The Third Sunday of Advent December 16, 2007
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
63, 66, 75, 89(1, 5)
And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: “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 brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ” Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then 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 what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
In Christ Jesus, our coming Savior, dear fellow-redeemed:
It’s Advent—is your tree ready? “What do trees really have to do with Advent?” you might ask. Well, it isn’t so much the trees themselves that have the connection to Advent, but rather the picture of a dead tree that is about to be cut down. In his preaching, John the Baptizer used this picture to warn the people of coming judgment. The people to whom John preached were the trees. Were they dead trees or living? Were they ready for Jesus to come? No, they weren’t, but that is why God sent John to prepare them.
Similarly, we are the trees. Are we dead trees? Is the ax laid at our roots, or are we living trees bearing fruit? A living tree is one that will be ready for Christmas—ready to rejoice and worship the newborn Savior because it recognizes the great gift He is. A living tree is one that will also be ready for the second Christmas—ready and waiting for Christ’s return. So today we want to take John’s message and apply it to ourselves. Are you ready for Christmas, i.e. are you ready to rejoice at His birth and appreciate what He has done; and are you prepared for His return? Or if we put that question into the picture which John introduced, we would ask: IS YOUR TREE READY FOR CHRISTMAS I. The ax is laid to the root and II. The living tree bears fruit.
“[John] said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? …and even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’” [v.7,9] The “the wrath to come” and “the ax is laid to the root of the tree” both speak of one thing: God’s judgment. The society to which John the Baptist came was secure, prosperous, and luxurious by the standards of that day and yet it was in great danger. Hidden beneath the surface was the festering sin of unbelief which would bring God’s judgment upon them. Not only did they sin but they enjoyed it and kept right on doing it without any care or concern. Sin brings the judgment of God upon all sinners. That judgment is like an ax cutting down a dead tree and removing it completely and eternally.
Did the people living in the comfort and pleasure of their sin care? No, they were living for here and now and knew of no reason to be concerned. Such people would be totally unprepared and unreceptive to a Savior from sin. If Jesus came offering them forgiveness and rest they wouldn’t care because they thought they were doing just fine without it. John was sent to wake the people up to the fact of their sin and wake them up to the reality of their judgment.
Isaiah prophesied about the message John would bring: “As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying, ‘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 brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” [v. 4-6]
Before a king would come into a city, the road leading into it would be prepared. The bumps were smoothed out, the potholes filled in, and if it was crooked it would be straightened. Jesus is not an earthly king entering a city, but He is a heavenly king entering hearts and lives. The road to prepare for the king is not a city street, it is the sinful heart. A heart boldly and proudly going forth in sin is twisted crooked with wickedness. Sin and unbelief are piled high to block out the Savior, and the holes of self-reliance stand in the way of salvation. John’s message to the people was, “Look at yourselves, see your sin, and know that God’s anger and judgment is upon it…and repent!”
Not all of the people who came to John came with repentant hearts. “Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance and do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’” [v.7-8]
“Offspring of poisonous snakes!” were words John directed to the Scribes and Pharisees and everyone who followed their teaching. As blood descendants of Abraham they thought they were the cream of the crop. Besides, they lived a good outward life and were insulted by the thought that they would need repentance. In their minds, the judgment was for the Gentiles and the wicked sinners. They thought that the judgment was for the “other guy.” John told them, “that is where you are wrong. This judgment is on all people, including you.” God’s judgment is upon all sin and it makes no difference whose descendant you are or how well you think you are doing at keeping His law. The ax is at the root of the tree.
Through the words of the New Testament we have the benefit of not only seeing John’s preparation for Jesus’ ministry but Christ’s ministry itself. The people who realized their sin and repented crowded around Jesus to hear what He had to say, and they rejoiced to hear it. The others, whom John called a brood of vipers, refused to pay attention to John’s warning and weren’t prepared for Christ. They continued in their sin, rejected as an insult any suggestion of repentance, and rejected the salvation which Christ offered.
Repentance as presented in God’s Word is more than genuine sorrow for sin. Repentance is a change of mind and change of heart. The only way that genuine repentance can be accomplished is through the Holy Sprit’s work with the Gospel. John’s ministry was one to awaken people to the condemnation of their sin, but he didn’t leave them helpless or hopeless. According to Isaiah’s prophesy John’s message included the words, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” When the people recognized their sin, John also assured them that God had promised a Savior and that He was coming. John could tell them that he was the forerunner and that the Messiah was not far behind. The coming Savior would die on the cross and take sinners’ judgment upon Himself and win forgiveness for all sinners. True sons of Abraham and true heirs of God’s covenant of salvation are such through faith. They are the ones who repent of their sins and put their faith in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins. “Therefore we know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
The ax is laid to the root of our tree as well. We are just as much sinners as those whom John called a “brood of vipers.” If John came today and preached to us, would we take offense at his message? Each of us will have to give account of himself to God (cf. Romans 14:12). If we try to give account of ourselves based on anything of our own we are just as doomed as the Scribes and Pharisees.
In our hearts there are mountains to be made low, valleys to be filled, and crookedness to be straightened. Compare every aspect of your thought, word, and deed to God’s Law and you will see that this is true. Pride, arrogance, love of sin in our life, selfishness, indifference toward God and His Word, sin in general, and every particular sin we commit all deserve to have the ax laid to the root of the tree. We don’t have Abraham to claim as our blood father but we have plenty of other things that stand in the way. Among others is the danger of justifying our misdeeds—finding an excuse or a reason why we just didn’t have a choice. But there is no excuse for sin, not one, ever!
Another danger is that we fall into a false sense of security in our repentance. Our sin is ongoing and daily so too should be our repentance. It is so easy to say, “Yes, I am a sinner. Jesus died for my sins. God forgive me, Amen.” There is no way that we can recall every sin. In fact, we don’t even recognize every sin. But when was the last time you took the time at the close of a day to really stop and think of the individual things you thought, said, or did during the day that were sinful and deserve God’s judgment? It is too easy to lump them all together and forget about them until we don’t really stop to think about how sinful we are. We become comfortable in life and if we see more outward sins in other people, well, that only makes it all the worse because then we can feel pretty good about ourselves. The great danger is that our admission to sin and guilt becomes so general and so mechanical that it really becomes nothing and then we are not any different than the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who said, “God I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess” (Luke 18:11-12).
Without a full and accurate recognition of our sin we aren’t ready to celebrate Christ’s coming—not His first nor the second. “Or do you despise the riches of his goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance? But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:4-5).
We are ready to celebrate both of Christ’s comings when we see the ax of judgment at the root of the tree, repent of our sin, and rejoice that Jesus has been punished in our place.
John told the people to bear fruits worthy of—fitting for—repentance. Repentance is called into doubt when the sin still continues unchecked. Keeping in mind that repentance includes faith in Christ and the change of mind and attitude that is worked by the Holy Ghost, we would agree that faith and true repentance are inseparable. A healthy living tree naturally produces fruit. A healthy living faith and repentance also produces fruit. The fruit which is produced is loving obedience to God’s Word. James writes that “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17), and John told the people that a repentance that does not turn away from sin is a dead repentance.
The people who came to John, heard his message and were baptized asked, “What shall we do then?” These people were not seeking a way to salvation. They already had salvation through Christ. The question was “now that we know what God has done for us and the rich salvation which He provides, what do we do now?” The apostle John tells us in his first letter, “This is the love of God that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:6). John the Baptist gave the same answer to the people, “He answered and said to them, He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” [v.11] Love and gratitude for what God has done will move us to the desire to please Him. We please Him by loving Him above all things and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
John instructed the people that if they had been blessed with an abundance and someone else had a need they should show love toward the other by helping in that need. John’s instruction goes much further than sharing clothing and food. It involves love toward one another in every respect. It includes honoring father and mother and all who are in authority(4th commandment), not thinking or bringing harm against one another but helping in every way possible (5th commandment), not committing adultery (6th commandment), not stealing, coveting, or trying to get something away from someone else, but rather helping them to keep their possessions and improve them (7th, 9th, and 10th commandments), and not doing anything to harm one another’s good name or reputation, but defend it, not assuming the worst but taking one another’s words and actions in the best possible way (8th commandment). Love toward one another flows out of love for God and both are fruits of faith and repentance.
John gave some specific examples of fruits of repentance to certain of the people who came and asked him what they should do. “Then the 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 what is appointed for you.’” [v.13] The tax collectors of that day were hated because they made extra money and became wealthy by overtaxing the people. That was stealing and a sin. The tax collectors had many other sins as well but John drew attention to this one because it was a particular pet sin and the fruit of repentance would be to willingly give up that sin. Years later, the tax collector Zacchaeus would show fruits of repentance to Jesus when he said, “Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold” (Luke 19:8).
Soldiers also came to John. “Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, ‘And what shall we do?’ So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”’” [v.14] Soldiers of that day were primarily hired mercenaries and often grumbled about their low pay. Soldiers intimidated people and extorted money. They brought false accusations against people and blackmailed them. John told them, “Stop these things and be content with what you have.” Again, John pointed out that the fruit of repentance is turning away from sin, even the pet sins which we most enjoy and most often commit.
The fruits of repentance described by John apply to us too. Like the tax collectors, it means not stealing. Like the soldiers, it means no violence and wrongful gain of money, but to be content with what God has given us. However, there is more to it than this and that it is brought out by what the soldiers said. The soldiers emphasized themselves. What should we do? The fruits of repentance are going to vary from individual to individual just like weaknesses and sins vary. It is a personal question you need to daily ask yourself, “What are my sins and, therefore, what correction do I need?” What pet sins do I have and am I willing to give them up?” Luther urges us to consider our sins on the basis of our stations in life. Whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, employer or employee; whether you have been disobedient, unfaithful, lazy; whether you have grieved anyone by word or deed. Whatever you are or have done (cf. Small Catechism, Confession)
Daily examine yourselves and find your sins. But realize that no amount of personal resolve is going to enable you to amend your life from those sins and determine to bear fruits of repentance. Our own resolves always fail. True repentance will naturally produce fruit. True repentance is produced by God’s Word. His Law wakes us up to our sin and His Gospel comforts us with His salvation. Through Christ and His redemption we are made into living trees. The Gospel is what will build love for God and renew the joy of His salvation so that we are enabled to produce good fruit.
Our hearts are by nature stubborn and unrepentant. They are filled with mountains and valleys and would be completely unprepared for our Savior if not for His grace and mercy. We realize that we are a tree ready to be cut down but plead at the cross of Christ, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” As we prepare for Christmas and await Christ’s second coming, our prayer is that our heart be ready for Christmas and be an everlasting home for Christ, our King.
Ah, dearest Jesus holy child, make thee a bed soft undefiled
within my heart that it may be a dwelling place kept for Thee. Amen. [TLH 85:13]
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