St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Third Sunday in Advent
John 1:6-8, 19-28
December 17, 2023

If you were God and you had the power and authority to make things work any way you want to, what would you do different, right now? What would you change?

We human beings tend to be nostalgic people, people who find comfort living in our past. How many times have you caught yourself saying “they don’t make things like they used to” or “back in my day things were better”?

And even though our past, in many ways, was at least as difficult, we still want to be there, to dwell there. Well, I mean, when we think about our present and what goes on in our world today, maybe living in the past isn’t such a bad thing. And who wants to think about the future?

Who wants to think about the direction of our schools, our government, our culture and where it’ll be 20 years? Who wants to think about the potential for illness which we can’t recover from, losing family or friends to old age or sickness or an accident?

No, it’s more comfortable for us to exist in the past where things were good, where things made sense. And if we were God, I think that our one single act would be to stop time, go back to a point in time and just stay there where we thought everything was better.

But God isn’t one who lives in the past, who seeks out golden ages or the glory days of youth. God moves forward and as He moves, He promises greater things to come.

Last week we focused on one aspect of John the baptizer’s message – his call to repentance, that a fundamental part of the faith IS that by God’s Holy Spirit, we repent, we acknowledge that we are sinful people, sinful in thought, word, and deed, and that we confess those sins, faithfully clinging to the promise of forgiveness.

But are we really that sinful? Is our world really that broken that repentance and confession of sins be so fundamental? Isn’t it enough to just sort of shrug and say “ah, I’m not that bad a person”?

I don’t think I need to tell you how broken our world is, folks. I don’t think I need to detail for you how deep in despair is the world we live in. I mean what day goes by that we open the newspaper or turn on the TV or listen to our XM radio and most of what you see or hear is just bad news.

And we say to ourselves, “why doesn’t God just come and fix all this; maybe Jesus should run for political office; maybe God should just blow it all up.”

It’s easy for us to look at the world around us and see how horrible it is. And if you’re one who says “it isn’t that bad, things aren’t all that horrible”, well I would just love to send you to live in Iran for a day, or to South America, to China, Japan, Detroit Michigan, Chicago, or any one of a thousand other places where the thoughts, words, deeds, and power of sin and death reign or where sins destructive power burns through the lives and livelihood of people. Where the fallen world rips societies apart with flood and wind and rain. Where sinful man rises up against sinful man and wars are fought in the name of control and power, and evil men rise up and wipe out entire civilizations all to have one more feather in their hats.

No this is not a good world; this is an evil world and even going back to live in the past, to “the good old days,” you know of the evil that existed then too, and that it was just as vicious and vile as today.

And we can spend hours detailing the evil world and pointing out its crimes, but what of our own lives? Talking about sin and its effect in each of us, that’s uncomfortable, that’s too much. We don’t want to hear about that, let’s go back to talking about the world, the evil outside of our own hearts and hide there, so our own hearts don’t have to be exposed. Or let’s just not talk about sin and evil at all; we don’t want to talk about that.

But each one of us suffers from evil and sin just like the world. And whether it’s things out of our control like disease, birth defects, job loss, or it’s things that, through our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, we have caused, such as broken friendships, broken families, addictions, resentment, anger, jealousy, whatever the case may be, when we look at our lives – past, present, future, whatever, and we acknowledge what we have done as sinful people and what has been done to us by other sinful people, we quickly realize that it’s not just a sinful world that’s the problem, but it is a sinful us, you and me, as well.

And we don’t want to look at it, we don’t want to acknowledge it because it’s uncomfortable, it doesn’t feel good, it’s not “positive thinking,” it’s not “good self-esteem,” it doesn’t exhibit the best “I Am” we can be, according to one famous preacher. But we must deal with it; It’s Christian to deal with our sin, our brokenness; it’s Christian to be a people who repent.

The Christian faith is messy, because it deals with the very hearts of messy, broken, sinful people.

Yes, we are called, by John the Baptizer, by other prophets, by Jesus Himself to acknowledge our reality, to admit our brokenness, and as difficult as it is, to fall to our knees not only before God, but also before our own mirrors and admit that we are as broken, and naked and filthy as everyone else around us. It’s not the mirror of God’s law that’s broken or cracked and making a distorted image – His mirror reflects who we truly are.

When John the baptizer was sent to “make straight the way of the Lord,” this is exactly what he did. And 2000 plus years ago the people were no better or no worse than they are today. They were called to repent just as we are called to repent.

And we may think it would be a whole lot easier if God would just “fix” us, just suck the sin and horribleness out of the world and out of each of us right now. And perhaps we find ourselves wondering why God doesn’t just come and remove our sin, make us perfect people now. Fix the world, make it like the past, like the Garden of Eden was before the fall, right now. And perhaps if we were God, we would do just that.

But God, the true God, the only God, the only one who can be God because we would all fail at it miserably, He sees things quite differently than we do. After all, He created us. He knit us together in the womb as Scripture says. He knew us before the foundations of the world. We don’t know ourselves nearly as well as God knows us. He knows what makes us tick because he made the ticker and He wound the spring, and He keeps it going.

He knows that our minds are easily led astray by idols of stone or wood, by the teachings of men and philosophies of those who claim to be wise. He knows that our eyes are easily distracted by the allurement of the world, and He knows that our hearts are full of ideas and things that we would never want anyone to know. He knows; He knows it all. And in the end, when it is all said and done, His opinion, His perspective, His teachings, His thoughts are the only things that matter. We can’t and won’t get around God.

John the baptizer came to make straight the paths, to call people to repentance, because without acknowledgment of sin there can be no forgiveness. And God knows we need forgiveness.

This is why John came. He came to prepare the way for the forgiving one, the only one who has forgiven sins on earth such that it changes things in heaven.

But wherever God works, wherever His Spirit is at work, through prophets or pastors or teachers calling people to repentance, there is always a strong force at work fighting against it. For John it was the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, questioning him, questioning his calling, questioning his source, his message, his work. “Where do you come from, who do you speak for, who do you represent, why are you baptizing?”

And like most of God’s sent ones, be they the prophets of old or John or those who have come since, John was not polished like a politician or bigger than life, like a televangelist. John simply spoke what he was given to speak and did what he was given to do. John was a humble person He didn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself or check to make sure people liked him. He said what he said and did what he did because that is what he was sent to do.

In many ways he was very much like Elijah, whose life was often threatened by the very people of God for whom he was tasked to prophecy.

And what was the message he came to proclaim that was so vital and so important that his entire life, and his reputation was on the line? Well, it was a message about someone coming, someone just over the horizon, just around the bend, who was coming to show the world just how much God is working in the world to fix that which was broken so long ago.

One day John was out baptizing and preaching and calling the unrepentant a brood of vipers and warning them of the axe that is about to cut down and destroy those who do not bear good fruit, and he sees a man walking in the distance.

And John the baptizer knows who this man is. It’s his cousin, it’s Jesus. And John cries out “behold the Lamb of God to takes away the sin of the world.” Later John sees Jesus again and says, “behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And he says “this is who I’ve been telling you about. This is why I came, so that I might point you to Him, and that through repentance and faith given to you in baptism, you might follow Him and listen to Him and let Him lead you to His destination, His throne, where His kingdom will reign forever.”

And with every step Jesus took, from His baptism all the way to the cross, He proclaimed the message of, guess what? Repentance and forgiveness of sins. And the louder He proclaimed it, the more resistance there was, because that’s just how our world and the sinful nature is. Even His 12 disciples resisted His message. Jesus was hung on a cross and died because of this message.

See, human nature is so resistant to the message of John the baptizer and to the one he pointed to, Jesus the Christ, that in order to make Him more palatable, easier on the stomach and eyes, Jesus is often turned into someone other than who He says He is. They did it with John the Baptizer. They called him Elijah returned, the great teacher that they had talked about in their philosophy for hundreds of years before, they called him a demon, they called him crazy. And they said the same about Jesus.

Others have given Jesus more respectable titles such as an influential teacher, a historic figure, a great philosopher, a good person, an example-setter worth following if we want to make society a better place and create a utopia on earth.

Some have said that this Jesus is a myth, a fairy tale character in an otherwise boring and long-winded book of rules and myths. Some have said that Jesus was a pawn, a puppet whose strings were pulled by a group of politically-minded zealous men who wanted to take over the world.

But none of this matters. For this was not the words of that voice of the one calling from the wilderness. John called him the Lamb of God, the one who takes away the sin of the world.

And this is exactly what Jesus did. He was born in humble abode, coming not to rule and lord over all with fist and threat or to force mankind to subdue to His violent will. But He came to preach repentance, to think differently, to trust not in kings and princes and powers in the world or philosophies of men or cultural trends or fads, but to trust instead in God who comes to forgive the sin of the world.

He came that He might draw all people to Himself, that they might acknowledge their sins of many and grip tightly to his cloak of righteousness as he walked to the cross to suffer and die, setting free a world, a universe from the chains of death.

Christ has come so that you might look to your past and see the waters of life flooding over you in your baptism where the darkness and brokenness of your old sinful nature is drowned and where the new life of Christ your Lord and savior is birthed in you.

Christ has come so that you might look to the present and, confessing your sins, continue to look to your baptism and trust in His promises even when the world is falling to pieces around you, even when it seems more convenient and easier to trust your own desires and beliefs.

Christ has come so that you might look to the future with eyes shimmering with hope, waiting with your lamps filled with oil, and ready to be taken to your everlasting home where all things are made new.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Repent. Confess your sins and hold tightly to His swaddling clothes, and even when all the world tells you that there are more important matters to attend to, more important things to see, to hear and to worry upon, hold tightly to what you find in Bethlehem, in the manger, to the gift God has given there for you. And watch, just watch and see how God works all things for your good and for the good of his church on earth. Amen.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. Amen.