Isaiah 40:1-8; Matthew 3:1-12
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
We fallen human beings instinctively go at life backwards. We listen to those who preach that we should believe in ourselves, when in truth we should believe only in God. We fear crime, loss of income and benefits, illness, or some big tragedy, when we should really fear nothing except the Lord and losing life with Him. And we focus on the things this world gives—things that easily break or get used up, pleasures that quickly fade away, experiences whose glory and benefit are fleeting—when we should really focus on nothing other than attaining the kingdom of heaven.
So during the four weeks of Advent, through prophets and apostles and preachers and hymns and prayers and liturgy, God pleads with us to get our thinking straight. And not just our thinking, but also our believing. And not just our believing, but also our behaving. And not just our behaving, but also our entire being. A change of mind, a change of heart, a change of how we see ourselves and the world, a change of all we are and all we hope to be—that is the Church’s plea; and her prayer; and her heartfelt invitation. And that invitation is summed up in one word: Repent.
St. John the Baptizer prepares the way of the Lord by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” “The kingdom is near, for Jesus the King is near. So turn away from your worldly loves, the things that keep you from devoting yourself to His Word, the stuff and the activities that you let take precedence over His divine service. No longer live for yourself. No longer live controlled by your fears or your appetites. No longer live pushing your agenda, making things happen, and acting as if it all depends on you. Instead, live for the kingdom of heaven. Live within the Life of God, and the Life that God wants to live in you and through you. Live for unending communion with God. For nothing else matters. Everything else is expendable. So discipline your body, reform your habits, put to death your inborn tendencies, change your hopes and prayers, and stop obsessing about the things you think matter so much. For you don’t want to miss this. You don’t want to miss out on the kingdom of God, which is so close you can taste it.”
And yet, even in this, we sometimes hear things backwards. We hear St John say, “Repent,” and we say, “I can’t” or “that’s not realistic” or “I’ll think about it.” Or we hear St John say, “Repent,” and we say, “Alright, let’s roll.” “I’ll do that right now”—and then get frustrated when things don’t change overnight. What we forget is what fuels St John’s preaching, what it is that gives legs to true repentance.
And that is Mercy, the Lord’s mercy, the Lord’s never-ending, constantly renewing, life-preserving mercy. That’s what’s imbedded in the word “Repent.” It is the mercy that moves the Lord to say, “You are worth redeeming, worth saving, worth loving, worth transforming.” Mercy that transfigures you so that you no longer live your old life, but now live the Life of the Lord Jesus, the Life that He freely gives to you. Mercy that pulls you out of the pits you have dug, away from the messes you’ve made of life. Mercy that calls you from death to life.
So behind and within St John’s “Repent,” is Our Lord Jesus saying, “Come. Come, live life not on your terms, but the way I give it. Come, not with conditions attached, but trusting that my promise is good, that my kingdom is yours. Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
That is how John’s ultimate message is summarized in the OT reading: “Comfort, yes comfort My people!” Speak tenderly and lovingly to the Church, speak to the heart of my bride, and preach kind words to her. Tell her that she is forgiven. Your exile is nearly over. The end of all things is close at hand. The Day of the Lord is coming soon. The Law no longer condemns you. Your iniquity is paid for and pardoned. For you have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins. John consoles you by always pointing to Christ and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
Notice that our Lord’s mercy doesn’t provide just enough forgiveness, but double forgiveness. That’s how it is with the Gospel–the Lord lavishes on you more forgiveness than you have sins to forgive. It’s not as if the Lord is miserly with His mercy, giving you just barely enough to cover your need. No, the Lord is marvelously redundant and wonderfully excessive in His grace, so that you may know that there is no sin so great that Jesus didn’t atone for it on the cross, no life so messed-up that He could not redeem it. You have been given twice as much forgiveness as you need. Your cup runs over. No matter what is there in your past, or in your present, there is more than enough mercy in Jesus to restore you and save you. Your debt has been paid. You have been set free. How can you be certain of this? Because it is written, “the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” And what He speaks is done and delivered for sure.
That is real peace that will not pass away, even when Christmas is long over with. All that burdens you, all that saddens you, all that dries the life out of your bodies and souls, Jesus took upon Himself and suffered to death. Through the risen Christ you are now released from the power of the grave; you are restored to God the Father in Him who is the Prince of Peace. Trusting in the merits of Christ alone, being baptized into Him who is fully human and fully divine, you are brought into communion and fellowship with God.
At this time of year, you know that there are all sorts of folks in the media giving their version of the “real meaning” of Christmas. They talk about togetherness and family, giving and sharing and love–all good things. But Christmas is about a whole lot more than that. It’s ultimately about the fact that the Word became flesh, God became man. The Lord literally became one of us in order to restore us to the image of God and make us holy. He came down to rescue us and raise us up to everlasting life. That’s what Christmas is all about. Christ took on our flesh and blood in order that He might die in the flesh as our substitute and shed His blood as our ransom price. The true wonder and mystery that we should meditate on is this: that the baby in the manger is the Lord of the universe, that He created the mother who gave Him birth, that He redeemed your humanity by sharing in it fully. All the other stuff is just withering grass compared to Christ.
“All flesh is grass, and all it’s loveliness is like the flower of the field. . . The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” What Jesus says and promises endures. And His Word has been spoken and applied to you, so that now, as I Peter says, “You have been born anew, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.” By His words and sacraments Christ has planted new and everlasting life in you. So even though you are nothing but withering grass by nature, just a fleeting mist, in Christ the Scriptures now call you “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified” (Isaiah 61:3). Though all flesh must die because of sin, yet through faith in Jesus you have the resurrection and the restoration of the body. He has poured out on your dry bones the living water of His Spirit, so that you may have real life, the abundant life of Christ that never ends.
The spirit of Christmas, then, is the spirit of humble penitence before God which acknowledges our lost condition. And it is the spirit of confident faith in Christ who seeks us out and saves us. It is the same spirit that we shall again give voice to in preparation for Holy Communion, as we echo the words of John the Baptist, “O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. . . grant us your peace.” That prayer finds a rich answer in His very body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
So, enjoy all the stuff of this season; but don’t let it distract you from the heart of the Christ-mass or keep you from your Advent preparations for it. Instead, let the evergreen of the Christmas trees remind you of the everlasting love of God for you. Let the lights draw your attention to the true Light who conquers all the darkness of this world. Let the presents be symbols of Him who is the perfect gift wrapped in swaddling clothes. And remember, as always, that the only way to be close to the child in the manger is on your knees.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to John Fenton)