2 Advent Proper C2
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 3:1-6 Sermon
December 9, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
62 "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"
63 "On Jordan's Bank The Baptist's Cry"
72 "Rejoice, Rejoice Believers"
66 "Hark! The Glad Sound, The Saviour Comes"
IT'S FINALS TIME!
TEXT (vs. 3-4): “3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”
Every student that I have ever known, myself included, has heard those three words that have the power to strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students: "It's finals time!" It's unfortunate really that finals have to come at this time of the year, because the foreboding nature and the associated stress levels have the tendency to reign supreme and overshadow the celebration of our Saviour's birth. And if you want to add just a bit more to it, there are the research projects, the term papers, and other various assignments coming due at the same time. So for a student, the season of Advent can rapidly become a dreaded event; and that doesn't even include Christmas shopping, Christmas celebrations, sporting events, and other extra curricular activities.
Of course I speak from experience here. All the way through college, university, and seminary, the whole process never got any easier. I tried to pace myself so I didn't become a victim of the last minute rush, but I was only moderately successful at it. However, I remember friends of mine who would stay up all night before a final, drink coffee by the gallon, and show up for the exam unshowered, unshaven, red-eyed, with hair sticking out in every direction, and basically looking completely disheveled.
One of the reasons people freak out at finals time is because frequently the grade received is a large percentage of the final grade received for the class. In short, if you do well on your final, you'll do well in the class, and wind up getting a good grade. So the all-important thing at this time of year for a student is their grade, to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Today we are turning our attention toward the very last of the Old Testament prophets. You must be thinking, "Oh, he means Malachi," since his book is the last one in the Old Testament, and the source of our Old Testament Lesson for this morning. But I don't mean him. I mean John the Baptist himself. John is the last of the Old Testament Prophets, and his prophecy is literally right on the heels of its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who incidentally is also his first cousin. And John is not only a prophet himself, but he also fulfilled the prophecy pointing to him as being the forerunner of Christ, the one who would prepare his way. John himself was a sign that the Saviour was about to appear on the scene in a public way.
John has a message that is short, to the point, and urgent. In effect, he is telling us: "Hey everybody, it's finals time! And you had better be ready!" He was preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He says in verse 4: "...Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight."
John did what prophets do. He spoke the truth as God gave it to him. John was not interested in winning friends or influencing people. He was interested in the truth, even if it cost him his life. The truth that God gave John to proclaim was not popular, it was not nice, and it was definitely not politically correct.
John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In this respect, he was already following the instructions that Jesus would later give to the entire church. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples. If we look at Luke chapter 24, verses 45-47 we read: "45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.'"
Jesus made it very clear that the job of the church is to proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The entire work of the church is wrapped around the proclamation of repentance and forgiveness of sins in the name of the Christ. And we're here to convey this warning of John the Baptist to you here today that it is indeed finals time, and you had better be ready. This is what this final Old Testament Prophet came to proclaim.
I'm going to share a story with you today, about one of my friends from college days. In our college, we were given letter grades, with "A" being the highest, down through "D," with "F" being a failing grade. This was then converted to a four-point system, where a perfect grade was a 4.0 grade point average (or GPA), and it scaled on down from there accordingly.
At graduation time, there were three levels of outstanding distinction. If your GPA was 3.5-3.7, you received your diploma "Cum Laude," which means "with honor (or literally, with praise)." If your GPA was 3.8-3.9, you received your diploma "Magna Cum Laude," which means "with great honor." And if you managed a perfect GPA of 4.0, then you received your diploma "Summa Cum Laude," which means "with highest honor;" you've reached the summit, and you can go no higher.
So with that brief explanation, let me tell you what happened to this friend of mine. He was (and still is) a very intelligent individual. He got straight A's on all of his daily work. He never missed his classes, and he was an active participant in the classroom. When finals came, he got straight A's on all of those as well. He was a virtual "shoo-in" for a Summa Cum Laude.
But when graduation day came, he was as shocked as anybody when he was awarded his diploma Magna Cum Laude. His perfect academic record had been spoiled. How could that have happened? When he got his report card, he saw it. His Greek professor (who could be a real stinker, and was not very well liked) gave him a B, even though all his work merited an A.
So with nothing to lose, he challenged the professor on it. Basically, the professor felt that he was "too cocky" about his perfect work, and he did it to humble him. He then took the matter to the Dean, but I don't know where it went from there; I think the B grade stood.
As unfair as all this is, I think there is a valuable lesson here for all of us. John the Baptist warns us to be prepared for our finals. The kingdom is at hand, and the time is now. So how do we prepare? What do we need to do?
God's kingdom does not run like a college or university classroom. There are no point systems, and no levels of "cum laude" that we can earn. We cannot earn even a "pretty good" score on our own. We are sinful human beings, and that means we are doomed to complete failure. Our finals have nothing to do with what we can accomplish on our own merit.
Our text for today tells us that John was preaching a message of repentance. When we prepare for our finals, we need to take a good hard look at ourselves. We need to look into the mirror of God's law. When we do that, and when we make an honest assessment of ourselves, we see ourselves as the sinful people we are. Matthew chapter 5, verse 48 has some of the most difficult words in the Bible, where Jesus says: "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
So to put this in academic language, what God wants is Summa Cum Laude people; unfortunately we are nothing more than drop out material. Sin has spoiled any hope of perfection.
However, John's message of repentance is followed by the most important words of all. In our Gospel lesson for today, John says, "Prepare the way of the Lord...and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
Our recognition of sin leaves us with the desire to be saved. We want that salvation God has to offer. When we prepare the way of the Lord, we come before God with broken spirits and contrite hearts. We want the forgiveness Jesus brings.
So when we prepare ourselves for the coming Saviour, we don't prepare ourselves by trying to make ourselves perfect. We prepare ourselves through faith alone. We know too well what sin has done to us, and we know that Jesus is the only answer.
John the Baptist's words are the words of a Prophet. If we look at 2 Peter 1:19, we read: "And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts..."
Yes, we pay attention to John's warnings. For us who are Christians, this warning comes with the assurance that our Saviour has come to pay the price for our sins. Jesus' coming is the ultimate fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. He is coming out of love for you and for me. He is coming to redeem us, to forgive our sins, and to open the way to heaven for each of us.
God sent John to prepare the way for the coming Messiah. John did this by making people intensely aware of their sins. It is the calling of all of God's servants to make his people aware of their sin. This is the way that God makes people aware of their need for their Saviour. The more we understand our sin, the more we appreciate our Saviour. The deeper we grieve over sin, the more we rejoice over our salvation. As hard as it is to examine ourselves in the light of God's commands, it is the way we prepare for the coming of the Lord.
John the Baptist was indeed a great prophet of God, the last of the Old Testament prophets. He followed in the line of all the Old Testament prophets who pointed ahead to Christ. As great of a prophet as John was, the one who followed him was even greater; for the one who followed him is true God, who inhabited human flesh and blood. He is the one who took our sins to the cross and exchanged them for his righteousness as he shed his precious blood for us and died to pay for our sins. He is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit when water is combined with Word. He is the one who works through the Holy Spirit to give us the faith that believes in our Saviour. It is his coming that marks the season of Advent as we remember how he came long ago in the manger, which was the beginning of the road to the cross. We know that he will come again in future clouds of glory. And we know that he comes to us today in Word and Sacrament.
This time of the year, students all across America are taking their finals. The semester is coming to an end. When school resumes next year, the whole process begins again with second semester, and the finals will once again rear their ugly heads in the spring. It seems that the impending doom created by finals are always overshadowing the seasons of Advent in the late autumn, and Lent in the spring. Perhaps we can consider this a not too subtle reminder that we have some more important finals to think about. Jesus came so we could pass those finals. We will pass them; however it won't be through how much we have studied, or how much sleep we have lost, or how much coffee we have consumed. We will pass our finals through faith alone in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus did all the hard stuff. When he came, it was a birth in the most humble and crude circumstances. His life was one of rejection by many people. And his death was that of a criminal. That's why Jesus took on human flesh and blood. He had to be one of us, so he could pay the price for our sin. He had to die, so he could overcome death by rising again. He had to do all of these things so heaven's gates would be wide open for us, and we will see the salvation of our God, just like John said.
God leaves the easy part for us. All we need to do is believe in Jesus as our Saviour, and it is all ours. That's why faith is the most important element in preparing the way for our Saviour. So as we prepare for our finals, we need to keep our relationship with Jesus active, and stay close to him through Word and Sacrament.
May this season prepare us so that when Jesus says the words of Revelation 22:20 to us, "Surely I am coming soon," we can join God's people and reply, "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!"