7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 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. 9 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.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 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.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
When you hear the word “repentance” what comes to mind, sorrow or happiness? When you repent to the Lord or to someone you have wronged, are you sad or joyful? A Christian hears the word repentance and knows that it is a good and godly thing, yet overall it probably conjures up a sad feeling. After all, Scripture says, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.” But today in the Gospel, John the Baptizer teaches that repentance leads to a deep and pervasive joy. The kind of joy that is so powerful and overwhelming that it will literally change the way a person thinks and acts, because that is what the word means, “a change of mind.”
You might think that it seems like an odd topic to cover less than ten days before Christmas, but brothers and sisters, this is exactly what we need in preparation for Christ’s coming. Repentance was also needed while John the Baptizer is preparing people for Jesus to begin his public ministry. That is the summary that we are given from Luke. He is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Maybe some were just intrigued by the weirdo out in the desert, but the main idea God’s trying to get across with the prophet, John, is forgiveness of sins.
It’s a little harsh to hear John call the crowds a “brood of vipers,” but sometimes people need to be jolted out of their spiritual laziness and snoozing. On the one hand, these crowds were lulled to sleep by their religious leaders’ false teachings, and on the other hand their own sinful thoughts and attitudes were putting them on a dangerous path away from God. Either way, the idea that people could escape, or be saved, from God’s wrath while continuing to cling to some of their culturally acceptable sins was counterproductive and destructive to their faith.
Another thing that was not going to help these people was their genetics. You can just hear some of them retorting John, “We have Abraham as our father,” as if Abraham was the Savior. John’s message was that a connection to a past believer will not do any good for their eternity. But that was the thinking of so many back then. John was preaching and teaching that the only thing that matters is faith. Where people believe in God’s promised salvation and live in that faith, there is true joy – the kind of joy that produces fruit.
It’s not like people in John’s day are the only ones that need this message. We need it, too, because so often we are looking for joy in all the wrong ways. Sure sometimes we are clinging to the joy of salvation that comes through Christ, but there are plenty of times where we find “joy” that comes from gratifying our sinful flesh. But you can’t have both. Life doesn’t work that way. You can’t enjoy eating all the calories you want and also enjoy good health. Pizza, candy, burgers, donuts, and chips don’t help you get or stay healthy. You can’t be a lazy pile and expect to be excellent at something. If you want to be a great athlete, musician, dancer, or chef, you have to get off your butt, sacrificing that lazy leisure time, and work hard over and over again at developing and improving those skills.
Certain joys just cannot coexist within a person. The joy of salvation does not coexist with the things the delight our sinful nature. If a person pursues whatever joy their sinful flesh desires, thinking that an outward show of religiousness like attending worship or praying every day would also allow them to enjoy heaven, then they are just like those people going out to see John. They are listening to and a part of the vipers.
This vipers bite us, too. Do you ever use the one or two hours you spend here to excuse the other 166 or 167 hours of the week? Do you ever think the 3% or 10% or even 20% of your income given back to the Lord can somehow negate the materialism and greed that is evident in the way we think about and use the other 80%, 90%, or 97% or our money? Do you ever think that because you have your name on the rolls of a WELS church that you can escape the coming day of the Lord, forgetting that God could raise WELSers up out of the stones? How much of our life is about desperately wanting and then enjoying God’s forgiveness so that we can rejoice in his gift of eternal life? And then how much or our life is about wanting to know about God’s forgiveness of sins so that we can continue in those comfortable and familiar sins?
If there is any viper’s poison in us, we need what the Baptizer is saying. We need to hear the truth that, “The ax is already at the root of the trees.” There are, right now – that’s the word John uses – individuals who are religious and attend church that a just and holy God is ready to burn.
So, how’s that for joyful? If you want the kind of joy that God has accomplished for you – eternal joy, joy this life could never bring – it is impossible without God leading you to see the seriousness and ugliness of sin. A person is not seeing the seriousness of sin if they come to church and takes the Lord’s Supper to salve their conscience over the fact that they intend to go straight back to their familiar sins.
There is a time when sorrow is healthy for us. The Bible calls it godly sorrow. This is not the kind of sorry that is bummed and frustrated after being caught in sin or a sorry that comes from negative consequences for sin. That’s a selfish and worldly kind of sorry that is only looking at myself. Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have offended my Creator, my Father. Godly sorrow is acknowledging that I have made myself detestable to God and worthy of damnation. That’s healthy sorrow.
If you do not acknowledge guilt and sin, you cannot possibly have joy. When you try to hide guilt and coverup sin, when you pursue the “joys” of sinful desire, what you have is a futile attempt to distract yourself from the Judge who is coming. You have some excitement and maybe an adrenaline rush, but you do not have joy.
To have real joy – the kind of joy that God give, the kind of joy that comes from repentance – it must be connected to God’s good news. And that is also what John gave to the people. John didn’t tell them to repent more frequently and more sincerely. He told them of the one who was infinitely great and more powerful. He pointed to the Messiah, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John didn’t want any credit or glory. He was just a servant. Jesus was the master, the Lord, God himself. Luke writes, “With many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.”
And what exactly is that good news about Jesus? Well, it certainly is not a message of how you need to clean up your life. It is not a message of how you need to be more genuine and honorable. It is not a message of how you need to bring joy back into your life. It’s the message of how Jesus does that for you.
We’re reading kid’s Christmas books at our house for bedtime lately. And one book kind of caught Mandy’s and my attention, “The Little Crooked Christmas Tree.” It’s a cute story about one tree that was supposed to be a nice Christmas tree, but got crooked and misshapen. I think of my life, and it looks pretty crooked and messed up. It’s not the picture of health and vitality. How about yours? How healthy is it? How tall? How appealing? Now, what if Jesus was a tree, too. How majestic is that tree? How straight and healthy and tall? How green and full and fruitful? Considering John describes fruitfulness in terms of generosity, kindness, and compassion, the Jesus-tree would be unlike any other in how amazing it is. Yet, when God looked at our crooked and sickly tree, when he picked up his ax and walked determinedly toward us, Jesus begged, “No, Father! Not them! Cut me down.” On the tree of the cross that is exactly what God did to his own Son. The amazing, thick, full, fruitful tree was cut down. The sickly, crooked ones were spared. That would be a sad story, except for the fact that Jesus’ tree came back to life even stronger and more beautiful than before. When that fact is given and proclaimed to you – that God loves you, God wanted you, God chose you, God was willing to pay any price to have you for eternity with him – how does it affect you? How can it not comfort and lift you up? It boosts us up from the dingy depths. It straightens us up. It fixes what it broken. It gives us unequaled brilliance and joy.
And a tree that is healthy like that will be unbelievably fruitful. John’s encouragement does not call for any activity of heroic proportions. He does not say that the necessary fruit is to be a missionary in a foreign country or sell everything you have to support the poor and the work of the Church. We simply have a new goal, a new purpose, to reflect Christ in our lives and in our dealings with other people. We now live for him who died and rose for us. We struggle through pain and hardship with the strength of Christ that he gave to us when we were baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We use the good news that causes great joy not on a once a year or once a week basis, but on an every day basis and for everyone basis. This is the fruitful life of a believer. This is the joyful life that we have now, and God will make perfect forever in heaven.
I started the sermon with a question about repentance. Did you say it was sad and sorrowful? If you did, that’s not entirely wrong, but it also is not entirely right. The kind of repentance that God works in his people will always conclude with joy, because godly sorrow turns you and changes your mind away from sin, away from how bad your tree looks and points you to the only place where forgiveness is given. It points you to a different tree, one that is unmistakably and infinitely greater. It points you to the tree where Christ died. It points you to the tree that made the first bed our Savior ever had. It points you to the Son of God and his restoring, refreshing, renewing, revitalizing love. You have that joy right now and forever in him. To God be the Glory! Amen.