Preparation by Subtraction
Text: Luke 3:1-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How are your Christmas preparations going? Driving through town we can see all the lights, the garlands, the trees up. I know that members have their home decorations done, seeing their social media posts. Here in the sanctuary we’ve been getting ready for the upcoming Christmas season by adding to our decorations: the tree, the nativity, the banners made by the Sunday school children. We’re all, in some way or another, getting ready for Christmas.
There are these purely outward ways of getting ready: putting up lights, decorations, choosing a tree, or pulling the tree and wreaths and décor from the basement. There are parties to go to, extra events this season that we enjoy. And those can be good, even if they are external and outward preparations. There are some other, deeper ways that we get ready: our family traditions that bind past and present Christmases together, meals with loved ones, acts of charity to those around us. We pick up these things during this season, we add them, all to get ready for the high feast of Christmas.
But there’s an even greater kind of preparation that we’re called to as Christians for that holy season. It takes place on a deeper level than the front door or the fireplace mantle. It’s even deeper than the kitchen and dining room table or schedule and calendar. In all of those other preparations we’re adding something to our days, our homes, our lives. We’re putting more things into our routine. But anyone could do that, even someone who’s never even heard of Christ, or even someone who rejects Him. But for those of us who know what the coming Christmas season is about, those who know and observe and recognize this current season of Advent, we have another kind of preparation. But this preparation doesn’t take place by adding things to our days or homes or routines. The deepest kind of preparation we’re called to takes place by removing things.
John the Baptizer prepared people for the coming Messiah. His work was Advent work, getting people ready. And look at how he does it. He doesn’t demand extra works. He doesn’t tell people to dress a certain way or pick up a new habit or anything like that. Instead, he calls people to get rid of things that were weighing them down. “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’” How shall we get ready for the arrival of God? “And he answered them, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food to do likewise.’” Giving away something, getting rid of it. But this was not simply to be a mere going-through-the-motions, cleaning out your closet for the poor type of action. In sharing from their abundance with those who had none, they were getting rid of their mindset of scarcity, getting rid of that need to hoard and cling to material things. They were to see God’s world as filled with His gifts, overflowing with them, rather than seeing a stingy, miserly creation with minimal goods. “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’” Give up that greed that causes you to skim off the top, that worship of money that causes you to cheat your neighbor, even if it looks like its perfectly above board. “Soldiers also asked, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be content with your wages.’” Give up your violence, your crave for control of others, your lording it over those weaker than you, and the covetousness and selfishness that drives all of those behaviors.
Why were they to give up all these things? Because the One greater than John was coming, the strap of whose sandal John was not even willing to untie because of how much greater He would be. John baptized with water to get people ready, but this One would be who they were getting ready for. He would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, getting ready to sift out the good from the bad, the just from the unjust, the holy from the unholy. He’s about to clear his threshing floor and separate the wheat—the wholesome, useful grain—from the chaff—the husks that could not be eaten or enjoyed. He’s coming to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire. Those things that weighed them down—the greed, the self-centeredness, the distrust of God and lovelessness toward neighbor—those things would be removed, in a much worse way, with fire. So John calls the people to turn away from those things now, before the final sifting begins.
This was nothing new. All of God’s messengers have done this. John, the last of the prophets, told people to get rid of those heavy sins. All the prophets before him did the same. All the Apostles and preachers who would come after would also tell God’s people to set down those things as they prepared for the Messiah to come back for that Last Day. Paul tells the Philippians, and us, to “approve what is excellent”—the useful and wholesome wheat instead of the chaff—“and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,” the Day when our Lord returns.
For the Lord has come and He is coming back. This is why we have Advent. Yes, we get ready for Christmas, the Lord’s arrival into this world to redeem it and save it. But we also use this time to look a little further at the horizon, the Day when the Lord who has come once will return. And just as God’s people prepared for that first coming by casting away the heavy works of darkness, so we also prepare for His return by doing the same, by walking in the purity of God’s will for our lives—lives of faith and hope and love.
So what does this look like? It will look like it always has—getting rid of the things that weigh us down, the things that absorb our thoughts, the things that occupy us so much that we don’t give the kind of time or energy to the Lord that we know we ought. We use this time to get rid of things as we prepare for our Lord. We get rid of sins. We cast out temptations. In short, we repent. We turn away from the shadows and look toward the light. John the Baptist tells us to stop seeing a stingy God who gives cheaply to His creation and instead to see an overabundance of good things, ready to be shared with us and those around us. He tells us to give up greed and selfishness, to set down the covetousness that wants what others have, that’s swayed by the fickle promises of the world. And the prophet Malachi tells us today to give up trying to control everything, to give up our adulterous lusts, our lies we tell others and ourselves, the tricks and justifications we use to take from others and take advantage of those lower than us. We’re called to see where we’ve fallen short and lay down those burdens that have fascinated our eyes and hearts, that have weighed us down and pinned us to this quickly passing world.
By God’s grace we will leave those things behind. With His help, with His Holy Spirit, with the call of prophets and Apostles and preachers, we will be encouraged and enabled to turn away from those things and repent—to give up those things as we prepare for Jesus’ arrival. And when that happens, we rejoice, like the people on the banks of the Jordan.
And for those times when we stumble, for those times we sin, for the times we pick up those burdens and start shouldering them again; for the times before we repented, and for the times after, the Lord will still provide for those heavy shadows to be removed. He does this through forgiveness.
When our Lord forgives us, he takes those sins, those dark weighty burdens, off us and He puts them on Jesus. The Mightier One is able to bear those things in ways that we cannot. He carries them for us all the way to the cross, where they are destroyed in His sacrificial death. That’s what He came to do. That’s what we get ready for as we prepare for Christmas, and for His return. He wasn’t born simply to be born. He was born to take away the sins of the world. He was born to pick up what we’ve laid down and to deal with it for us. So we are left only with light and fresh life. The Holy Spirit breathes into us and we are made new again and again.
So remember your Baptism, when this was first made yours. Hear John talk about the washing of rebirth and renewal in the water and Word, when you were given forgiveness and faith. Come to the Lord’s table and have the burden of your mistakes, your sins, and the pressures of this world removed from you. Hear the absolution of your Lord, spoken in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus, as He takes the heaviness of your darkness from you. Be strengthened by the Mightier One to lay down those things, to give them up. And when you let them go, when He takes them from you, He will make you ready. He will make you free to meet Him. In the name of Jesus, who has come and is coming again. Amen.