Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, amen. The text for the sermon is the Gospel, which was read earlier.
Imagine for a moment that your life is not your own. Whatever you do is not meant for you; rather, it’s meant for someone else. What would that life look like? Would it be a life worth living or is your life pointless, as you receive no gain in your life? We should ask John the Baptist about that, because his life was not his own – his being was to point to a promise God made ages and ages ago.
John the Baptist is a strange man in a strange time. He has one foot in the Old Testament while the other foot is ushering in the New Testament. He looks out of place because he is out of place. John is a man on a mission from God, literally. The question is: what is that mission?
John’s mission is not about living a life that’s all about him. His mission is not to make a mark in the pages of history because of what he did, though he does leave a mark. His mission is to step back, to take the back seat, all in order to tell people about a promise God made. That promise comes in Jesus, his cousin. That promise comes in Jesus, his Savior.
To teach people about this promise, John has to lay the ground work. His message is one of repentance. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What a message John has to proclaim!
Unfortunately, John the Baptist has a problem. The problem is that no one wants to hear what he has to say. No one wants to hear about repentance. No one wants to hear of the promised Messiah. The people want things to be the way they are, to stay the status quo. But the status quo is not good enough for John, especially when the message he is proclaiming is a message that speaks of mankind’s salvation.
Quoted in our Gospel today is some prophecy about John the Baptist and what he will say and what will come about: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
John is the voice in the wilderness proclaiming, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” And John is going to make sure that everyone hears that message. He doesn’t want to leave anyone out. He wants to ensure that all hear of the coming of God’s promised Messiah. And why wouldn’t he? First, that’s his job as the herald of Jesus Christ. Second, who would not want to hear of God’s promise of salvation coming to the people in such a short amount of time? Everyone would want to hear that, unless you are a Pharisee. God’s Word and Pharisees don’t often tend to play well together. But John’s message was especially for the Pharisees, as they had determined there was a different way to earn salvation – through their own works and keeping of the Law.
John the Baptist comes in preaching very harsh words, words that the people didn’t want to hear then and words that we probably don’t want to hear now: “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 that 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 and there is nothing good within us due to our sinful nature.
That’s where John’s message is so important. We hear 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 that message that John is preaching about is the sweet sound of the Gospel that 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. And so John comes proclaiming a baptism of repentance, that the people would turn from their sinful ways and prepare for the arrival of The Messiah that was quickly approaching. And who heard that message but those troubled by their sins.
That’s the message of our text today. Our sin has separated us from God. That’s not a message we want to hear, and neither did those to whom John was preaching to. They had an answer for everything: “We have Abraham as our father.” What does that mean? Who cares if you have Abraham as your father. The bigger question is do you recognize your sin? Are you repentant of your sin? Will claiming Abraham as your father make your sins go away?
If you are sinful, then you need to hear this message. If you are repentant of your sins, then you need to hear this message. There is nothing you can do about your sins, but there is someone who can, and that someone is on His way. He is on His way to the manger to be born. He is on His way to Jerusalem to stand before Pilate to be judged. He is on His way to Golgotha to lay down His life for your sinful life. He’s going to give you all that He is so you may be declared righteous and holy before God. And in doing so, He is going to take all your sins upon Himself so that He may be judged sinful and die, all that you may live.
Even with all of that, that’s not enough for Jesus. He promises to come to you in His holy Word, a word that declares you forgiven for His sake. He comes to you in water so that God’s name may be placed upon you, marking you as God’s beloved and redeemed child. He comes to you in bread and wine, that you may feast upon His body and blood and receive His forgiveness, that you may be strengthened until life everlasting in heaven is yours.
All of this is at the heart of John the Baptist’s message. The message is not his own, but it is God’s message of a promise made a long time ago. John’s presence is to prepare for Christ’s arrival as the Messiah, the promised Savior of long ago. And with that message of John, we look not to ourselves but to only-begotten Son of God, as He comes in a manger, as He comes in Word and Sacrament…as He comes to forgive us our sins and lead us unto Himself. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.