Text: Matt. 3:1-12
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to cooking, I found that I really started hitting my stride when I learned about blending flavors that weren’t necessarily similar, but brought out other flavors. A little salt will make all the other flavors in a dish stand out even more. A touch of lemon juice will balance out something that just isn’t quite complete. Sometimes something with even a little more edge, like vinegar or something equally sharp, can highlight other more subtle flavors.
We have a sharp edge like that blended into our Advent season with the preaching of John the Baptist. While our ears are stuffed with sugary sweetness of the Christmas songs that are acceptable in our society, John shows up, preaching from the desert, a slash of acidity to cut through the treacle. “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand! You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” His dash of vinegar continues: “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.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear many Christmas songs on the radio with that kind of edge to them.
And it’s good that we have this little bit of edge added to our Advent. It’s necessary because without that dose of balancing fire, we lose focus on what it is exactly we’re preparing for this season. Yes, Christmas is nice. It’s peaceful, soft, gentle, and sweet. But why is that we even have Christmas? Because we are in desperate need of a Savior. We only get Christmas because we’ve been living in the shadow of sin and death ever since Eden. We’ve been surrounded by the wicked. We ourselves have been wicked, selfish, careless with God’s gifts. We’ve had wolves in the midst of lambs, leopards closing in on young goats, and it’s not just to lie down and dwell in peace. We just need to look outside these doors, or look inside the parts of our hearts we don’t like looking at, and we’ll see that we need something different from the world’s notions of Christmas. We need to be saved, and what we need to be saved from is sin—our own sin and the sins of others.
So John the Baptizer comes roaring into our Advent, adding something more than the sugary sweetness of the marshmallow world that our society would like to pretend Christmas is all about. He adds a little edge, a bracing dose of truth. After all the saccharine we hear on the speaker systems in the malls and airwaves, it’s a little bit of a shock to the system to hear of a fire and axe getting ready to cut down all those shiny trees. It’s catches us off balance, it hits our taste buds hard—but it’s necessary. It’s good. It’s cleansing. It helps us remember what this is really all about: getting ready for a real Savior who really saves us from our real sins.
This is the best way to prepare for Christmas. God knows how easy it can be for us to get sidetracked in our preparations. Think about the preparations you might do for the holidays in your home. You might clean, or do some other chores. But as you’re cleaning or tucking things away, how easy is to get distracted by those photos, or that album, or a notification that pops up on your phone? It’s the same way with these Advent preparations of our hearts and minds. By the time of John the Baptist, God’s people had gotten sidetracked in their all-important task of preparing for the Messiah and the arrival of the kingdom of God. They were distracted by their own righteousness, their keeping of the Law, their elders and rabbis adding to the Law God had given, sometimes even rewriting it altogether. They were distracted by the political games between Pontius Pilate and Herod and the Sanhedrin. They started focusing on other things, like bloodlines, and who were the real children of Abraham.
And how we get sidetracked in our own preparations, often in the same way. We too are distracted from the important task of preparing for the coming of Christ at the end, when He will let His kingdom come and usher in the new heavens and the new earth. And what is it that distracts us? The same things that distracted the people during John the Baptizer’s time. We start to think about our own righteousness, how the world will regard us, signaling to others what side we’re choosing. We think about our own keeping of the Law—or rewriting the Law of God, substituting our own codes and rules of what’s OK and what isn’t. We fixate on the revolving circus of politics, acting as if that’s the most important thing in the world, even though it’s just going to change all over again, the same way it has throughout all human history.
So we need the sharp edge of John’s forerunner voice to cut through all that noise and distraction, to refocus us, especially during this Advent season. Because humans haven’t changed all that much—we still have the same sins and distractions as then—John’s preaching still rings true. It still has a job to do. It corrects us, gets us back on track. He shows us the best way—the only way, really—to prepare for the Lord’s arrival: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Repent. Turn away from those things that are distracting you from the Lord and His work in your life, in this world. Turn away from those things, which are really idols, that are demanding more and more of your time, your energy, your worry, your anxiety, your love. Turn off those things that are just producing noise and making you focus on all the wrong things, all those petty would-be gods. Turn to the God who actually speaks to you, who comes to you, who gives you His Word that lasts forever when all other words are broken or silenced. Turn away from it all and give your focus, your time, your mind, your preparations to Jesus as He has come to be with you forever.
This may look different. Different trees will bear different fruit. But all good trees will bear good fruit. The only way you’ll know the fruit you’ll bear is when you nourish yourself with God’s Word, with His body and blood, with the waters of your Baptism, and see what He will do with you. And He will do something. Just clear out everything that might get in the way of that. Or, as John has said, “Then cleansed be every life from sin; Make straight the way for God within, And let us all our hearts prepare For Christ to come and enter there.”
Prepare, for Christ is coming. He’s already come that first Christmas, when He joined our human nature to dwell with us, as one of us, forever. He’s coming again in a few minutes, in that same body and blood, now glorified at the right hand of God the Father; Jesus, given for you in His Supper for the forgiveness of sins. And He’s coming one final time, at the end. That’s truly something to focus on, something worth ridding ourselves of all other distractions. “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth,” And here’s the really good part to get ready for: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them…They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” Isn’t that worth focusing on? So the prayer of St. Paul becomes our prayer too, as we look forward, as we repent, as we prepare for that arrival. “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome,” that is, repent and forgive “one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” In the name of Jesus, who is coming to save us. Amen.