By Paul Koch –
So here we are, full swing in the season of Christmas. All the familiar sights and sounds have returned. There are radio stations with nothing but Christmas music on them, decorations have been up for a while in the stores and they are starting to go up in our neighborhoods as well. Soon there will be the Christmas parties, the gift exchanges and the gathering of families around traditions that we no longer remember how they began. And along with all these familiar sights we will soon be seeing one of my new favorite spectacles; they seem to be growing in number every year so you don’t even have to try that hard to find one, in fact you may even be one yourself. Every year we see again the emergence of the Christmas Scrooge. The Christmas Scrooge is that guy or gal that is just fed up with it all, they’re the angry ones. When everyone else is singing along to the carols on the radio, they bark out about how we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas.
Now, it’s not that they’re wrong. It’s not that they don’t have a right to be angry, it’s just that, well, they’re not much fun to be around. These aren’t the ones you want to invite to your Christmas party. While everyone one else is singing along and laughing and having a good time, they’re off brooding in the corner and anyone who get stuck talking to them will be sucked into their black hole of depressed reality. They function as a brutal wakeup call that most of us don’t want to have, especially during our Christmas festivities. However, we in the church ought to be used to this person, for long before they showed up at our Christmas parties we found one every year right here in the church.
The ancient readings of the church year lead us through the season of Advent preparing us for that grand celebration of Christmas. Every year as we are in the midst of that journey the churches great Christmas Scrooge shows up. Now we don’t call him that of course, but he is definitely the ultimate party pooper. We call him John the Baptist. Just as we are starting to get into the Christmas spirit, buying gifts and planning our celebrations, this guy shows up and starts yelling, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” And again, it’s not that he’s wrong. He’s completely right, but still we don’t really like to have this guy around. His words take us places we don’t really want to go. But we hear from him each and every Advent because he is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He is the one who prepares the way of the Lord. He is the forerunner to the work of Christ our Lord. So as we look forward to celebrating our Lord’s advent with us, we rightly hear from John the Baptist.
His work and message seems fairly straightforward. Perhaps it is because it is so straightforward that we don’t like it very much. John doesn’t sugarcoat things. He doesn’t employ the best practices of rhetoric to seduce his hearers or disarm their objections, he just fires away. We are told in Luke’s Gospel that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” So what does it mean to repent? The root of this word deals with literally turning around. The idea is that we stop doing what we are doing and go the opposite way. It is more than simply to feel sorry or ashamed, it is to actively do something different. So John the Baptist’s work, to prepare the way of the Lord, is to work a change in their hearts, to bring them to a point where they want to turn. His baptism then, there in the Jordan, is to signify that this change is taking place. Those who come out to him no longer want to continue down the path they are on. They come to repent.
Which begs a question for us here today. If repentance is how the way is prepared for the Lord, and repentance is to change our direction, to change how we think and act, are we repentant? Are we really the repentant children of God? I know that we are sorry; I’ve talked to many of you over the years about personal struggles and challenges. I know that you want to change, but do we? The reason we may shy away when John the Baptist shows up is that not only do we have a lot for which we are sorry, but we don’t even do all that much to change. We’re a mess and even our repentance is second-rate!
Now these days someone might want to explain to us how this lack of real repentance is going to harm us in the long run. Someone might go so far as to describe how we need to get our act together before it is too late. But not John; no, John the Baptist just starts to yell at us saying, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” See what I mean about the angry guy? He doesn’t have time for your excuses. He doesn’t shy away from the hard words. He knows what is at stake. After all, he is preparing the way for the Son of God himself.
So we may be thinking about putting up Christmas lights and singing along to the old standards on the radio, but he is talking about an axe that is poised and ready to cut down any tree that does not bear good fruit. So let it be a voice of warning for you; you better get going on producing that good fruit. I don’t know how much time we have until the axe begins to chop. Where’s your repentance? Where’s your sense of urgency? Oh, I know what you think; well, it’s not my fault but I want to produce good fruit. I really do, but it just doesn’t end up that way. I give it my best, I really try, but I somehow the fruit gets all bitter and inedible. And perhaps we remember what our Lord said later on about trees and their fruit. He said, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its fruit.” (Luke 6:43-44)
Now if John hasn’t ruined your Christmas spirit, that word from Jesus certainly will. The problem isn’t the fruit; the problem is the tree itself. We’re more of a mess than we originally thought. This means that no amount of effort or work on our part will make good fruit spring forth. The reason that we don’t seem to be very good at repentance is because we don’t really have it within us to repent in the first place. The only hope we have, the only way out of the mess, is to somehow become a different kind of tree: a good tree. But to become such a tree is outside of our ability.
And it is in this moment, in this confession of our inability to do this on our own, that we are prepared to receive our Lord, our great Immanuel. John the Baptist, our Christmas Scrooge, has done his work. Now the resolution for our predicament is as offensive and straightforward as the judgmental words of John. The solution is found in the Word of Christ, a Word in fact that finds us in our weakness, in our struggle, in our inability to even repent rightly. That Word says, “I forgive you, you are free!” This Word is powerful. This Word changes everything. This Word takes a bad tree, producing bad fruit, worthy only for the eternal fires, and breaths into it a new life. It makes the tree into a good tree, a tree that can in fact bear good fruit.
And we wonder if this can be real. How can this Word do all this? How can we be set free when we were so close to having the axe cut deep into our roots? But you see the axe did fall, the axe did cut, only it didn’t fall upon us. It fell upon our Lord and it looked like a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. He who makes you into good trees has taken all your bad fruit and suffered the wound of the axe. He is the one who repents perfectly for sins that are not his own. He is the one who is wounded for our transgressions. He dies and is buried. And he is the one who rose again from the dead. The one who ascended to the right hand of the Father. He is the one who calls you by name and embraces you as brothers and sisters. So when he speaks, his Words do things, and he has spoken concerning you. He has declared that you are forgiven. You are free!