“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, John the Baptist is the star of Advent. This is the season when we make the transition from the Old Testament to the New, and John encapsulates that shift perfectly. He has the look of the Old Testament, dressed in his camel hair while eating locusts and wild honey. When you think of a wilderness prophet in the Old Testament, whether it is Amos or especially Elijah, this is how you would imagine their appearance. But John also clearly has his bare feet in the New Testament as well. The Gospel according to Saint Mark begins with John in the wilderness, and that makes sense, for his work inaugurates the new thing that God is doing by sending His Son into our world. John’s work is that of preparation, making roads straight, clearing paths. He is a highway contractor for the way of the Lord, in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” What are his tools, how does he prepare the way of the Lord? John makes straight pathways for God by preaching repentance, because REPENTANCE PREPARES US FOR CHRIST.
‘Repentance is the reason for the season’- I’m guessing you’ve never seen that on a Christmas card. The season of Advent is one of repentance, a season in which we acknowledge our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. The two great festivals of our Church Year are Christmas and Easter, and both of them are preceded by seasons of reflection and repentance, to prepare us to celebrate God’s mighty acts in Christ. For the world, on the other hand, the holiday season is a time of busyness, scurrying about making preparations and enjoying the parties that come throughout the season. The world does not want to reflect during Advent, it doesn’t want to repent, it wants to celebrate. And then, on December 26th, the parties are over and the world starts thinking about New Year’s Eve. But in the Church, Advent is the season of repentance and preparation, and when December 24th rolls around, the festival begins! We rejoice and revel in Christ’s birth for twelve days, up to the festival of Epiphany. John is the ideal Advent preacher, because he declares that the only way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is through repentance.
He calls on all Israel to repent, and they respond, confessing their sins and clinging to the mercies of a God who is preparing to break into their world with His great acts of salvation.
Now, John could play nice and assume that all those coming to him were truly repentant, but he’s just a little too combative and fiery to make that assumption. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance." John is the expert on repentance, and so he can spot false repentance from a mile away. These guys are only going through the motions, trying to look good for the people, but as John says, they are bearing no fruit. He makes a vital point here: repentance bears fruit. If you acknowledge your sin and beg for God’s forgiveness, then logically after receiving that forgiveness you would then try with the Lord’s help to avoid that sin in the future. You would attempt to reform your life. That is all that bearing fruit is- the life of faith that flows from forgiveness. Fruit is not a prerequisite for forgiveness, but instead it comes as a natural result and outgrowth of it.
Some bear no fruit because they think they need no repentance. The Pharisees and Sadducees thought they had it made because of who they were, but John squashes that idea. "And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham." Simply sitting in the pew or being from a Christian family may bring you close to where God gives His gifts, but such outward acts ultimately matter nothing before Him if you refuse to acknowledge that you have any sin that needs repenting of. Some bear no fruit because they don’t take their sin seriously enough to really change. Changing my life now is inconvenient, it’s expensive, it’s too much work. God will forgive me anyway, right? There is a great difference here between the person who struggles mightily with a sin each and every day, wanting to be rid of it, and the person who treats God like a forgiveness machine, not wanting to make the effort of bearing fruit. This is what pastors hear all the time: “Yeah, I know it’s wrong, and I really hate it, but I can’t change now.” If living together without marriage is a sin, move out! If filthy language and gossip are sins, then watch your tongue! If verbal or physical abuse are sins, then get some professional help! As John says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance!”
False repentance arrogantly tells God that His forgiveness is cheap and easy, that it is something that really has no affect on my life. God does not deal lightly with those who despise His forgiveness and treat it as worthless. He is sending His Son into the world to win forgiveness for repentant sinners, but for those who reject this forgiveness, Jesus is also the righteous judge, as John declares.
“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.” Trees made good through the forgiveness of Jesus are to bear good fruit, but those who arrogantly refuse to bear such fruit will be cast into the fire. That is the reality on the Last Day: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear his threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Repent of your rebellion against God, repent of your false repentance and clinging to your sins!
John’s work shatters the illusion of false repentance for you and me, he preaches hell to us so that we see our great sin and our need for a Savior from that sin. John is making paths straight for the reigning of God to break into this corrupted world. As I taught the bible classes this fall, the kingdom of the heavens is not primarily a place, it is an activity. It is God beginning to reestablish His rule over His fallen creation. John’s cry of ‘the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ therefore means ‘God is beginning to act!’ That is what Jesus came to do, to deliver all creation, along with you and me, from the bondage of sin, and bring God’s righteous and just rule over all things once again. He will do this by allowing Himself to be cut down, the righteous judge falsely accused and condemned for sins He did not commit. He was the only human that ever did live or ever will live that had no need of repentance, but He in His great love for you and me made Himself the sinner, bearing all of our sin to the cross. That is why He came, to win forgiveness for our sins by His shed blood. John shows us that we need a Savior, and thanks be to God that we were not left out in the cold without one, but instead Jesus came walking in the way of the Lord, a road that led to the cross. There He paid the price for all of your sin, all of my sin, all of the sin of the world. He won forgiveness on that day, the only solution that could suffice for our sin. God took our sin seriously, seriously enough to abandon His only Son to His furious wrath on the cross. The redemption price was steep, but Jesus paid it in His great, sacrificial love for you and for me. Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness then makes trees good; it enables them to bear the fruit of repentance that John talks about. It even covers our sins of false repentance, delivering you and me from the wrath that John spoke of in our text.
If there was no hell, then we would not need deliverance from it, but John tells us of the reality of the judgment that Jesus will carry out. He will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, but that is not His proper work, it is only made necessary because people reject His forgiveness. Instead, His proper work, the work He delights in, is gathering His wheat into the barn. You are that wheat because you have been forgiven by Christ Jesus, His blood paid for your sin. You are the wheat because the Lord has claimed you as His own through faith, applying His death and resurrection directly to you in the waters of Holy Baptism. He has made you a good tree, and good trees bear good fruit. It is not the other way around, you do not bear good fruit in order to become a good tree, but instead Jesus works within you to create faith, making you a good tree that now cannot but bear good fruit. The harvest may not always be bountiful, because we remain sinful, but Jesus is there to nurture us, to water us with the reminder of our baptism, to fertilize us with His forgiveness. He does not abandon His crop until it has been gathered into His barn on the Last Day.
For the Last Day is the culmination of all of Jesus’ work. Then He will bring to completion the victory won on the cross, by renewing all creation and removing the scourge of sin forever. That is also what makes John the great preacher of Advent. He makes the paths straight for Christ’s first coming by preaching a message of repentance, but He fast-forwards all the way to the Last Day, preaching repentance for all people, for you and me, as we approach Christ’s second coming. You see, for John the first and second comings of Jesus were almost indistinguishable, for the forgiveness and salvation won by Christ’s first coming will deliver us from the judgment of His second coming. What Jesus inaugurates by His birth in Bethlehem is brought to completion when He gathers all of His wheat, you and me, into His barn. His righteous and kingly rule will be extended over the new heavens and the new earth, and there we will dwell in peace, as Isaiah describes: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” This Advent season, we look toward Christ’s first and second comings, as with them God brings us from the wilderness of sin to the paradise of the new heavens and the new earth by reestablishing His kingly rule over His beloved creation. The kingdom of heaven is at hand- thanks be to God! Amen.