Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s Sunday morning; you have the day off from work. You say to your family, “Hey, let’s go out in the country and see this wild, locust-and-honey-eating preacher whom everyone’s talking about. It could be interesting; it’s something to do, at least.” And what’s the first thing he says when he sees you and the rest of the crowd? “Children of snakes! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce, then, fruits corresponding to repentance and do not begin to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for a father’; for I say to you that God is able to raise from these stones children for Abraham. But even now the axe is laid to the root of the tree. Therefore, every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Luke 3:7-9). Wait a minute. You don’t know me. Children of snakes!? Who does this guy think he is? But Luke tells us who he is: He is the one prophesied by Isaiah, the “one shouting in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley will be filled up and every mountain and hill will be laid low, and the crooked [ways] will become a straight [way] and the rough roads [will become] smooth. And all flesh will see the salvation of God’” (Luke 3:4-6; cf. Isaiah 40:3-5). John is the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promise to send a messenger before He comes. John’s father Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, said this about his newborn son: “And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways, to give the knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the compassionate mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise will appear from on high to illuminate the ones who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to direct our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:76-79). John is preparing the way of the Lord. He’s not just some crank in a bad mood; He is the chosen messenger of Yahweh. His preaching is the preaching of repentance that leads into the forgiveness of sins. It is only because John prepares the way and Jesus comes on that way that the sunrise dawns for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. It was under those circumstances—that preaching, by that man, at that time, in that place—that Jesus chose to reveal Himself. Only after that preparation of His way did Jesus Himself appear. Only after the preaching of repentance can repentant sinners be forgiven.
So here you are this Sunday morning, in relative comfort compared to the Judean wilderness, and John is still preaching the same message. Is it the message you came to hear? Is it the message you want to hear? Is it the message you need to hear? Well, it depends: what are you waiting for? That’s really the question that John is asking. Because if you’re not waiting for anything, why did you come here? Did someone tell you to flee to this place to escape the wrath of God? Did you come out of curiosity? Out of some felt necessity? Because that’s what people do on Sunday? Because everyone else is doing it? (Clearly not that last one.) What are you waiting for and are you prepared? On this day you have come out of your homes, away from work and recreation, whether you know it or not, to hear the Baptizer; so you might as well hear his question: Are you waiting for the Messiah and do you want to be ready when He comes? If not, why are you here on this Sunday in this Advent? That’s why John’s here; that’s why he’s preaching. If you and I are not here to be prepared for the second coming of Jesus, when He will judge every person, living and dead, then John has nothing to say to us. This is not the place to wait for lunch, or for the game to start, or for the work-week to begin. This is the place to wait for Jesus to come back. “Will not the Lord come again in later times, when all the peoples of the earth shall lament? He came first in preaching, and filled the whole wide world. Let us not resist his first coming, that we may not tremble at his second” (St. Augustine, Mark, ACCS, 179).
Let us not resist his first coming, that we may not tremble at his second. John is not simply trying to insult people; he knows that snakes resist having their heads crushed; he knows that crooked things resist being straightened; he knows that rough roads resist being smoothed. But if you’re trying to save people from a burning building, you don’t worry about cuts and contusions; you don’t worry about hurt feelings or bruised egos. You do whatever you can to pull people out into the fresh air. Likewise, John grabs us by the hand, or the leg, or the hair, and drags us out into the bracing air of God’s judgment on our sin. He calls us to pray that God would heal the scoliosis [skoliaÆ, 3:5] of our souls. He calls for crooked snakes, children of that ancient serpent, Satan, to be straightened; to shed their skins; to pull off the dead and the dying; to get rid of everything that hinders, and hampers, and obstructs; to do justice, and mercy, and righteousness. You know how snakes shed their skins: by rubbing up against something sharp or going through a narrow place. John’s way is narrow, and his words are certainly sharp enough. What does it look like to shed that skin? What does repentance look like? It looks like sharing your coat with the cold and your bread with the hungry; it looks like honesty, and integrity, and responding to the demands of love. It looks like the Law of God applied in love to your neighbor, however that might be required of you in your particular vocation. If you’re a parent, clothe and feed your children, not just physically, but with the Word and promises of God. If you’re in a position to require money from someone, don’t take more than is owed. If you’re a soldier, carry out your orders without external sin. If you’re a pastor, preach the Word and deliver the forgiveness of Jesus in the Sacraments. Do whatever love requires of you. Those are necessary fruits of repentance; but it is repentance itself that prepares the way for Jesus to come in mercy and not wrath. It is the gift of His Word through the mouth of John and all His servants that prepares His way in you. It is confessing your sin in order to hear the forgiveness of Jesus that prepares His way in you. The baptism of repentance preached by John prepares you to be washed daily by the baptism of forgiveness. Daily shed your snake-skin; daily confess your sin. Do not resist His first coming, so that you may not tremble at His second. And hear the Word of John: “See, the Lamb, so long expected,/Comes with pardon down from heav’n./Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,/One and all, to be forgiv’n. So, when next He comes in glory/And the world is wrapped in fear,/He will shield us with His mercy/And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345, sts. 3-4). Stay a while out here with John. Hear his Word—which is not his Word, but the Word of the One who sent him. Do not hurry so quickly to the manger; wait a while out here in this Advent wilderness and John will prepare you for the full celebration of the Mass of Christ. The Lord, whose way John is preparing, is coming to you. You will see the salvation of our God.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/02/09