Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Getting ready for the arrival of important people takes work. Lots of work. We all know how wild preparations for the arrival of our family members and friends can be, even if for just short visits, especially at this time of year. We vacuum every inch of the house. We wash the floors. We make sure the linens are crisp. We chuck out the milk that is probably fine, but hey, we don’t play those games with expiration dates. We strategically block off those parts of the house that are in a perpetual state of disorder because we’re remodeling and don’t want our friends and family to see just how little progress we’ve made on that undertaking. It’s a lot of work— what often should be fun because company is coming becomes less so because we have to work to make it happen.
Throughout history, preparing for visits from royalty required a lot of work that was often exhausting and not entirely welcome. When Queen Elizabeth I or King James I wanted to visit a courtier’s home in the 16th and early 17th Centuries, they brought half their possessions with them along with countless retainers, and stayed over for months. The preparations required were expensive, both in time, money, and space, and so, while it was a great honor to have the monarch staying at your home, it was also a huge imposition. But you dared not grumble about it lest you got on the king or queen’s bad side and fell out of favor!
And how did you know if that king or queen was going to stay at your hall? Well, you’d get a message from the monarch by courier, saying, in so many words, “The King will be coming to stay at your place for the next six months. Expect his arrival in about three days. See you soon! Kisses and hugs, Henry VIII.” It is unlikely that this was met with a ton of enthusiasm. I wouldn’t be surprised if, depending on how poor your relationship with the king or queen was, there was a fair amount of fear accompanying it, too. One had to keep up appearances, after all.
Of course, this is all describing royal visits in early modern England. I have no idea if the first century Tetrarchs in Judea and Syria— Herod Antipas, Philip, and Lysanias— had that sort of visitation policy. Roman emperors and Jewish kings seemed to like having their own properties in various places, sort of like the first-century equivalent of President Trump’s place at Mar-a-Lago. But when John came out of the wilderness to the Jordan to “proclaim a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” he was announcing to the people the arrival of their king and preparing them for it. Not a king whose kingdom was “of this world,” but rather, the King of all Creation who was coming to defeat sin, death, and hell. Thus a different kind of preparation was needed. Rather than preparing for a long-term visit, the people to whom John was preaching had to get their own internal houses in order for his full-time coming; they had to amend their lives for when their king— THE KING— would come to take his throne.
John was preaching to a people different than we who are in this sanctuary this morning. Jesus had not begun his ministry yet, and so John, as the last of the prophets, was preaching about his coming. John’s ministry had been prophesied by Isaiah some 700 years before his birth:
3 The voice of one crying in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God.
4 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low:
and all the crooked shall become straight, and the rough plains.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall appear, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God
for the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:3-5, LXX, trans. Lancelot C. Brenton, 1851)
As the last prophet, John was there to prepare the way for the coming King and to prepare people for his arrival by baptizing them. It was not a baptism like ours, where we are baptized into Christ, but it was one to prepare them for that. The people who came to John to be baptized were coming because they had been convicted of their sin and wished to be ready for when their King came. Some may not have entirely understood why they were there— hence why John called them a “brood of vipers.” They needed to be reminded that in their sin, they had no real standing before God. They could not lean on their being “children of Abraham,” as if having Abraham as a father in the faith gives anyone a pass when it comes to their sins. No, they needed to repent and “bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” They needed to “change their minds”— that’s what the Greek word we translate as “repentance,” metanoia, means— and begin living as God’s people ought to. If not, God would not save them when the last day came; they would go into the fire he had prepared. And so the people came to John to prepare themselves.
As I said before, we are not the same as these folks. You and I have been baptized into Jesus Christ. We bear the indelible mark of his baptism on our brows and live in a post-resurrection world. We have seen the promised first coming fulfilled and have the promise of forgiveness of sins in Christ’s sacrifice. But we still need to be reminded to prepare for Christ’s second coming. We still need to be reminded to repent of our sin, even though God does not count it against us when we trust his promises. We still live in a world plagued by sin, we live with it raging within our bodies. We may be members of the body of Christ, but our sinful nature, covered over by Christ, still wants to rebel and do those things that we know we should not do. Our sinful nature does not like the idea of repentance. But, we’re not immune to feeling the terror that the law produces, even though we want to disobey it. When we get caught up in our sins and realize that we have fallen far short of what the law asks of us, we can be tempted to despair. After all, we can’t make ourselves right with God. We cannot fulfill the law’s requirements.
It seems that in the crowd that met John to be baptized there were many people who had not been living as God had desired them to prior to hearing John’s call, people who had been living lives in opposition to God’s law. The tax collectors who came to him to be baptized had apparently been cheating people on their taxes, collecting more than was legal. The soldiers who came to him had apparently been involved in extortion and theft, roughing up the local citizenry to get money to add to their pay. And others in the crowd had not been living in love toward their neighbors by helping those in need. We can be the same way. We can certainly be loath to give to those who need our help, passing by the homeless and needy because we either don’t think we have enough to give (when we do) or because we figure that their plight isn’t worth our time. We can try to get more than our fair share when we feel that we’ve been underpaid, or use the weight behind our position to try to gain advantages or receive more money. Even pastors aren’t immune. I remember hearing a story at the seminary once about a pastor who had been skimming money off the collection plate every Sunday. No one is immune to these temptations to sin. Everyone can fall prey to them.
When confronted as a “brood of vipers,” or more pointedly, as “children of Satan,” and warned of the coming wrath, all these people ask John, “Teacher, what shall we do?” How are they to live lives that bear fruits in keeping with repentance? How are they to live so that they are not cut down at the roots and thrown into the fire that God has prepared? And John tells them. To the crowds in general, he says “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” To the tax collectors, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” And to the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
Having acknowledged their faults and having sought God’s forgiveness, the crowds that came to John at the Jordan could begin living the way that God desired them to. Even though they had not yet seen their Lord come in the flesh (though they would soon enough!), John’s preaching to “prepare the way of the Lord” brought them into the promise of Christ’s coming. That they desired to repent of their sins means that they had faith in the message John was preaching to prepare the way for Christ. They heard God’s word through John and they responded in faith. This faith made it possible for these regular folks, tax collectors, and soldiers to be able to live as repentant people and do what John told them to do. A heart that does not have faith in the promise of Christ cannot be conformed to God’s will for his people, and only Christ makes one’s works bear fruits in keeping with repentance.
You and I have been baptized into Christ and already experience Christ’s promise in our lives. We have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus and have been made blameless before God through faith in him which he has given us. Still, the question of “what shall we do?” is one we often ask. How are those who have faith in the risen Christ supposed to live in light of his future second coming? How do those he has bought from the power of sin, death, and hell live as Christians in this post-resurrection world? We should remember that the one who has faith in the work of Christ to redeem them from their sins has the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our helper and he teaches us to daily repent of our sins and look to Christ. He guides us in doing the good works that God has given us to do.
And what are those good works? They are the works one does for one’s neighbors. A good work does not earn anyone points with God, but it does help one’s neighbor, which is what God desires his children to do. When we have faith in the good work (the best work) that Christ performed for us on the cross, then our works for others become good, too.
But what does this look like? How do we help our neighbors and bear fruits in keeping with repentance? By living out our vocations, those callings in life that God has given us. What does that look like? Well, it’s not hard. It means doing the things required by that calling the way they are meant to be done, to the best of one’s ability, for the good of others because we know what Christ has done for us. For parents: love your children and raise them as best you can, providing a good example for them in the faith. For children: love your parents and respect them, and care for them when they get old. For spouses: love each other just as Christ loved you, submitting to one another and keeping each other’s best interests at heart. For people in military and law enforcement: execute the duties of your office virtuously and do right by the citizenry; everyone else, respect the authority that military and law enforcement officers bear. For accountants and taxmen: do honest work and work for your clients’ best interest, even if it means lower pay for you. For pastors and preachers: preach Christ’s Gospel in all its purity in word and sacrament, and lead by example. The list goes on and on, but everyone everywhere ought try to fulfill their vocation to the best of their ability, treating others as Christ would have them treat us. That is how we bear fruits in keeping with repentance. We love our neighbors because Christ loves us and makes our loving them possible.
Of course, we won’t always be perfect. I’m sure that the people who asked John how they ought to conduct themselves weren’t always living out their vocations perfectly. In fact, perfection is not attainable on this side of the second coming. But with Christ there is forgiveness for us when we mess up in our vocations, as there is for any time we sin. After all, it is not you who makes your works good, but Christ. He will use them for your neighbor as he sees fit, and when we make mistakes in living out our vocations and we repent of them in faith, the Holy Spirit will guide us to live out our vocations better. He is our helper and advocate, and with him by our side, we can live those lives that bear fruits in keeping with repentance because he makes it possible for to do so in faith. Living as children of God growing daily in faith with the aid of the Holy Spirit, we can prepare for his second coming with joy, not fearing the axe laid to the roots of the tree for lack of fruit, because he makes us to bear those good fruits. Having faith in the work of Christ and listening to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, we can look up with expectant delight on the last day and see our king coming in cloud, beholding our salvation coming to us. His coming to us is no imposition like that of an early-modern monarch— it is a release from the pain and sorrow of a sinful world! And that makes preparation for his coming a joyous thing. Amen.
May the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.