SCRIPTURES – Malachi 3:1-7; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-14
"Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,” says the Lord of hosts. (Mal. 3)
Today’s Divine Service is filled with powerful words that call for action. “Stir up our hearts, O Lord,” we prayed in the Collect of the Day. Our Old Testament reading from Malachi begins with one of my favorite words – “Behold!” – and announces that the Lord is coming in power to refine and purify His people. Then, in the Gospel that fiery messenger of the Lord, John the Baptist, appears, crying out, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance!” Commitment and action are demanded of you today – don’t just say you believe in Jesus; show it! – for God Himself is very committed to you and active for you.
How so? How is He active in your life? Well, consider the words of Malachi 3, "Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.” Notice: two messengers are spoken of here. First, there is “my messenger” who will “prepare the way before me.” This is John the Baptist. He prepares the way for “the Lord whom you seek, the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight.” This is Jesus. It is significant that both Jesus and John are called messengers. This means that John participates in Christ’s nature and work and helps to communicate them Him as he does his work of preparation. He does so especially as he does the unique work which God had given him to do, the work which ended up being connected to his name. He is called John the Baptist because, above all, he baptizes. This is his mighty work of preparation.
Do you think of Baptism, and of your Baptism, as a mighty work of God? You won’t if you just look at the act. Evan’s baptism this morning certainly didn’t appear mighty. It was our sixth baptism this year. They’re getting to be rather routine. And, nothing unusual or out of the ordinary happened, did it? Surely it must have been different with the baptisms John the Baptist did! At least he was dealing with adults who of their own volition came to him and confessed their sins and promised to change. He wasn’t baptizing babies… was he? Well, we don’t know. We do know that he was calling to repentance Jewish people who for centuries had been circumcising their babies at eight days of age. And, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the individuals in the crowds who came to him. Were there babies? Well, why not? Why should we lessen God’s powerful work through John by restricting it to adults?
To see the power of God in John’s baptism you have to get portrayals of him in movies out of your mind and also take your focus off of the people and what they did; which is precisely what John would have you do. “You brood of vipers!” he cried as the people came to him. Their sins made them people who were in league with that viper the devil, who in the form of a serpent tempted Adam and Eve and brought them so low in sin that, when God came to them, they acted like the devil and opposed God by blaming Him for what had happened to them! By calling them a brood of vipers, John was saying that only God could rescue them, just as only God could rescue Adam and Eve. To be saved the people would have to confess their utter sinfulness, abandon all confidence in themselves, and cast themselves upon God. We all need to do this. God alone can save us! This is why God sent John to baptize. His baptism was a message from God to the people. And, so is yours.
Why didn’t John just preach? Why did he baptize? With the water of baptism he was bringing a powerful memory to mind: the Exodus, God’s mighty deliverance of His people from Egypt. You see, it is in the Exodus event that God calls the people of Israel “My son” for the first time. God sends Moses to say to Pharaoh, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my firstborn son. Let my son go that he may serve me.’” (Exod. 4:22-23) Then, God visibly appears to His people for the first time, as in a pillar of cloud and fire He leads them out of Egypt. Pharaoh’s army pursues them and boxes them in beside the Red Sea, and the people cry out in fear, believing they will be destroyed. God then saves His people by parting the waters of the Red Sea and leading Israel through them, and then bringing its waters down upon Pharaoh’s army and destroying it. In response, the people of Israel to acted for the first time as God’s Son. The Bible tells us, “the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (Ex. 14:31) Moses then leads them in singing a song of praise to “My God” and “My Savior.” Their salvation through the waters of the Red Sea, then, was the culmination of a birth event; it was the beginning of a new life as God’s people. John the Baptist brings all of this to mind by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In it they are given birth into a new life in “the Lord [who is] coming to his temple, the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” – their coming Messiah. And so, after being reborn in baptism they are to act in new ways:
To share an extra tunic, or food, with those who have none.
Tax collectors are not to collect more than they are authorized to collect (which was commonly done).
Soldiers were not to use their position to extort money.
They were cleansed of their sins and given a new life in their baptism, and so were to show that they were God’s new people by entrusting their lives to Him and living as God does: in service to others.
You are to do the same. You are new people, God’s people! Christ has taken away your sins and given you a new nature – His own nature. You are now God’s children, for He is your Father. This all took place in the powerful act of your baptism.
So now: live the new life you have been given! – not because you have to, but because you bear your Lord’s nature. Now, in many ways your new life is no different from your old life. You are not called to retreat into a monastery or withdraw from the world. Instead, you are called to live out your life as God’s child in the vocations that you have. But, you are now His messengers in them, participants in and sharers of His nature and work.
Live your life confidently, then: not being greedy; not cheating or stealing or defrauding; not hoarding and hanging on to things, as if you would lose them if you let them go. Be generous, as your Father is generous! Be merciful, as your Father is merciful! Be His messengers, for you are His children who live in His love always and are cared for always. Rejoice and be glad and be generous as you live out your Baptism, knowing that “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1) To God our Father be glory and praise, through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.