In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(My apologies to Pastor Schepmann if this sermon starts out sounding similar to the one he preached last Sunday.)
Two elderly, excited Southern women were sitting together in the front pew of church one Sunday morning listening to a real “fire-and-brimstone” preacher. When this preacher condemned the sin of stealing, these two ladies cried out at the tops of their lungs, “Amen, Brother!” When the preacher condemned the sin of lust, they yelled again, “Preach it, Reverend!” And when the preacher condemned the sin of lying, they jumped to their feet and screamed, “Right on, Brother … Tell it like it is … Amen!”
But when the preacher condemned the sin of gossip, the two ladies got very quiet. One turned to the other and said, “He’s quit preachin’ and now he’s meddlin’.”
It would seem that whether or not the preacher has gone from preaching to meddling depends on “whose goose is being cooked”—that is, on whose sin is being exposed. Those ladies were quite sure that they were perfectly fine and their souls safe from the flames of perdition because they weren’t guilty of stealing, lust, or lying. Although in my experience, and I’m sure it’s the same in your experience, those who gossip, if they keep at it long enough, usually end up spreading some untruths in their “news reporting.” And isn’t that lying? The truth is, we are all guilty of breaking the whole Law; we are all guilty of every sin. “For whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point is guilty of all of it,” says St. James (2:10).
In our text, the Gospel reading for today, the Evangelist St. Luke is crystal clear in his description of those coming out to be baptized by John the Baptist: “the crowds” from the region around the Jordan, most of whom were Jews, members of God’s chosen people, the descendants of Abraham. John here is not addressing the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes and Sadducees, the religious leaders, but rather the common people, who were self-righteous in their own right. John knew how they would answer his call for them to repent, that they would defend their status as God’s elect: “We have Abraham as our father.” Oh no, says John, forget about that! “God is able to raise up from these stones children for Abraham!” Your nationality and your being a descendant of a certain ancestor are no protection from the coming wrath or from God’s call to repentance. The salvation John proclaims is for all people, as Isaiah foretold, “All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory”—the righteousness—“of God” (Rom 3:23).
Now, talk about a “fire and brimstone” preacher, John definitely sounds like one. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Lk 3:7, 9). Indeed, in the optional verses, vv. 15–20, John sounds further fiery warnings. Verses 15–18:
15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
18 So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people.
Judgment is near, and the Judge is coming quickly. John appeared in the style and dress of the greatest Old Testament Prophet, Elijah, and in John we see the last of the prophets of the Old Testament. The people of Israel kept forgetting the Word of the LORD, the warnings of impending judgment He kept sending through Elijah and His other holy prophets, such as Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear Me, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:5).
So much judgment and wrath and fire—three times John speaks of fire, and Malachi also speaks of “a refiner’s fire”—and yet Luke says, “So with many other exhortations [John] preached good news to the people” (v. 18). How is this good news? If this is John’s or Luke’s idea of good news, then we sure don’t want to hear the bad news! Yet we must hear the bad news, that we are sinners, law-breakers, deserving of God’s holy and righteous wrath. Here is one small bit of good news in the midst of that: God has not smitten us, stricken us dead where we stand for all our offenses—or for just one. Instead, He calls us to repent, to turn away from our sin, to have a change of mind and heart, to confess our sins, and receive His absolution, the forgiveness of sins. He is patient with us. What sins should we confess? “Before God we should plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer.” For sins that are especially burdensome, troubling our conscience and weighing down on us, sins “we know and feel in our hearts,” God gives us pastors to hear our confession, and to absolve us, to forgive us in the name of the Triune God, the name in which we are baptized, and to help strengthen us against further temptation to sin with counsel from God’s Word.
How do I know which sins to confess? “Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments. Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker?” That question alone should catch just about everyone in its net. “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?” Who can honestly say “No” to each of these questions? I confess that I cannot. For one, I have been hot-tempered, making assumptions and jumping to conclusions about other people’s actions and intentions. I have failed to keep promises. I have thought that I was getting better at being patient; but, the Lord will put that to the test, and show me that we still have work to do on that. Sometimes I have felt like not doing any work, which is laziness. Who will save me from these and so many others? Who will save me from myself?
Remember that those who were asking John, “What shall we do?” were those whom he had baptized. So his call to repentance, and to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance,” is for the baptized, for you and me. It’s not for outsiders to straighten up and fly right before God accepts them. It’s for those whom He has already accepted and adopted as His children in Holy Baptism, for you and me. We, Christ’s forgiven people, His Church, are supposed to be all about forgiveness and love, agapē, self-giving love. So why do we instead fear to confess our sins? Why do we fear that forgiveness won’t be given? And why do we so often think, speak, and act with self-serving self-love instead of the self-giving love of Christ, so that we hurt our beloved brothers and sisters, for whom Christ also died?
One sin common to our churches, not just here, is covetousness. We see some success or great blessing in a neighboring congregation, and sometimes we will envy that church. We’ll wish we could have what they have—especially all those folks attending worship over there! Hey, how can we get them to come over here instead? Another sin common in churches is one mentioned at the beginning: Gossip. It has always been a problem, as the Apostle Paul lists it in Romans among the many practices of the ungodly, and to the Corinthians he says, “I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish … that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder” (2 Cor 12:20). He warns Timothy about those who “learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Tim 5:13). Technology and social media have made gossip and “busybodying” even easier and more widespread. In my eighteen-plus years as one of your pastors, it’s been my observation that this, and the breaking of the Eighth Commandment in general, has been one of the most commonly indulged sins here at Hope. Remember Luther’s explanation: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way,” or “put the best construction on everything.” Let us all think and speak—and write—of one another in just that way. Let us not always accuse, or ask accusing questions, for we often do so unjustly or rashly; let us rather ask genuine questions of one another, seeking to learn and understand. Let us spread the Gospel, not the gossip, for the sake of Him who suffered the false testimony of His enemies, and who promises to confess us, to speak well of us, and to plead for us, before His Father in heaven.
For us baptized, repentance, confession, and absolution bring us back daily to our baptism, and to our Triune God’s promise and presence in His work for us in the water and the Word. John says, “Bear fruits in keeping with (worthy of) repentance.” St. Paul prays that we may “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Php 1:11). Why the difference, plural fruits in one and singular fruit in the other? Our fruits worthy of, or equal to, repentance show what Luther said in the first of his 95 Theses: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” We ever repent and ever confess, multiple times, and so multiple fruits. On the other hand, the righteousness of Christ is one, coming through one Savior alone, Jesus Christ, “the Lord Our Righteousness,” and so its fruit is singular. And yet that fruit feeds countless souls in the Holy Supper of His body and blood, fruit from the tree of the cross, for the forgiveness of all your sins! And as He, our God and Savior, has reconciled us to Himself and His Father through His own flesh, covering our sins with His holy, precious blood, be reconciled with one another, be at peace with one another, through Christ, “for He Himself is our peace” (Eph 2:14). And may He who refines and purifies you as silver see His reflection in you.
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.