Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Stir Up the Power of Preparation
Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” 3 For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” 4 Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 7 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? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 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. 10 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. 11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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. . . . ?‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’?” (Mt 3:2–3)
The adult daughter of a pastor was talking about her family Christmas traditions. Here’s basically what she said: “I’m not crazy about Christmas. In my home, because my father was the pastor, we were so busy with church work we really didn’t have time to enjoy Christmas. It was exhausting.”
Pastors often are so focused on preparations for the church services that they don’t have much time or energy left to enjoy it themselves. One pastor came home from church one Christmas Day, fell to his knees, and prayed, “I thank thee, Lord, that this Christmas you have given me, is over.”
Maybe it’s the same for you. Maybe you’re so focused on preparations for Christmas that you wear yourself out and aren’t experiencing the joy of Christmas yourself. If that’s true, maybe it’s time to step back and look at our preparation for the arrival of God’s Son.
The Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent, the second “stir up” prayer, helps us get on the right track: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve You with pure minds; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”
“You stir up our hearts, O Lord, in order to make ready”—to prepare—“the way.” If Advent preparations exhaust us, maybe we’ve got it wrong. See, we actually don’t do the preparing. God does. By stirring up our hearts, God Prepares Us, through Word and Sacrament, so When Jesus Comes We Serve Him with pure minds. Here’s how God does it.
First, through His Word and The Sacrament of the Altar, God prepares us to serve his Son in purity as we confess our sins.
Christ’s advent, his coming, whether as a baby or at the end of the age, is always in the shadow of judgment. God’s hope for man was that we would love and serve him in holiness forever. It didn’t work out that way. God created us with a mind of our own, and we’ve all freely chosen to love and serve ourselves rather than God. That’s called sin. And sin calls for judgment.
For sinners to escape judgment, we need to repent. We need to confess our sins. We need to turn from sin and seek God’s forgiveness. That’s the message of John the Baptist. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” (v 3). “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v 2).
For those who don’t heed his message: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will burn the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v 12). “Flee from the wrath to come” (v 7). “The axe is laid to the root of the trees” (v 10).
That’s pretty violent stuff! Scary stuff! This is God’s Law to move you and me to see the danger we’re in so that we’ll repent, turn in faith to Christ, and amend our ways. As we do, we have God’s assurance of forgiveness.
That’s Gospel, the Good News. As we repent of our sins, as we are baptized, God’s gift of forgiveness is ours. Mark tells us, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” All the people “were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mk 1:4–5).
If you want to be prepared for Christmas, if you want to be prepared to meet the Son of God when he comes, confession, repentance, Baptism, and forgiveness are what you need. And all of these God makes happen through his Word and Sacraments.
You don’t have to buy anything! Prepare anything! God does all the work. When that message sinks in, we can relax and have a happy Christmas. And we’ll be serving our Lord in purity.
Second, through Word and Sacrament, God prepares us to serve his Son in purity as we bear fruit.
Go to most funerals today. It’s just assumed that the deceased is in heaven, laughing and happy, doing the things he or she enjoyed on earth. Seems that most people, even those who profess to be Christians, think everybody goes to heaven regardless of faith. It’s no longer that you have to be good enough to go to heaven—which is a false doctrine in itself—but you have to be bad enough not to. Only really bad people are barred from heaven. That’s what many people think these days.
But if that’s what we think, we’re not prepared to meet Jesus when he comes. According to the Bible, spending eternity with God is in the context of repentance of sin and faith in Christ, which always leads to bearing the fruit of righteousness. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance,” John tells the crowds who come to him (Mt 3:8). Otherwise, “Every tree . . . that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (v 10).
John’s message wasn’t too popular with some people. For example, king Herod who threw John in prison and later had John’s head cut off.
John’s message still isn’t popular. Many of us like to think of ourselves as Christians but have no real concern for repentance or bearing the fruit of righteousness. We’re materialistic, always wanting more than we have. We’re sexually immoral, even celebrating it in our entertainment. Our culture is becoming meaner and ruder, egged on by popular music, radio and TV talk shows, video games, politicians, and Internet bloggers.
And if those things aren’t true of us, then we probably become self-righteous. Clearly, we think, we’re better than everyone else, and God must be happy with us. Well, he’s not. If you read the Gospels, the people Jesus scolds and condemns aren’t the tax collectors and the prostitutes or the thief on the cross dying beside him. No, it’s the self-righteous, those who think of themselves as good. These are the people John calls a “brood of vipers!” (v 7).
The point is, everyone needs to repent, or we’ll end up in the fire on Judgment Day. So we need God to stir us up; to change us through his Word and Sacrament. Through these, we learn repentance and faith and what constitutes the righteous fruit God wants us to bear.
So what kind of fruit are we talking about? One text always comes to mind, Gal 5:22–23. There St. Paul tells us, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Elsewhere, Paul says, “The greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).
You could also say the fruit of the Spirit is just living according to the Ten Commandments, loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself. The point is that the fruit is outward focused. As it grows in our lives, it benefits others.
Finally, through Word and Sacrament, God prepares us to serve his Son in purity by giving us the Holy Spirit. John tells us, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11). Now that’s a Baptism to look forward to—Spirit and fire!
My, how we need the Holy Spirit! We need him because without him we are dead in our sins and powerless to do anything. We can’t stir up repentance and faith. We can’t stir up the fruit of righteousness in our lives. Without the Holy Spirit we aren’t alive to God; we aren’t sensitive to his will or empowered to do it. We’re helpless. But with the Holy Spirit, who comes to us through the Word and Baptism, we can do and be everything God wants.
The word for spirit in Greek is pneuma, meaning “breath” or “air.” If you and I don’t have breath or air, what are we? We’re dead! But with breath or air, we’re alive.
Remember what God did when he made man? Genesis says, “The Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Gen 2:7). The breath of life is the Spirit of God without which man is dead to God. When Adam sinned, the Spirit left; Adam died to God.
But through the Word of God joined to the water in Baptism, the Spirit comes back into us. Life from God is breathed into us once again. We come alive to God and are enabled to serve him and worship him in purity. But without the Spirit, we can’t.
This life comes through the Holy Spirit as we hear the truth of God in the Word and as we are baptized. As we confess our sins and repent, as we believe in Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins, as we bring forth the fruit of repentance, we are ready to serve our Lord in purity and meet him when he comes at the Last Day.
Lord Jesus, through your Spirit, working repentance and faith in our hearts through Word and Sacrament, stir us up; make us ready to greet you now as we serve you daily, in the hour of our death, and when you come again. In your name we pray. Amen.