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Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent – December 4, 2022

Matthew 3:1-12

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

I had a teacher in high school who scared me to death. She was only about five feet tall, but she had an attitude which made her seem like a giant. She was from Louisiana, so she talked differently from most of the other teachers at my high school in Edmonds. She would call her students “child,” which most of the time sounded like an accusation, or even worse, a curse word. “Child! What do you think you’re doing!” “Child, you call this an essay?” We called her the Ragin’ Cajun. She scared me to death.

She was my teacher at a time when my home life was a mess and I was falling dangerously behind in my classes. But the Ragin’ Cajun turned me around. With a wild look in her eyes, she’d say, “Child! You better change your ways! You think I won’t plant my foot in your behind? I’ll wear my boots tomorrow and you’ll find out!” (She would never last in that school district today!)

She was hard and scary and belligerent. But every once in awhile she’d show a softer side. I remember coming to school one day with a long face and her giving me a hug and whispering, “I love you, child.” Then she immediately reverted to form and barked, “Now get back to work before I….” and she’d trail off, mumbling threats. She saved my academic life. Even more, at a time when there was a fork in the road in my life, she almost literally kicked my rear towards the better path.

On the second Sunday of Advent, God sends us a teacher not unlike the Ragin’ Cajun. John the Baptist is hard and scary and belligerent. He hurls threats and insults. He calls us to change our ways. John comes wearing the clothes of a mountain man, with bugs and honey all crusted in his beard. He comes out of the wilderness with wild eyes shouting, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” He comes barking, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance!”

As we are all busy preparing for Christmas, God sends us this hard, scary, belligerent teacher to get our attention, to kick us in the backside, to set us on the right path. God sends this wild-eyed prophet so that we might prepare the way of the Lord, making his paths straight.

John calls us to repent. To repent means to turn around. It means pulling a U-turn on the path you’ve been traveling, changing course. It means to change your mind and turn away from sin.  Repentance is a scary word, full of judgement. We sometimes think of it as a word used by those street-corner preachers who are so notably lacking in grace. But this isn’t just a word for street-corner preachers. For instance, “Repent,” was the first word out of Jesus’ mouth when he began his preaching ministry! Few have been as passionate about grace as Martin Luther, and yet Luther himself once wrote that the entire life of a Christian is to be one of repentance. It was one of his 95 theses!

Luther also suggested that Christians would do well to reflect daily on the Ten Commandments as a sort of prod to repentance. Each commandment can be used as a tool for self-evaluation: What in your life are you making more important than God? Are you honoring God’s name not only by not using it to curse, but by using it to call on him in prayer? Are you keeping the Sabbath day holy, or is it just another day of the week? Are you living honorably towards your parents and others in authority? Are you not only not killing people, but helping to preserve life and better the lives of others? Are you living purely and chastely and with integrity in sexual matters? Are you acquiring property and belongings fairly, not stealing or cheating or exploiting your neighbor? Do you speak with honesty, and do you interpret the words of others in the most charitable light? Are you content and grateful, or constantly coveting what other people have? This little exercise should give plenty of fodder for repentance, but if you get through all of this and still aren’t sure if you need to repent, Luther said, pinch yourself to see if you are alive. If you are, you do!

We might fall into the assumption that because we are practicing Christians, we don’t need to repent. But notice that John’s harshest words were directed at the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who were among the most religiously observant people around! It is because we are practicing Christians that we repent, that we turn away from sin, that we put the sinner in us to death again and again and rise to new life in Christ. Our entire life as Christians is to be one of repentance.

“Repent,” John the Baptist shouts, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight!” “You brood of vipers, bear fruits worthy of repentance!” We might prefer to prepare for the coming of the Lord only by baking cookies or decorating our homes, but God has something else in mind. God sends us this scary teacher, this raging prophet, to call us to repentance, to turn us around.

But this isn’t all John has to say to us. John’s message is not just about how we are to change our ways, turning away from our sin. John also tells us how God is turning towards us in love with the coming of the savior.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” John says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

On the surface, the coming of the savior sounds just as scary as the coming of the prophet before him! There is that winnowing fork, and that unquenchable fire! But what John is really describing here is God coming to us in Jesus Christ to gather us in, to bring us close. John points beyond mere human repentance, which only ever gets us so far, to God’s work through Jesus Christ to save us.

The metaphor John uses is that of a wheat farmer. We might hear about wheat and chaff being separated and assume that some people are wheat and some people are chaff, so some will be gathered and others will be burned. That’s one of the simplistic versions of Christianity out there.

But as actual wheat farmers know, every head of wheat has chaff. Each grain has a sheath surrounding it like a little paper envelope, which, along with the stalk, is chaff. In order to bring in the good grain, this sheath that grows up around the grain needs to be removed.  This is what this savior is coming to do! We are all both wheat and chaff, and this savior is coming to winnow out everything that is not good grain in us, everything which obscures and separates us from him, so that he might gather us into the granary of his kingdom.

An unquenchable fire sounds scary, to be sure, but what it symbolizes here is the presence of God. Remember how God came to Moses in the fire of the burning bush. Remember how God led Israel into freedom by a pillar of fire. Remember how a consuming fire was the proof of Yahweh’s superiority to the false god Ba’al. Remember how eventually the disciples received God’s presence as the fire of the Holy Spirit. Fire is a complicated symbol in the Bible. It is indeed a symbol of divine judgement. Some things need to go up in flames in order for sinful human beings to stand in the presence of a holy God! But fire is also a symbol of God’s purifying and powerful presence. You only need to be afraid of it if you refuse to throw your sin on the fire.

John’s baptism, as he himself admits, was only a ritual symbolizing repentance. The baptism this savior brings will be something different, something more powerful. It would become something the church would call sacramental. The savior is coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, bringing us into God’s purifying presence forever.

Today God sends us a hard, scary, belligerent teacher in John the Baptist, who minces no words and pulls no punches. John calls us to repent. He calls us to turn away from sin. Through John, God is saying, “Child, are you kidding me? Child, what do you think you’re doing? You need to change your ways!” Through John, God calls us to not only prepare our homes for Christmas, but to prepare our hearts and souls from the coming of the Lord, making his paths straight.

John’s rhetoric might singe our eyebrows a bit, but if we listen carefully to everything John is saying, we can see that his words are not only about what we need to do. They are also about what God is doing for us. “The kingdom of heaven has come near,” he tells us. The better part of repentance is that God is turning towards us. God is doing the work of turning us around by coming near to us, drawing us in close. It is God’s gracious nearness that turns us around on the road we had been traveling.

My teacher, the Ragin’ Cajun, didn’t just scare me. She loved me. She told me so! And I loved her too. I ultimately was turned around academically, and in other ways too, not because of the threat of her boot in my backside, but because of her love.

God is not just giving us a stern talking to through this raging prophet. As he speaks to us through John of the coming of a savior, God is also pulling us in close. “The kingdom of heaven is near,” John says. God is repenting us, turning us around, pulling us into his embrace, so that even now we can hear him whisper, “I love you child.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church