Today’s Gospel account is brought to you by crazy. Everything about today’s account is crazy. The first part of the account focuses on a man named John the Baptist. The message that he comes proclaiming is one that is pure crazy talk: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” That is pure crazy talk! Whatever could he mean that the kingdom of heaven is at hand? He appeared rather abruptly in the desert areas of Judea. It was as if he appeared out of nowhere. He was not trained by the accepted religious teachers. He had no credentials. He simply appeared and began preaching. Who did he think he was? John was somebody, somebody important. He was the last of the Old Testament prophets. The Lord sent John out into the desert. He did not appear in the synagogue or in the temple where the other religious teachers were to be found. He was to carry out his ministry in a place apart. The present system was corrupt. The Lord wanted His people to take a fresh look at their relationship with Him. The wilderness was to become a fruitful field.
John wasn’t just a crazy man running around preaching anything he wanted to. He was the one whom Isaiah spoke of: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” However, when you saw John in the flesh, he looks every bit the part of crazy, acts every bit the part of crazy. Here is a man who walks around in “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey.” Needless to say, this was not normal attire for anyone, nor was this the food of the everyday person. The clothing was reminiscent of the prophets, of which John is the last. It would have been very easy to write John the Baptist off as crazy based upon his looks. However, the people didn’t write John off as crazy. Instead, they went out to him in order to be baptized by him and to confess their sins.
For someone who looks like a crazy man, the people come to him in large numbers from all over the place. When John calls the people to repent, he is calling them to not only repent of their sins, but also to repent of all of their misconceptions and wrong ideas about the Savior. If they have the wrong idea of who the Savior is supposed to be, then they’re not going to like the Savior for who He truly is. If they’re looking for the wrong things in a Messiah, then they’re not going to recognize Him when He makes His appearance. John prepares the people by teaching them the true nature of their sinfulness, so that they see the need for the Savior; he prepares them by teaching them who the Savior is and what He will come to do.
John called the people to repent and invited them to be baptized so that their guilt might be washed away. Many responded to the call. They confessed that they were sinners and received baptism. He baptized in anticipation of Jesus’ saving work.
As we prepare for the Nativity of our Lord, are we eager to do as John says, to repent? It’s not something that comes easy to us. It’s not something that we like to admit, that we did something wrong, that we are a sinner and that we need to repent, to ask for forgiveness. However, that is exactly what we are supposed to do.
Repentance involves a change of mind and heart and a change of direction in daily behavior and life. The full definition of repentance includes recognizing your sin as disobedience to God’s commandments, feeling truly sorry for your sin, having the sincere desire to amend your sinful ways, and trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness and salvation. Repentance is not a one-time act. In his famous Ninety-Five Theses, Martin Luther declared that the entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. In his Small Catechism, Luther tells us that our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance. Repentance includes all our sins, even those of which we are not aware of, and Jesus’ forgiveness is total.
For as many who came to John in order to be baptized, there were also those who came for another reason. Matthew records that while John was baptizing, Pharisees and Sadducees were also coming to be baptized, though he did not baptize them. He commanded those who desired to be baptized to repent and bear fruit in keeping with repentance. The Pharisees and Sadducees did neither. The Pharisees believed they were righteous in God’s sight because they kept the Law. Repentance was fine for others, but not for them. The Sadducees, on the other hand, did not believe in any resurrection. They were concerned only about this life and this world. They had no interest in the kingdom of heaven that John was proclaiming.
The message was stern to them: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” In other words, those who are not repentant have no place in the kingdom of God.
That same message applies to us today. If we insist on going our own way or trying to get into heaven on our own terms, God will reject us and find plenty of other people to populate heaven. We must not imagine that God needs us, but we would be wise to remember that He wants us and that Jesus has done everything necessary for our eternal salvation. The only thing that is necessary on our part is repentance.
As far as some are concerned, we believe that we are right with God. We can do no wrong. We are not sinners. But where do we get that notion? We don’t get it from Scripture because Scripture says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We can deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not sinful, but that is all that it is, a deception. As a result, our lives are unfruitful, are sinful. We do not do the works that God requires; in fact, we cannot do them. God’s righteous judgment comes down upon Israel and it comes down also upon us.
Instead of leaving us with judgment, doom and gloom, John the Baptist also promises something beyond our wildest imaginations: the coming of the Savior. John the Baptist is the one crying in the wilderness of the coming Messiah. He is making the paths straight by preaching a message of repentance to the people, to prepare them for Christ’s arrival. John the Baptist comes to lead people to repentance, to baptize with water. When Jesus arrives, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” He is coming to do something far greater than John the Baptist, the Pharisees, Sadducees or we could ever do: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”
While everything about John seems to be crazy, the message he preaches is anything but crazy. It is a message that draws the people from all over, drawing them to repent of their sins and to be baptized. For as much as John the Baptist seems out of place in the coming Nativity of our Lord, the message is very much appropriate: He comes with grace – to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, to prepare you for everlasting life. Even now in Word and Sacrament we feast upon Christ as our tree of life. He is the vine and we are the branches. By Word and Sacrament, we bring forth the fruit of repentance and live in trust and obedience. He declares to you even now, “Repent, because I am at hand; and because I am here, you are forgiven for all of your sins.” In the name of Jesus, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.