Pastor Jeremy Husby delivers a sermon entitled “Be Warned” based on Matthew 3:1-12 at Peace Lutheran Church in Hartford, Wisconsin.
Delivered on Sunday, December 8, 2019
In the book of 2 Kings, you will find the account of the death of King Ahaziah of Israel. There it says that he had suffered a fall from a great height and, as a result, was left lying on his death bed. In this time of absolute depravity and helplessness, Ahaziah desired divine aid. However, because he was another notch in the numbered list of evil kings in the north, he didn’t call out to his namesake, “the God who grasps.” He, instead, asked for help from the so-called god of thunder and lightning, Baal. As you might imagine, that didn’t sit too well with God Almighty. So, as he was wont to do, God called on his mouthpiece at the time, a man named Elijah, to go and condemn the king.
The connection of that account to today’s Gospel is concealed in a quick description of God’s spokesman from so many centuries ago. When the emissaries of the king came back with Elijah’s words that Ahaziah would not leave the bed he was lying on, he asked who told them that message. Their response? He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist. The king said, That was Elijah.
Some may wonder why the inspired evangelist, Matthew, included this odd description of the Baptizer’s diet and dress decorum, but with these words, it is clear why the people from Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region of the Jordan were going out to him. Simply by what he was wearing, the people knew that they could trust what he was saying. They knew that his words, like Elijah of old, were really God’s words. Among many other things, Elijah said that Ahaziah would die, and that’s exactly what happened. What was the message, then, that John, this promised second coming of Elijah, preached as a completely dependable prophecy? Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Judging simply by the physical and observable results of his work, it would seem as though, for the most part anyway, the people received his message and, because he was God’s prophet speaking the very Word of God, they believed it to be true.
But, really, is that all that surprising that people would believe that they need to repent? You could probably stand on the corner of any intersection in Milwaukee and shout, “You need to repent,” and the people there, while they may not care for your style or approach, likely wouldn’t disagree with your premise.
After all, you live in a world where a Waukesha school shooting is just another weekday headline among a list of so many other stories that should be sickening, but have now become so commonplace. It sneaks in among reports of other murders, people taking other people’s lives; along with violence of all sorts; in the midst of countless families broken by evil actions.
The Pharisees and Sadducees in today’s Gospel, too, saw the need for repentance. That’s why they went to see the Baptizer, as well. Yes, the world back then was a bad place, too. But they, themselves, didn’t feel the need to be the change they wished to see in the world. After all, they were the sons of Abraham. They were God’s people. By lineage and status in the Church of their God, they had nothing to worry about and, in fact, were hoping that the rest of the world would just get on track and be more like them!
Does that sound all too familiar? Are there times when the little Pharisee or Sadducee inside of you seeks to impart that same supposed wisdom to the world? Do you ever find yourself thinking that this world would be so much of a better place if those people out there would just be more like you?
You brood of vipers!
John was speaking metaphorically, but he was not speaking hyperbolically. The sinful self-righteousness inside the Pharisees and Sadducees, that they were spewing out, was just as venomous as what vipers spread with their bites. The idea that you can earn your own goodness before your God or that there is anyone on this earth who does not need to be changed from the inside out is a poison that kills, not just the body, but the soul inside as well, for all of eternity.
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
The Pharisees and Sadducees needed to be warned. Do you, too?
The guilt you feel over your own thoughts, words, and actions; all the evil you have done with the good you have left undone, tells you that it is you, too, who needs to have hearts that are changed and set to a straight path. That feeling inside caused you to seek out a solution to your sin. The Word of God, written on your heart and on the pages of Scripture, told you that, if nothing is done for you, wrath is the only outcome that you will receive because of your sin.
With complete confidence, the people in those days were able to believe in the One who was to come after John, the One much more powerful, who would wash his people with the Holy Spirit. They were warned by God’s Word through his prophet and, by the power of that Word, trusted that they were cleansed by that One who was to come.
Brothers and sisters, trust what you hear today, not just because, like the crowds who went to listen to the Baptist, you hear it from a preacher called by God, wearing special clothes that identify a prophet of his, but because you have heard God’s Word; because you have been warned and, by the power of that Word, repentance has been brought about in you.
That repentance, too, is worked in you because you, too, have been washed by Jesus. The cleansing flood of Jesus’ blood, made precious by his perfect life and shed on the cross for you, was mixed with the water of your own baptism with the simple recitation of his powerful Word. There the Holy Spirit was implanted into your own heart and, through his working, fruit in keeping with repentance grows out of you.
When the evidence of sin in the world around you, and inside of you, becomes so commonplace that it is like listening to a long list of evil kings who ruled over Israel, be warned by the Word of his prophets and, by its power, believe it and be changed. Prepare yourself by that repentance because the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus is coming again. Be ready for his arrival so that, as promised by his prophets, when he does, he will gather you, like wheat into his barn. Be warned and believe. Amen.