How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
Gaudēte! Most textbooks about preaching will tell you not to start your sermon by saying something in Latin, but there’s a reason for it today! Gaudēte is the historic name for this Sunday of the church year – the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudēte means “rejoice!” Didn’t you hear that theme running throughout all of our Scripture lessons today? Zephaniah said, Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart…The LORD has taken away your punishment…the LORD…is with you; never again will you fear any harm…[the LORD] will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. The almighty God has taken away your punishment, he’s always with you, you have nothing to fear, and what a crazy thought – the almighty God sings with joy…about you! Gaudēte, rejoice! Or how about Paul in Philippians, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! A thing so nice, Paul says it twice – rejoice! No matter what your life circumstance, you have a Savior who brings you joy beyond all telling and peace that passes all understanding. Gaudēte, rejoice! The joy just drips from our Scripture lessons today, doesn’t it? Especially in our gospel lesson. You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Gaudēte, rejoice?
Is this a mistake? Now would be a decent time to play the old Sesame Street game, One of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong. It seems like John the Baptizer is just a wet blanket thrown into an otherwise completely joyful time of year. People don’t want to hear that kind of stuff – especially not right now. Everyone’s getting excited for Christmas, driving around looking at lights on houses, getting amped up for some quality time with family, and here comes this locust-breath preacher telling me that the ax is already at the root of the tree and the Almighty is lining up his first swing to chop down unfruitful trees. Gaudēte, rejoice? There’s no mistake here. In fact, it’s the whole point. What should we do on this Gaudēte Sunday? Repent and rejoice!
John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” All sorts of people came out to see John. Everyone from religious elite to social outcast – Pharisee, Sadducee, soldier, tax collector, commoner. And John called them all to the carpet equally. Really? Just looking at the crowds of people, you’d have to think that some were ‘better off’ spiritually than others. I mean, look who’s in that crowd – there are some Pharisees! If anybody was “doing it right” it was the Pharisees. They knew their Bibles. They never missed a synagogue service. They gave the full 10% of everything they had to the temple. “What more should we do?” they wonder. John said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Everything the Pharisees had done was done in the spirit of self-righteousness, not repentance. They used their lives of obedience and observance to elevate themselves while pushing others down. So John makes it clear – the Pharisees’ problem was that they didn’t think they had a problem. They weren’t he “sinners,” they were the “good guys,” and that’s the problem.
The most helpful thing John the Baptizer could do for those Pharisees and Sadducees was to take their religion pills and flush them down the toilet. They were addicted to all the outward form, ritual, and observance – thinking this mindless repetition and their professionalism at “doing the right thing” would dull their conscience like a spiritual narcotic. The Pharisees and Sadducees had no desire to see the deplorable condition of their hearts, and no time for sorrow over sin and trust in a Savior whom John proclaimed. So John kicks out their self-righteous crutches and flushes their religion pills, because failure to see the problem (sin) will never bring you to see a need for the solution (the Savior). But he didn’t stop there. John also condemned the sins of the commoners, the soldiers, the tax collectors – no one was exempt, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So they all ask the probing question, What should we do? That’s not a bad question for us to ask on this Gaudēte Sunday. What should we do? Listen to John’s first answer – repent!
Here’s the thing about John the Baptizer - in theory, I love him. I kind of like the idea of having some off-the-wall preacher tell the whole world exactly what’s wrong with it. I hear him just getting warmed up out in the wilderness, and my pride-filled heart says, “Yeah, John, get ‘em! Curse the Christmas commercialism of the world out there – shame on them. Blast those hypocrites with a healthy dose of brimstone!” Here’s the ugly truth about John the Baptizer – in theory, I love him. But in reality, my sinful nature can’t stand him because he doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave his condemnation of sin in the world out there. Instead he points his finger at you and me. He doesn’t leave us at a safe distance from God’s wrath against sin, because he knows that our problem goes deeper than the surface. It goes straight to the heart. John offers no shallow joy on this Gaudēte (Rejoice) Sunday. Because he knows that repentance precedes rejoicing.
What was the problem with those people who came out to see John in the wilderness? I suppose each group had their own nuance, but if you boil it down, I think it comes down to one thing. The crowds coming out to John thought they could have two kinds of joy that are complete opposites. They wanted the joy of salvation AND the “joy” that comes from gratifying the sinful nature. They were coming out to be baptized by [John], so on some level they desired the joy of salvation and to be at peace with God; but at the same time they thought they could hold onto the “joy” of serving their sinful natures. John came to say, “You can’t have both.” And this is where John makes us uncomfortable. John, you’re not supposed to talk about the sins that I like, the vices that I coddle, the sins that want to send me to hell. Do we ever fall into the same trap of thinking that I can have two kinds of joy that are really complete opposites? Do I think that the one hour I sit in church on Sunday excuses my sin during the other 167 hours of the week? Does 10% of our income we return to the Lord somehow cancel out the materialism that’s evident in the way we use the other 90%? Do I suppose that simply because I belong to a conservative, Bible-believing, faithful teaching church body like WELS that I’ll escape the coming wrath? Remember, if God could raise up children for Abraham out of stones, you’d better believe he could raise up WELS members out of the floor beneath your feet if he really wanted.
This is the problem with John the Baptizer – he’s uncivilized and relentless. He says things he’s not supposed to, and he leaves me no way out. He’s not afraid to talk about money and possessions and work. John preached the law and he didn’t hold back. He hits the soft underbelly of my sinful nature. He calls me to the carpet for backwards priorities. His first answer to that probing question, What should we do? is clear as a bell – repent! Turn from sin and have a complete change of mind about it. Sounds simple, but on our own it’s impossible. So where does that leave us? Scrambling and doing, hoping and trying…and failing. It leaves us listening to that voice in the wilderness that proclaims God’s judgment against sin. The law is divinely effective at revealing the problem of my sin, but it doesn’t do a thing to cure it. So John didn’t stop there. Confronted by our sin, brought by the Holy Spirit to see its true ugliness, we listen again to that voice in the wilderness. It’s true, John was a preacher. But he was also a pointer. Don’t overlook why we can still read this gospel on Gaudēte Sunday. Listen to John’s second answer to the question, What should we do? Rejoice!
And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them. And what was that good news? One more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John was always pointing – but not just pointing out sins and sinners. John pointed to the end of your sin, Christ. John’s work was to prepare the way of the Lord by pointing out sin and pointing to the Savior. “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” John’s preaching of the law confronts me, leaves me exposed, stripped naked of every self-righteous rag I tried to cover myself with. John calls you and me away from sin and out into the barren wasteland of repentance, but through that barren wasteland flows the water of baptismal life in Christ. John wasn’t just John the Preacher or John the Pointer – he was John the Baptizer. Through water and the word, John connected these sinners to the sinless Son of God who would take away every one of their sins. In the waters of your baptism, you have been connected to Christ, the one who took every one of your sins and un-sinned them. Plunged in the waters of your baptism, you have been clothed, head to toe, body and soul with a robe of righteousness that is not your own – a free gift from Jesus to you. What should we do? Rejoice – the Lamb of God has taken away your sins!
What now? When the crowds asked John What should we do? he told them. The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same. To the tax collectors, Don’t collect any more than you are required to. To the soldiers, Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay. Notice very carefully what John is doing here. He’s not telling sinners, “Try harder.” He’s showing forgiven sinners how to love God and serve their neighbor in their everyday lives. He’s talking about fruits of repentance – the joyful product of a changed mind about sin, all given by God’s Holy Spirit. He’s talking about produc[ing] fruit in keeping with repentance. And here’s the shocking thing – the fruits of repentance, the joyful produce that results out of thankfulness for me free forgiveness – those fruits are focused not on me, but on the person next to me. Fruits of faith and a changed mind about sin don’t stay in me, they flow out from me to my neighbor next to me. A tunic for someone else, food for another person, money that belongs to my neighbor stays with my neighbor. This is how the forgiven child of God gets to live in all our many callings (vocations) in life.
John didn’t tell the tax collectors to quit and he didn’t tell the soldiers to defect and go AWOL. Stay where you are – live and serve and love as the forgiven child you are! God has put you in a place with neighbors around you – which sounds like a throw-away line, but it’s true and it’s liberating. You have been set free from your sin by Christ the Lamb of God. You’ve been released from the shackles of death and hell; set free to live before a holy God with joy and peace because of Christ AND set free to live with an eye to the neighbor next to you. By virtue of your mere existence on earth, your life has been sewed as one thread into a tapestry with hundreds, if not thousands, of other lives. By virtue of your baptism, you’ve been clothed with Christ and called to love and serve and meet the needs of the neighbors next to you. You don’t have to sell all your possessions and live in a cave. John wouldn’t tell you to abandon your family and run after some good work that really matters. Instead the work you do as a husband, wife, student, or employee is work that really matters, because you’ve been made holy in Christ.
So, it’s no misnomer. There’s a lot to rejoice about this Sunday. In John’s preaching, we still hear a voice that tells us not what we want to hear, but what we need to hear – that we are sinners in need of saving. Through that same proclaimer, we see the Lamb of God, Christ, the end of our sin who has claimed us as his own in our baptism. There’s a lot to rejoice about this Sunday and every day. We’ve been called away from sin, forgiven in Christ, and set free to live in a world that is uniquely our own. On this Gaudēte Sunday, what should we do? Repent. By the Holy Spirit’s power, believe the good news. And above all, rejoice because Christ, the end of your sin, is here – and you’re free.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.