and fit to be burned on Judgment Day. Wake up and be shocked by the reality. There is a real place called Hell, and God is serious about sending people there. If there is anything boring about Jesus giving the Holy Spirit to purify us in church, we need to be shocked by the reality of hell.
Jesus told a story about a rich man and poor Lazarus. The rich man had not cared much about God and had thought little about his sins during his life, but his attitude changed greatly once he experienced the fire of hell. Finally, he understood the gravity of the situation. He begged for some people to be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers.
Give a little thought to that fire now, so that you will take God seriously. If you have ever burned yourself, you know that it is one of the most painful feelings possible. Now think of your entire body being burned with a fire that never goes out. No one pulls you out of the flames in hell, and you will be completely conscious and alive to feel every minute of this eternal burning. That is how serious God is about sin. That’s how he punishes it.
Now does church seem dull and boring? Do you understand what we are being saved from, when Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit in church to cleanse us of our sins? The Holy Spirit’s work in Baptism, in the Word, and in Lord’s Supper today is important, because it saves us from the burning! Come before him with humble hearts, eager what God does here.
During the Christmas season, it is especially easy to take what God has done for granted. Don’t miss that Christmas is all about your salvation from the burning fire of hell. All of the lights and bells, gifts, trees, and cookies should help us remember the great importance of the season, but they may actually distract us from what is truly important. Baby Jesus was born to save us from our sins. So that you don’t forget that, take a daily inventory of your life, and ask yourself what God would have you do to show your love for him, for your family, and for all people. Confess your sins to him, so that you will deeply value the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. He works through Word and Sacrament to wash the guilt off of your heart. He drowns out those old sinful desires, and teaches you to live God’s way. Don’t forget that you need this, because there is a Judgment coming. You need church, and you need what Jesus does for you here through his Word and the Sacraments. Jesus purifies you. Amen.