Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the coming Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle belling; And everyone tell you “Be of Good cheer”. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all; With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings; When friends come to call; It’s the hap-happiest season of all. There’ll be parties for hosting; Marshmallows for toasting; And caroling out in the snow; There’ll be scary ghost stories And tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago. It’s the most wonderful time of the year….
Therefore….Repent, You Brood of Vipers, for the Kingdom of heaven is near! Like a freight train this morning’s Gospel lesson runs us over amidst the jubilee around us. The tree is up, the lights are around us….the Christmas music is pumping through the radio stations and our CD players, or for those more techy our iPods. The holiday notes and jingle jangles filled our own house as we began to prepare for Christmas. And, finally the weather is getting to feel right. I woke up early this morning stepped out into the garage and I was actually cold! It felt great and wonderful! The proper temperature to surround the holiday season with. It’s all beginning to look and feel an awfully lot like Christmas, as another caroler might sing. Though I suppose a White Christmas is quite out of the picture this year. We might even come to Church to hear the same sort of themes that fill the world around us. Yet before it all, here stands John with sharp words of repentance and in break-neck speed we seem to find ourselves in what seems more like Lent rather than Advent.
Before we hear of sheep, oxen, shepherds and angels, we hear the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in the testimony of John the Baptist. He is the precursor, the Forerunner. That last of the great prophets bridging the prophets of Old to Jesus Christ. John himself was foretold of by Isaiah, “A voice of one calling in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.” And we see Him this morning, standing in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan, wearing His finest Christmas sweater of camel’s hair, chomping on his favorite chocolate covered locusts that are in the stores about now, while sipping His wild honey egg nog, and speaking words of preparation to the masses. From Jerusalem all of Judea and the whole region of the Jordan the people of Israel came to Him to hear him speak and to point to the One in whom the Kingdom itself was drawing near. The other whom Isaiah foretold, “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse…and the Spirit of the Lord will rest upon Him.”
Because He is coming. Because He has already come and has drawn near. John speaks words of repentance so that they might see Jesus and receive Him as the Christ of whom all Israel had been waiting and watching. John calls them to turn away from doing what is right in their own eyes—that ancient judgment against Israel and her kings—and to look to Christ who himself is approaching, who stands with winnowing fork in hand, and as we spoke of last week, who’s very presence brings judgment and salvation. He calls them to repentance, in order that they might receive Jesus as he approaches them, by faith.
Darkness comes before the light. Evening precedes the morning. Repentance brings about the coming of faith. The Law is spoken always before the Gospel, as the Law itself reveals to us the very purpose, the very need of that saving word of Grace. This is why we hear such words from John this morning in the midst of Advent, and holiday preparations. So that we might with true joy celebrate the reason for the season. That we enter into Christmas not with mere holiday sentimentality, but that we come to Christmas with faith in that one born of Mary. Here through the Word of God, read and proclaimed, that prophet of old is still preparing the Lord’s way to us. John’s call to Israel is still a call for each of us to repent. To turn away from our sins. To turn away from doing what is right in our own eyes and towards the coming King who day by day draws ever closer. In this way Advent does mirror that other repentant season of Lent. They are sisters in the Church’s calendar to shake and jar us from our complacency with sin and reawaken the gift of faith in us. For in spite of all the happy Christmas songs and feel-good Christmas moves, the Word of God reminds us still of our need in this season and every season to repent. Having just put up a real tree for our house and trying to get it to fit into the stand, trust me….there is much still I need to repent. Not to mention the gluttony of Christmas goodies that are always before us, while others lack basic food.
It is John’s first call, that will become Jesus’ own in the following chapter of Matthew’s gospel, which Luther picked up on in His 95-Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, said, “repent” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is the very ground and soil of our Christmas preparation. It is the straight path upon which our Lord walks to meet us. For as He comes, he purges away sin, that deep darkness of our hearts and lives, which can not withstand the divine light of His presence. In the purging and death of sin in us, that sin which itself brings death, there is the true joy of this season to be found. It is in Christ Jesus and what He alone has done that makes this the most wonderful time of year! Therefore with repentant lives and eyes turned towards Jesus, we put up our Christmas trees as a reminder of that wood upon which our Lord hung for us. We string our lights in remembrance of the everlasting light of the World that banishes every darkness, risen from the dead. Our salvation has come in the flesh of the God-child, in the lifting up of the cross, in the harrowing of hell, the ascension into heaven. Our God and Lord draws nigh and His kingdom is come. That is the reason we hear of John this morning, so that we see our salvation standing before us. That we in faith may gaze upon all His mighty work and revel in it. Swirl, sing, and dance in the splendor of Christ, what He has done, is doing, and promises yet to do. That in faith we can in joy receive Him as King of kings, God and Lord, who comes to meet us now in the manger of His Word and the stable of His Sacrament. Who comes to bring forth His good fruit in our lives, so that we might prepare His way for others.
The liturgy at Matins each morning includes, as the Gospel Canticle, the song of Zachariah. The song John’s father sang after John’s birth. During the Church’s song, the congregation’s voice falls away, while a lone voice sings aloud, “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” These words are sung not only to transmit the words of a father to his new born son, but to become the words of the Divine Father singing to us His children. You, my children, will be prophets of the Most High, because you have received and seen my salvation. You, my children, will join in the prophet’s work, going before the Lord to prepare His way, in the lives of each other, in the lives of those who do not yet know him, and into our community. You, my children, prepare my way, by speaking my words of grace, by inviting those outside in to taste and see the goodness of the Lord given at salvation’s table, and spread the knowledge that here in this place the dawn from on high has broken upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Not only this morning do we to hear the prophet’s words, but we are made to become them; speaking and singing the words of salvation. That every season in the Church, is the most wonderful time of the year, because it is filled with the joy and love of God’s salvation. Therefore, let us prepare His way, as we await and pray: Amen. Come Lord Jesus