The Second Sunday in Advent, 9 December 2018
A Sermon on Luke 3:1-6 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS
Luke 3:1-6 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The Great Physician: Will Arrive
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Christian faith is historical. By saying that, we mean that its key events take place in human history at a particular time and a particular place. This is how St. Luke begins today’s gospel reading. Tiberius Caesar is the Roman Emperor. Pontius Pilate is the Roman procurator, or governor of Judea. Herod Antipas and his brother Philip, the sons of Herod the Great, are rulers over Galilee, and Ituraea and Trachonitis, respectively, and Lysanias, the ruler over Abilene. The high priests of the Jerusalem Temple are Annas and Caiaphas. So, Luke locates the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist both within world history and within the history of God’s people, because the One for whom he is preparing the way will come from the Jewish people to be the Savior of the world. And the world needed saving then. God knows it needs saving now.
When St. Luke begins with this history and then says, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness,” he is using the same template as the writing prophets. John is a prophet. He sees with a heart and mind filled with the Holy Spirit. He proclaims God’s Word to God’s people at a particular time and a particular place in their history that began with the call of Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12. John stands across the Jordan River on the edge of the wilderness where God made covenant with His people at Sinai. John’s preaching ministry is preparatory. It is a call to repentance – to have a change of heart and mind – a call to return to the Lord their God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
Let us be clear, because many do not understand this: John was not doing Christian baptisms. You have to read all the way through the death, resurrection, and ascension of God’s Son Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in Acts 2 before Christian baptism begins. The Greek word for baptism that Luke uses in 3:3 (“baptisma”) is a ritual cleansing with water that Gentile converts had to undergo and a ritual cleansing with water that Jews had to undergo after contact with anything or anyone that made them ritually unclean according to Mosaic Law. The proper Hebrew name for this was a “tevilah.” Later, and even today, the tevilah takes place in a bath tub called a “mikveh.” John is telling his fellow Jews they need a cleansing bath. Luke is writing in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic, and so he uses the Greek word for washing.
So, John the Forerunner (as the Eastern church calls him) appears on the scene in Luke 3 after having had his conception, gestation, and birth described in Luke 1. Like the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he is the son of a priest, and priests perform a necessary work for God’s people. They declare what is and is not ritually clean. They offer blood sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple, so that God’s people may receive the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness only comes through blood sacrifice, and priests have been set apart for this purpose. That John is not serving as a priest in Jerusalem is significant. That he is standing on the edge of the wilderness is as well.
Luke has in mind Malachi 3 as he writes. John is the messenger who will announce the coming Messiah. Luke explicitly quotes Isaiah 40:3-5. John’s work is preparatory. His baptism is preparatory. Salvation is on its way not only for God’s people but for all flesh: Gentiles, too.
So, then, what does this mean for you and me, for all people today?
Again, the Christian faith is historical and not just in the sense that there has been something called the Church for the past 2,000 years. When Luke quotes Isaiah 40, he is already making a historical point. Isaiah 40 speaks to the Jews who were in exile in Babylon from 597 – 537 BC. They had lost the land. They had lost the king. They had lost the Temple, because they had not kept the covenant God made with them at Sinai by grace after having rescued them from slavery in Egypt by grace after having been chosen as His people by grace. In short, Luke is telling us that John came to a people who had forgotten who and Whose they are. They had lost their way. They and all flesh were in bondage to sin. They did not fear, love, and trust God above all things.
Could what was true of John’s audience be true of you and me? Well, that’s a lot tougher than saying it’s true of those outside the Church. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see glaring proof that the world around us is in bondage to sin and cannot free itself. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see that fearing, loving, and trusting in something and someone other than God is a huge problem for the world outside the Church. It’s a huge problem for coworkers, neighbors, friends, classmates, and, yes, even family members. We see that the inability to admit wrong, confess sin, and ask for and offer forgiveness is tied precisely to fearing, loving, and trusting what is not God. It’s easy to admit this is a clear and present danger. It’s easy to admit this is historically a terrible problem for the world around us and for people we know. But could that be true of you and me?
There is a kind of confessing of sin that is perfunctory, routine, and formulaic. The problem is not that we are liturgical, which is nothing other than God’s Word working on us in worship. The problem is that we can say the words in such a way that what we confess is the easy stuff to say: “Once I took the Lord’s name in vain. Once I spoke angrily to my neighbor. Once I forgot to pray because I was tired. Once I had unclean thoughts. Once I missed worship to play golf, etc.” All of those may be true of you and me, are certainly sinful, and do need to be confessed and forgiven because they are obstacles to our living as God’s children in the presence of our neighbors – especially the neighbors we love and work with. But the real problem that often goes unconfessed and unrepented is that we continue to fear, love, and trust in someone or something other than God and we really do not intend to admit that is wrong or to ask for God’s help. How can salvation come, how can the Great Physician heal when we do not admit we need saving?
Now we could do a big aside here on the fallacy associated with that theology that says: “Once saved, always saved.” We need to say to those that believe and teach what is, fancily, called realized eschatology, the idea that we can be completely whole in this life: No, dear sister or brother in Christ, you and I will be tormented by the weakness of our flesh until we die. We won’t, in fact, be saved until we have breathed our last breath in this sinful flesh of ours. We will be justified by our Baptism into the Lord Jesus’ saving death, but full salvation is yet to come.
Having said that briefly, we need to remember that while “once baptized, always baptized” is indeed true of water Baptism in the name of the Triune God, since there is only one Baptism into the saving death of God’s Son Jesus, we can, nevertheless, regard our Baptism as John’s fellow Jews regarded their lineage as a kind of cheap grace: “I love to sin. God loves to forgive. Such a deal!” Offering only a perfunctory, routine, formulaic confession of sins is nothing more than a non-confession: “I know I am, in a sense, sinful before God, but I don’t really think what I am doing is wrong, because I don’t feel like it’s wrong. And how I feel is all that matters. After all, I think there are a whole lot of worse things being done by other people than what I am doing. And besides that, I have a right to do this because my parents, my spouse, my ex, Trump, Pelosi, have turned me into the person I am. And, I am fine with that, I guess. Don’t you dare say otherwise!”
John the Baptist’s word today is preparatory. Hearing God’s Word becomes historical for you and me, especially for those who have already been baptized into the saving death of God’s Son Jesus. In other words, John speaks God’s Word to you and me, saying: “You really are in bondage to sin and cannot free yourself, not once upon a time, not somewhere in the past. For there is indeed an old Adam, an old Eve, an old sinner in you that does not fear, love, and trust God above all things.” That old sinner can be very clever, because that old sinner occupies the center that belongs only to the Lord God. That old sinner still hears the voice of the old tempter that asks: “Did God really say?” And the old sinner is at his or her worst when getting religious.
The Great Physician will arrive. John is preparing His way to hearers then and to hearers now. We are gathered in His name. We are known not in a perfunctory, routine, formulaic way – as if we could confuse God with our thin veneer of contrition. We are known all the way down to our naked selves, past the make up or grooming, even past the fig leaves we clumsily weave to try vainly to hide from God the truth about ourselves. We need saving now and every day. We need Jesus, the Great Physician, to heal us of our brokenness, to deliver us from our captivity to sin.
When we come to the Lord’s Table today, you and I come with empty, sin-sick hands and nothing to offer but our sin and our death. So, bring all your sin, all your heartbreak and fear, all your lies, all your pride, all your narcissism, all your self-deceptions, and all those very real things done and left undone to the Great Physician, who has borne all the sins of the world on His cross. Today and each day confess, “I renounce the devil, his works, his ways. Have mercy on me, a sinner, Jesus. For, I know there is forgiveness of sins and salvation in no other name.”
Dear ones, the world around us is preparing for a Christ-less Christmas. Whatever joy they seek apart from Jesus, the Savior of the world, will fade away. Don’t be a party to that. Pray for those outside the Church, for the unbaptized and those who have fallen away. Pray for yourself that you will offer yourself to God and your neighbor as a living sacrifice of praise and thanks to the only God who saves. Invite those who are far off to hear the good news of Jesus who saves!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
The Great Physician: Will Arrive
Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son, so that by his advent we may be enabled to serve you with purified minds; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 92).
Luke 3:1 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, ….”
St. Gregory the Great [Late 6th – early 7th century Bishop of Rome]: “Luke recalls the rulers of the Roman republic and the rulers of Judea to indicate the time when our Redeemer’s forerunner received his mission to preach…But because the Gentiles were to be gathered together and Judea dispersed on account of the error of its faithlessness, this description of earthly rule also shows us that in the Roman republic one person presided” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 58).
Luke 3:2 “during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
St. Ambrose [4th century Bishop of Milan]: “…Judea, which lay divided among so many kings, had reached the end of its sovereignty. It was also appropriate to indicate not only under which kings but also under which high priests this occurred. Since John the Baptist preached one who was at once both king and priest, the evangelist Luke indicated the time of his preaching by referring to both the kingship and the high priesthood” (58-59).
Luke 3:3 “…proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
St. Cyril [Early 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt]: “Moreover, the fruit of repentance is, in the highest degree, faith in Christ. Next to it is the evangelic mode of life, and in general terms the works of righteousness as opposed to sin, which the penitent must bring forth as fruits worthy of repentance” (59).
Luke 3:4 “… ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
St. Cyril of Alexandria: “Make ready for the reception of whatever Christ may wish to do. Withdraw your hearts from the shadow of the law, discard vague figures and no longer think perversely. Make the paths of our God straight. For every path that leads to good is straight and smooth and easy, but the one that is crooked leads down to wickedness those that walk in it” (60).
1. Is my life divided under the rule of many different forces and authorities?
2. What unclean thoughts, words, and deeds in my life need to be cleared away by Jesus?
3. Do I hear the Holy Spirit calling me through this Word of God to return to my Baptism?
The Apostles Creed (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.
The Second Article
I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.
What does this mean?
I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.
1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how God the Son’s redemptive work is on-going in your lives and in the world. Read carefully Martin Luther’s explanation.
4. Join with our new Mission Team to serve neighbors whose property has been damaged by Hurricane Florence. Sign up in the Commons to provide a meal for an incoming mission team from another congregation or to join in recovery efforts.
5. Listen to the wider culture’s “salvation” stories. What do the other “gods” promise in the way of deliverance and how do they accomplish it? Pray for those who are seeking life from the wrong places and whose hope will be dashed when they discover these other “gods” are impotent in the face of sin, death, and the old evil one.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”