The Second Sunday in Advent – Series C – Luke 3:1-20
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.
“On Jordan’s bank the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings!”
This first stanza from our hymn of the day finds its source and inspiration at the end of our Gospel text.
Here in verse 18, St. Luke sums up the whole ministry and mission of John the Baptist in these words, “With many such exhortations John preached good news to the people.”
If you were paying careful attention to the whole reading of our Gospel text, these words from St. Luke might surprise you, they may catch you off guard, and even offend what we think of as good news and glad tidings.
After all, this is John the Baptist, the one who stands at the banks of the Jordan River and cries out, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and “Even now the axe is at the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, he will gather the wheat into the barns, but the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.”
This, the Gospel of Luke defines as good news.
It is a bit surprising, a bit confusing, and maybe, to us, a bit offensive.
For if you and I were tasked with going to our non-Christian family and friends and proclaiming to them the ‘Good News’ of the Gospel, we probably would not model our witness after that of John the Baptist.
We probably wouldn’t knock on the door, rush into the house and shout that the axe is at the root of the trees.
We probably wouldn’t bring up the topic of the chaff being burned with unquenchable fire in the middle of Christmas dinner.
And although these are rather silly examples and poor applications of John’s true preaching, on a much more serious note, would it ever even cross our minds, in this setting of witness and good news, to bring up a topic even remotely close to that of our own sin?
To the weight, burden and condemnation of who we are as sinful beings.
Or do we foolishly think that John the Baptist is only a preacher fit for the 1st century; that he is somehow of no use to us now in the 21st century?
Has the understanding of Good News among us, become something that has nothing to do with salvation from sin?
Have we begun to think of Jesus now as more of a friend helping out good-hearted and trying people, rather than a redeemer who has come for those who are dead?
Is it possible, that we’ve momentarily forgotten the fullness of what the Good News actually is?
Is it then possible, that this is why we’re somewhat surprised when such a label, of preaching the Good News, is given to St. John of all people?
Yet in all of Luke chapter 3, the Gospel writer gives us the fullness of the ministry and proclamation of the Baptist. Here we find as the Scriptures identify it, the Good News.
And so then, it is how we interpret this preaching that not only affects what we make of John himself, but as St. Luke indicates, it dictates and forms what we think the Good News of the Gospel to be.
The voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, every valley filled up, every mountain brought low.”
In this Advent season, we ask, how is the way of the Lord prepared? Where is the Good News?
Do we hear these words and think that we must prepare our hearts, get our houses in order and clear out the distractions so that our Lord might come in?
Is preparation made through enough time spent sitting in Church? Is it keeping track of our Advent calendars? Is it cleansing our minds in order for Christ to truly dwell with us?
Who prepares the way? Is this the good news of the Gospel? Is the preaching of St. John an exhortation to make yourself pure so that Christ would make his home with you?
If the Good News of the Gospel is to be found in our own preparations, then we are only to be disappointed.
For as much as we may try to put our houses in order, there will always be something out of place.
As much as we may try to stay attentive during the sermon, our minds will always manage to wander somewhere else.
As much as we may try to be faithful, devoted, pure and clean, the mess of our sin will continue to pile up.
If it’s up to us to prepare our prideful and distracted hearts for Christ’s coming, then we are a people most to be pitied, for we will never clear away the mess entirely.
“The axe is at the root of the trees, every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Where is the Good News? How do we go about bearing enough good fruit in order to prevent from being cut down?
Is it volunteering at Church? Being a good Christian? Being the perfect father? The most devoted mother? How do we know we’ve done enough? How do we know we’ve done anything at all?
If it’s up to us to tend the garden, bear the fruit and avoid being cut down, then we are a people most to be pitied.
Even where it seems that we might bear good fruit, pride and selfishness always seem to follow close behind.
The cries of John the Baptist show us in no uncertain terms, the truth that we constantly try to avoid, downplay and forget: that our sin is actually a very serious thing.
That our selfishness and pride have caused more than enough roadblocks on the highway of the Lord.
That our disinterest and lack of faith have made the valleys low, that our laziness and constant sin have piled the mountains high.
Not only do we not prepare the way, but we cause and create obstacles at every turn.
Not only do we not bear good fruit, but we don’t even grow.
The preaching of our sin has its place in the Good News of the Gospel.
St. John for us, opens wide the whole truth of God’s Law, he causes us and calls us to stare deeply into the righteousness that it demands, to see the whole way in which we have stumbled, fallen flat and come up short.
And he does so, not so that we would be left in utter despair, but because John’s gaze, even when our gaze is distracted and somewhere else, John’s gaze is ever-fixed on the one who comes.
For the Baptist cries out, “I baptize with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming”
This Advent season we fix our eyes on the one who comes that is mightier than John.
The one who gazes even deeper into the depths of God’s Holy Law; so that just as serious as is our sin, so is the seriousness of the one who comes to save.
For as John proclaims, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
The one who comes will be buried into fire, he will be washed with the wrath of God, he will be cut down and brought low.
For Christ says concerning himself in Luke chapter 12, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.”
The seriousness of sin is to be dealt with and redeemed in a more serious way.
The obstacles that we have set in our hearts and in our lives will be torn down.
The bad fruit that we have produced in our selfishness and in our resentment will be cast into the fire.
And in this fire of wrath we will find the coming one.
The one who prepares the way, who has made himself as low as the valleys, taking on the weakness and humility of our fragile flesh.
The one who has borne the pile and mountain of your sins, the rough places of your hearts and the crookedness of your souls.
In his jagged body upon the cross, he has made straight the pathway of God.
For he is also, the one who is cut down and thrown into the fire, in suffering for you, he has become the good and perfect tree of life.
Bearing for you the true fruit of repentance and righteousness, found in him as his blood pours down, as his body is given, and as his water rushes out from his side.
The fruit of the cross is cut down for you; it is proclaimed, washed over you and fed into your very mouths, all so that you might receive his life, and be held fast into the roots and tree of his peace.
The coming one, comes yes, even for you, and he himself prepares his own way, he himself bears the fruit of life, he himself makes your heart ready, puts your house in order, makes your way secure, and sets you at peace in him.
For into this coming one, you have been buried, into the fire that he bore for you, into the life that is his death.
Behold in the preaching of St. John, the true glad tidings of the king of kings.
See in Christ the seriousness of our sin and its solution. See in Christ the way that has already been prepared. See in Christ, the tree that has been lifted up and cut down for you.
He will not be delayed in coming to you, no matter how many obstacles you think you’ve set before him, he makes straight his own paths.
This Advent season, rest in the knowledge that the Lord himself comes to prepare your hearts.
Awake and Hear the Word of peace that he comes to bring. Be found as one who receives his gifts freely given, the glad tidings of the king of kings.
For he has done it, he has made his way secure.
In the Name of Jesus, Amen.