Once, in the days before cell phones, GPSes, or even Mapquest and Google Maps, I missed the biggest part of a farewell party--thrown for Ann and me--after driving past (and continuing to drive past) the house where it was happening. The party came at the end of my pastoral internship in Michigan.
Ann had gone separately because I needed to make a run to Traverse City before going to the farewell. By the time I finally made it, the whole thing was nearly over. All because I hadn’t asked for directions...and because once I was lost, I didn’t turn back when I should have. When we go wrong, the most sensible thing is to turn around. But I didn't do the sensible thing.
For a long time, as I was going wrong that day on the backroads of Benzie County, Michigan, I was too proud to turn back, too proud to admit that I was going wrong, too proud to find a payphone and call someone who could help me, too proud to confess that maybe Ann had been right about my need of her written directions offered earlier in the day.
Have you ever gone wrong in life, set out in the wrong direction and gotten lost?
I’m not just talking about the places you drive but also being wrong about
- the things you’ve thought,
- the decisions you’ve made,
- the relationships you’ve harmed,
- the untruths you’ve told,
- the walls you’ve built between God and yourself?
That’s because we’re born with our moral compasses that are askew.
We actually like to sin.
We like to play God and travel the lost roads that go away from God.
We’re so messed up that we sin even when we don’t want to. The apostle Paul talks about this in Romans 7: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing." (Romans 7:19)
Like King David, we can confess, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)
In today’s gospel lesson, on this Second Sunday of Advent, we meet John the Baptizer, we meet John the Baptizer, whose message is as much for us today--when we look either to the return of Jesus to this world or the day when, just beyond our deaths, we meet Jesus face to face--as it was when John spoke them to prepare His fellow Jews to meet Jesus in the flesh for the first time.
Take a look at what John says near the beginning of the lesson, Matthew 3:1-12: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (v.2)
“Turn around,” John is saying. “You’re going in the wrong direction. Turn back toward the promised Savior and King because He’s bringing His Kingdom soon and you want to be ready!”
Are you ready to meet Jesus?
He died on a cross and rose from His tomb and is now ascended into heaven. He is Lord of heaven and earth. So, you will meet Him someday. Are you ready for that?
We may say, “Sure, I’m ready. I try to do the right thing.” God’s Word says, “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
We may say, “I’m better than most people,” hoping that Jesus will judge us on a curve. But God’s Word says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
We may say, “God is gracious and loving. I don’t have anything to fear.” But in God’s Word, Jesus, God in the flesh, says, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33)
We may say, “I’m a member of Living Water Lutheran Church.” But Jesus says that He will let the wheat and the weeds live side-by-side in His Church until the day of His return. If mere membership in the club were all that it took to be part of God’s Kingdom, John the Baptizer wouldn’t have told his fellow Jews, the Sadducees and Pharisees, “I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matthew 3:9). There’s nothing that we can do to make ourselves ready to meet Jesus.
But there is good news! Even within the harsh words of John the Baptist in our lesson today.
After warning that the coming Messiah Jesus had ax in hand to take down all those whose lives don’t bear the fruit of repentance--the fruit of habitual turning back to God--John says (starting at verse 11): “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Did you hear the good news--the gospel--there?
John is saying, “Look, my baptism here on the Jordan River is nothing but you saying that you’re turning to God.”
That’s great, of course. But if our being right with God depends on our good intentions, we still end up a long way from God.
- I intend to work out every day but don’t always.
- I intend to get enough sleep at night but often don’t.
- I intend to write the great American novel but I haven’t yet.
It’s this Baptism, Jesus’ Baptism, that changes us, that brings God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit into our lives, that daily goes to work to kill off our old sinful selves, and that calls the ever-new, ever-righteous child of God to repent--to turn back--to Jesus.
It’s this Baptism that helps us to hear God’s call to us to turn to Jesus whenever we get lost and to trust that He has done everything (and is still doing everything) needed to make us right with God--to make us righteous, to trust that He will lead us in the right direction.
John’s imagery is interesting. He says that Jesus will institute a Baptism in “the Holy Spirit and fire.” Later, he says that those who turn from God will burn in “unquenchable fire.”
Fire is judgment.
The Holy Spirit is the One Who brings life into being.
Holy Baptism as instituted by Jesus first brings judgment on we who are born in sin, then gives new life from the Holy Spirit.
Our call from the moment we’re baptized is to keep turning to Christ, whatever our circumstances, even when we’re lost or afraid or conscious of our sin or overwhelmed.
We who have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire know that as we turn to Christ, our old selves are being drowned or burned away to make way for the new person God is retrofitting us to be, today and for all eternity.
In Jesus’ Baptism, we die with Jesus and we are raised to be with Him. Saint Paul puts it like this: “We were therefore buried with [Jesus] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4)
You and I have a penchant for going in the wrong direction. But the life-giving Word of God, the gospel of Jesus, has entered into our lives in Holy Baptism and comes to us again and again in the Word proclaimed and read and heard, and in the body and blood of Jesus given in Holy Communion to turn us back to Him and to the life that only He can give.
If you remember nothing else from this message, remember this: Turn to Him as He calls you and live in His Kingdom, today and eternally. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]