Advent 2 • Luke 3:1–14 (15–20) • December 6, 2015
By Dale A. Meyer
Straightforward and familiar, this easy text isn’t easy. John the Baptist, “brood of vipers,” “wrath to come,” “bear fruits . . . and do not say to yourselves,” and the like are a routine Advent reading and its theme of repentance is what we do Sunday after Sunday, but familiarity with church ritual about sin doesn’t necessarily breed contempt for sin. Why waste the people’s time if your sermon doesn’t make sin a fresh hurt, contemptible, so that their confession is a yearning anew for Christ’s forgiveness? The goal of this sermon should not be to imply that your people are a “brood of vipers” but for them to hear their Savior. “The word of absolution, I say, is what you should concentrate on, magnifying and cherishing it as a great and wonderful treasure to be accepted with all praise and gratitude.”¹
What Thomas Winger says about Bible study applies to your thinking about this sermon. “Most of what we do in serious Bible study has to do with overcoming the gaps that separate us from the original audience of the scriptural documents.”² Ponder the gaps between then and now. You’re not a curiously clad prophet who has gone viral; you’re one of your people. The crowds flocked to John; how are your church attendance numbers running? John thundered, but in our society—“You have your opinion; I have mine. Who are you to tell me I’m wrong?”—thundering doesn’t work. And here’s a telling difference in contexts, then and now. When the people asked, “Teacher, what shall we do?” John didn’t say, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:27‒38). John’s answer tarried in the law, tarried until he had shown them how amendment of life comes from true sorrow over sin. Share what you have with the person who has not. “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” “Do not extort money . . . be content with your wages.”
“Seek the solution from the text,” said a Homeric text critic. When John the Baptizer spoke amendment of life to his hearers back then, he gave us direction to get into the hearts of our hearers today. Talking about confession, the Small Catechism says, “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?” You make calls; you visit with your people. Do you pick up what’s going on in their life situations? “How’s work going?” “Things okay at home?” Our Sunday talk about sin goes easily into one ear and out the other, but people do talk seriously about their daily lives, and in that talking we can sniff traces of how they are sinning. Get to that in your preaching, grub around in their hearts about how sin is mucking up their daily lives with one another and before God, and they’ll ask, “What shall we do?”
Confession has two parts, our confession and God’s absolution, and the goal of this sermon should clearly be God’s word of forgiveness. John did give the promise of the gospel. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” “So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.” Today’s context is not Christ’s first coming as much as his Advent coming in word and sacrament (“your sins are forgiven”) and his coming to take us home (Acts 1:11; 1 Pt 1:8‒9). The promise remains the same but we see it from different vantage points. Ask your hearers if they’re bearing the fruits of repentance. Are you? Then talk about it.
¹ Large Catechism, “A Brief Exhortation to Confession,” 22.
² Thomas Winger, “The Spoken Word: What’s Up with Orality?” Concordia Journal 29 (2003): 136