Text: Luke 3:1-14 (15-20)
Make Ready the Way of the Lord
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon this morning comes from the Gospel which was read earlier.
The world gets ready for this season on one level, Christians on another. The world gets ready for just one great big blockbuster of a day on Christmas, kind of an annual consumer feeding frenzy, indulging itself in stuff and more stuff. Then when it’s over, it’s over. All that is left of Christmas on December 26 is a big pile of wrapping paper and trips to the store for after-Christmas sales and returns.
Fortunately for us, that is not the way it is in the Church. For us, when Christmas comes, it stays. It lingers on through Epiphany, and all the way through Lent. We continue to ponder the great glad news that God has become man to redeem all humankind out from under the iron grip of death and hell. And we will sing our Christmas praises well into January and beyond. We make Christmas last.
But Christmas hasn’t begun yet; we’re still in Advent. We’re still getting ready. Yet our readiness is much more than just sending cards and decorating our homes and having parties. It is a readiness of the heart that God desires at His coming.
In our Gospel reading for today, we hear about John the Baptist. John was a herald. He announced what God told him to preach. John preached both the Law as well as the Gospel. He proclaimed “a baptism of repentance.” John’s baptism was characterized by repentance. To repent means to change one’s mind. It involves a turning away from sin and a turning toward that which cleanses from sin. It is a complete about face. A man who repents is one who has changed his mind about sin. He no longer finds pleasure in it, but realizes it is a cause of eternal damnation. He has also changed his mind about salvation. He no longer thinks that he will get to heaven by being good. When we speak of “repentance” in this sense, we include a turning to faith in the Messiah, God’s promised Savior from sin. Thus John preached the Law, which shows us our sin, and the Gospel, which points the sinner to his only Savior.
The point of John’s message is not a message of himself, but of Christ. Advent means “coming.” Advent is a time where we focus on the coming of Christ. That is why the words of the prophet Isaiah are so important: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” Even our Collect for today speaks of the coming: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son.” Just as a messenger was sent ahead of a king or ruler to get people to repair the road on which he was to travel, so John was sent out ahead of God’s Son to prepare for Christ’s coming.
Here we are on this road to Bethlehem, to make ready the way of the Lord. John the Baptist has gone before to make ready the way of the Lord. What is it that John is making ready? Is it people? Is it a place? Is it a thing? The answer is all of the above.
First, John “went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He preached this to anyone and everyone. He didn’t tell this to just Jew or Gentile, Christian or non-Christian. This was a message that everyone needed to hear and John was fulfilling the words of Isaiah as “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” He went in and laid it all on the line to all who heard him: “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.” The sad truth is that more often than not, you and I don’t produce the good fruit our Lord expects. We simply don’t love God with all our heart and soul and strength, much less love our neighbor as ourselves. Despite our best efforts, there are those we have hurt and those we have failed to help. Our thoughts and desires are soiled with sin. There is nothing good within us, in our sinful nature.
That is where preparing the way of the Lord begins. Through the Law, we hear about our sinful nature and what that means for us. It means death and damnation. It means eternal separation from God. But the message that John is preaching about is the sweet sound of the Gospel which we need to hear; that there is One who is coming to save us from our sins. There is One who is coming to give us everlasting life. There is One coming who is forever bridging the gap between God and man, One who will trade His life so that we can have life. It is in John’s message of the Gospel of God’s grace in Christ Jesus that we are lifted up and comforted.
John’s warning was indeed sharp. When the message of love and grace fails to touch the heart, then the Law’s message of judgment upon sin must be proclaimed. The purpose of this message is to strike fear in man’s conscience, so that he might stop and realize his lost condition without Christ. Through the power of the Gospel alone, the Holy Spirit works true faith. This Gospel turns the sinner to his only Savior through whom he can escape God’s just punishment. Among his hearers John’s message found those who were troubled in their consciences.
That is the message of our text today. Our sin has separated us from God. We don’t want to hear that. We don’t like to hear that. Those whom John was preaching to had an answer to his preaching: “We have Abraham as our father.” What they failed to realize was that by being a descendant of Abraham did not bring about salvation. Staking a claim to Abraham did not make anyone less a sinner. If that were true, then we all would be saved because we all claim to have Abraham as our father. But where did Abraham come from? He came from the lineage of Adam and Eve, our first parents and the first sinners. One can claim Abraham as their father, but ultimately we must claim Adam and Eve as our first parents.
The reason why the season of Advent is so important is because it shows us the need of a Savior. Hearing John’s message can cause great fear in us, knowing that we might be a tree that does not bear good fruit. Those to whom John is preaching to begin to ask the simple question, “What should we do then?” John gave simple, straightforward answers. He told them what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.
The message of John seemed very much like the coming message of Christ, the message foretold in prophecies of old. It was only logical for them to ask if John was the Christ. John preached with such great power that many people thought that he might be “the Christ,” the promised Messiah. John answered all such questions concerning himself by making a public announcement. He points to “one more powerful” than himself, who will soon come. That One is the Messiah Himself. John declares that he is not fit even to untie the strings which hold the Messiah’s sandals on His feet. In other words John was not fit to perform the duty of the lowest slave before this great One.
So let us ask the great Lutheran question: What does this mean? It means that John the Baptist is not the Christ, but only the forerunner of Christ, the one who is to preach about His coming and prepare the way of the Lord. Let this holy Advent season be your comfort and your joy as deep within takes root the reality that Christ has actually come in the flesh and will come again at the end of time. But He comes this very day in His Word and Sacrament to make you new and whole and free; a new person, made clean by the blood of the Lamb, who has freed you from your sin by His death and resurrection. So prepare the way for His coming. Let this be your constant Advent prayer: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son.” In the name of Jesus, amen.
Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.
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