121216 Luke 3:7-18

Last Updated on Monday, 17 December 2012 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Luke 3:7-18
Theme: John: The Ultimate Advent Example

Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? When it comes to my favorite Christmas candy (which is peanut brittle), maybe. When it comes to the no-stop barrage of television Christmas specials that have nothing to do with Christmas, definitely. But what about Advent? What about the most prominent figure of Advent? Is it possible to spend too much time talking about John the Baptist?

I ask the question because John the Baptist was the focus of our worship last weekend. Pastor Schmidt's sermon was about John. Five of the six hymns we sang had something to do with John. So has enough been said about him? Is it time for us to move on? If you are looking for my answer to those questions, all you have to do is look at the theme for this sermon.

Many of us know that John's ministry had a laser-like focus. The Lord called him to prepare the way for the coming of Jesus. Most of us are familiar with John's message: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 3:2). Because John usually preached to large crowds of people, his message was understandably general in nature.

What makes the gospel lesson for today unique, what makes this text worthy of our consideration is the fact that that John gets personal. He speaks about his personal relationship with Jesus. He speaks to sinners about their personal relationship with God. And with the Holy Spirit's guidance, John the Baptist will help us see that the ultimate Advent figure is also...


I. Listen to what he said
II. Look at what he did

Today there is no gospel in the gospel. The last verse of the gospel lesson reports that John "exhorted the people and preached the good news to them" (18), but that's it. There is no mention of Jesus' sacrificial death. There is no mention of God's unconditional love. You can look long and hard and not find a single word about mercy or forgiveness or salvation.

Instead the gospel lesson for today is dominated by law. When the people came to out into the wilderness to be baptized by John, listen to how he greeted them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance" (7,8a).

And John didn't stop there. If we use boxing terms, we could say that John followed this left jab with a roundhouse right. He continued: "And do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham'" (8b).

Either John could read their sinful minds or (more likely) he had heard this flawed reasoning before: "We can't be that bad. After all we are Abraham's children, and that makes us God's children. If you aren't convinced, we have the DNA to prove it."

But God wasn't impressed, and neither was John. He wanted the people to understand that their genetic connection to Abraham wasn't the same as their spiritual relationship with God. He wanted them to see the connection between what they believed and the way they lived: "The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (9).

With John's stinging words ringing in their ears, the people had to make a decision. Would they listen to John or would they reject him? Would they take his words to heart or would they dismiss him as a crazy man who had gotten too much sun in the desert?

The crowd collectively asked John: "What should we do then" ((10)? That was the response John had hoped for. That response demonstrates how powerful God's Word is. That question shows that John's message struck a nerve. The people (or at least some of them) recognized that they had done wrong, and they wanted to make things right.

And John didn't hesitate to give them some simple instructions: "'The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized. 'Teacher,' they asked, 'what should we do?' 'Don't collect any more than you are required to,' he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, 'And what should we do?' He replied, 'Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely—be content with your pay'" (11-14).

John mentions two specific groups of people who wanted to come clean. He told the tax collectors to be honest. He told a group of soldiers to be content. Luke's gospel doesn't mention anyone else, but Matthew reports that there was another group that had gone out to see John.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were there, but they remained silent. They didn't ask John what they needed to do because they believed that they had done enough. Why go to confession if you don't have anything to confess? Why get washed (i.e. be baptized) if you are already clean? And with this self-righteous reasoning, they assured themselves that John's words of warning did not apply.

I want you to imagine that you are standing in that crowd. You have never heard anyone like John before. You have never been called a snake before. It doesn't take long for John's words to make you feel uncomfortable. And soon it becomes clear that you will have to make a decision. Will you beat your breast in sorrow or will you clench your fists in anger? Will you make confession or will you make excuses? Will you beg for forgiveness or will you demand an apology?

Sometimes our silence speaks volumes. Sometimes we can be just as pharisaical as the Pharisees. We may not be perfect, but we aren't that bad. We go to church. We give to church. We cruise through the confession of sins at the beginning of the service, almost as if those words don't apply to us anymore.

But they do. On a daily basis we do what is evil and fail to do what is good. We deserve God's punishment, both now and in eternity. We need to kneel down next to the tax collector in the temple and pray: "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13).

Because we are sinful through and through, it is extremely important for us to listen to what John said. But that is not the only way John communicates with us today. We can learn even more from him by looking at what he did.

When the people compared what John the Baptist was doing with the prophecies about the promised Messiah, they saw some amazing parallels, so many that some were beginning to wonder out loud: "Is it possible? Could it be? Could John be the One? Could this man be the Christ?"

John knew what the people were thinking. John had heard what the people were saying. He could have let those words go to his head. He could have abandoned his divine mission and built his own little kingdom in the wilderness, but he didn't.

Instead John explained his relationship with Jesus in words that could not be misunderstood: "I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (16).

John didn't say those things so that the people would be impressed by how humble he was. He meant what he said. He believed what he said. Compared with the almighty Son of God, John was nothing. He didn't even deserve to untie Jesus' shoes. And when John's followers tried to convince him otherwise, he replied: "He (Jesus) must become greater; I must become less" (John 3:30).

The people wanted a Messiah. John pointed them to the true Messiah, but as he did he also wanted them to understand what they were asking for: "His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat in his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (17).

Most people (even many non-Christians) would agree that Jesus was a good man, a righteous man, a man who loved people. That's all very true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Jesus loves sinners, but he also hates sin. In fact, he won't tolerate it.

The one who said "Let the little children come to me (Matthew 19:14)" also told his enemies that their father was the devil (John 8:44). The same man who assured the disciples "My peace I give you" (John 14:27) also told them "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). At the end of Mark Jesus says that "whoever believes and is baptized will be saved," but he goes on to say that "whoever does not believe will be condemned" (16:16).

It's easy to picture Jesus with his arms outstretched and a warm smile on his face. It's not so easy to see him with a pitch fork in his hand pointing sinners to hell. Jesus condemns sin. Jesus forgives sin. This is the divine paradox of God's justice and mercy. This is a divine mystery that needs to be explained. And in his role as the forerunner of the Messiah that is exactly what John the Baptist did.

To say that John was a bit eccentric would be an understatement. He wore a camel hair coat and a leather belt. He ate bugs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. His clothes will never be considered stylish. It is highly unlikely that his diet will ever hit the mainstream, but the one who came before Jesus sets an excellent example for Jesus' followers.

From John the Baptist we learn what it means to be faithful. It didn't bring John any personal satisfaction to feed the crowds a steady diet of fire and brimstone. John didn't have a smile on his face when he called the people a brood of vipers. John's work was hard, but he did it anyway.

He did it because he wanted to be faithful to his calling. He did it because he wanted to be faithful to the One who had called him. He did it because he understood this fundamental truth: sinners need to come to grips with their sinfulness before they can fully appreciate the good news that Jesus is their Savior.

From John the Baptist we also learn what it means to be humble. This is the time of year when many people decorate the outside of their homes with bright (and sometimes colorful) spotlights. Sometimes those lights get moved out of position by the wind or snow or squirrels. And they will stay that way until someone comes and points them back in the right direction. That's what John did. When the people were misguided, John pointed them in the right direction. When the people wanted to shine the spotlight on him, John redirected them to Jesus.

We don't have to wear what John wore. We don't have eat what John ate. But when it comes to Christian character, when it comes to qualities like faithfulness and humility, we could read the Bible from cover to cover and not find a better example.

John the Baptist would be flattered to hear those words, but I have a feeling that the next words out of his mouth would sound something like this: "Don't look at me. Look for the one who is coming after me. Look to Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." Amen.

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Compelled by the love of Christ, St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School seek to reach out to our families, community and world, using Law and Gospel to make disciples, growing and nurturing them in their Christian faith and life.


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