Don’t miss out!

The Text: John 1:1-14


It seems like none of us has missed out on Christmas. That’s good. Unfortunately some people have to work on Christmas day and that means that while the rest of us are kicking back, relaxing and having fun they have to miss out. I don’t know if you’ve ever had to work during Christmas or perhaps you’ve been away overseas during Christmas, but it can be a bit of a downer to be away from all the action at Christmas when everyone else is enjoying themselves. Perhaps you don’t miss your dad’s overcooked turkey, or your mum’s passion pop, or the bad jokes tucked away in the bonbons but apart from those things we like to be a part of it on Christmas day, even if it’s just with a couple of people or our own immediate family.

We don’t want to miss out. Thankfully our country and many others around the world pretty much legislates that most people won’t have to miss out on Christmas by making it a public holiday. There’s no cricket today because it’s Christmas – the cricket starts tomorrow. There’s no trading on the Stock Exchange – that’ll open again tomorrow or on Monday. Most shops are closed, you can’t get your car fixed… Most things are called off well in advance because we all know that the 25th of December is Christmas and we don’t want to miss out on Christmas. 

Most people, however, did miss out on the first Christmas celebration. There were a handful of shepherds, some wise men, Mary, Joseph and presumably some animals but apart from that most people missed the first Christmas. But that’s OK, it was a pretty exclusive event, no one even knew what Christmas was at that stage, so it’s understandable that most people missed it. And at the first Christmas something extraordinary happened – the one who created the earth came to live on earth. Jesus, the Son of God, was born as a baby. This is the guy who made… everything – including many of the things we enjoy at Christmas – food, drink, fun, laughter, joy, happiness, families, culture… life itself. Jesus, referred to in our reading today as ‘The Word’, was there at the beginning with God: he was God and through him all things were made. So there in Bethlehem born in a manager at the first Christmas was not only the creator of life but the source of life itself. 

It would have been great to have been there, especially with all the angels and everything else. But thankfully Jesus gave people plenty of opportunity to get to meet him and get to know him later on as he grew up and became an adult. It wasn’t a flying visit that the creator of life made to earth – he came to stay, to dwell among us and be one of us, to eat and drink and celebrate with us. And so the author of life who was the light of the world lived among us, walked in our streets, worked like we work and mixed with the people of his society.

But so many people missed it – they had the chance to get to meet Jesus in person, the creator of the world but they didn’t recognise him, or they didn’t appreciate him. Our reading from John says that ‘the true light that gives light to every person was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.’ There may have been many people who bumped into a guy called Jesus from Nazareth but they missed the Christ.

It’s a bit like being around in the 60s but not attending a street parade for the Beatles. Apparently Adelaide still holds the record for the biggest ever street parade for the Beatles – pretty much everyone was there. And so if you were alive back then and living in Adelaide but weren’t there for the street parade people are inclined to ask you – ‘Where were you? Why did you miss it?’ Can you imagine if you got to meet someone who had lived in Palestine during the time of Christ? Or if they lived in Nazareth or Jerusalem and had ample opportunity to meet Jesus face to face. Wouldn’t you ask them, ‘Did you get to see Jesus?’ I mean, he was the big event of the time. Surely you wouldn’t want to miss that. But miss him they did, and Jesus passed through the streets often completely unacknowledged as the creator of the world. The author of life, the light of life – the Christ – was there but people missed him.

How lucky we can consider ourselves not to have missed out. We’re here today not just because of Christmas but because of Christ. Jesus has revealed himself to us, even though we’ve never actually seen him in the flesh, and we have faith. That was the point of his coming – that people would realise that the source of life had come in Jesus and he had come to give us that life. Knowing the source of life is the whole purpose of life and in fact Jesus himself said this in a prayer to God the father: “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”

Knowing Jesus means not missing out on life. It means not missing out on eternal life but it also means not missing out on life right here and now. Knowing the author of life and the source of life is the best way and the only way to get a grip on what it truly means to be alive, to appreciate the gifts we have been given. Knowing the author of life means that our life has meaning and purpose, we’re not just accidents or statistics. By knowing Jesus we have been given the right to be called children of God.

And yet, if you ask most people, it’s the people who believe in Christ and who follow him, who are the ones missing out. Being a Christian means no fun, can’t do this and you can’t do that. Rules, rules, rules, going to boring church, telling lame jokes, listening to cheesy music, disengaging with anything relevant in popular culture, hiding from anything that might be against your beliefs or a bit too rough or a bit too risqué, living your life feeling guilty, begging God for forgiveness and then waiting for Jesus to take you to heaven. Surely it’s the Christians who are missing out, many say, so thanks very much but I’ll give believing in Jesus a big miss.

What do you think – have they got some good ammunition there? Are we as Christians getting deeper into the essence and meaning of what it is to be alive and showing that in the way that we live, or are we missing out? Now every Christian is different and we’re not all going to be the life of the party or the motivating, energising champion of the church leading the way by sucking the marrow out of life. But it’s worth asking yourself – does my faith give me more life, or less? Do I feel like I’m getting deeper into what it means to be alive, or do I feel like I’m missing out. Or perhaps you’re caught in the middle – you’d like to take your faith to a deeper place but it’s risky. What might you become? What might you lose? What might you be missing out on?

Jesus, the author of life and the source of life, did not come to rob us of fun, or of pleasure, or of our personality. But he did call us to prioritise him in everything else that we treasure in life. Jesus came so that we might know the fullness of life. He came that we might be granted God’s forgiveness, God’s peace and the promise of life after death and all that those things mean for the here and now. He came to make us children of God. So the gift of life is there – don’t miss out!

The birth of Jesus Christ

Luke 2:1–20

 If any of you grew up in the Church and were ever in a Nativity Play as children, you’ll know that one of the first things to be organised were the groups of angels and shepherds.

A few of the more confident children might score the roles of Mary and Joseph, or the Wise Men, but the rank-and-file average Sunday school child, slotted in line, year after year, as a faithful angel or shepherd. They were the backbone of the Nativity Play.

The fact that these two groups – angels and shepherds – were side by side in the Christmas story, is worth thinking about, because they were quite an unlikely pair. A Pastor once visited a Childcare Centre next to his church to read the Christmas story with the children. A little girl brought this into even sharper focus for him. Because before he began he asked if anyone knew what a shepherd was? One of the little girls said, ‘Yes, a shepherd has wings and flies through the air’.

What was going on? She had confused angels and shepherds, so close was the association between them in her mind.

It is really incredible that these two groups—shepherds and angel—should be so closely connected in our minds. Because…

On the one hand, you have the angels.

From the Bible we learn that angels are part of God’s creation, they aren’t eternal, they are created beings, and yet they are heavenly beings. God’s angels are untainted by sin and evil – they are pure and holy. They live in the presence of God, continually enjoying His glory, filled with the “light” of heaven. Their whole purpose is to adore and praise the Triune God, and to be His messengers and servants for God’s people on earth. Angels appear right through the story of the Bible.  But it’s worth noting that there seems to be an explosion of angels around the birth of Jesus.

Then on other hand, you’ve got the shepherds.

For a start, they’re only human beings living on earth. But more than that, in the world of those days, being a shepherd was some of the lowliest and most humble work a person could do. Notice in our text they were living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks at night. Can you imagine what they would have looked like and smelt like spending their life out with the animals in the fields? This was probably not the sort of life vocation parents aspired to for their children.  They are the sort of people we would think of as “a bit rough around the edges”.

Have you ever noticed too, that we never find out these shepherds’ names! They’re sort of presented to us as “no-bodies” in the eyes of the world. They’re perhaps on the bottom rung of social ladder.

So there’s a sense in which these two groups: the angels and the shepherds, represent the highest of heaven, and the lowest of earth. Those who are pure and holy, and those who are unclean. Those who live in the light, and those who live in the darkness.

So what about us?

Let’s say we were casting roles for our nativity play tonight with all of us in the cast. In which role would we fit? Shepherds, or angels?

Perhaps we’d like to think that there are at least some angelic-like aspects to our lives. It may be that, in reality, we tend to be a bit more shepherd-like. Most, if not all of us, may have a few rough edges as a result of things which may have happened to us and things for which we ourselves were responsible.

How has this past year been for us? Like the shepherds, have there been things happen which made us feel like we’re at the bottom of the heap too? Issues with health, family, work, relationships?

The dark corners of this world are a constant threat to our peace and security.

Or, has it been our own failures and mistakes which have reminded us that we’re far from being an angel? The darkness that lurks in our own heart—things, perhaps, which even make us cower in fear like those shepherds in the field?  

The shepherds were living in the darkness of night, exposed to the elements with their flocks. Our deepest problem is that, apart from God’s grace, we live in the darkness of our sin exposed to death.

But at Christmas, being a shepherd is the best possible place to be… Not because the shepherds reach their way up to heaven to be with the angels, but because the angels are sent from heaven to earth with good news for the shepherds.

In our fear, in our sadness, in our sins, let us listen to the words of the angel from heaven:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.”

For all the people. That includes us!

Jesus is born as our Saviour.

Christ, the Son of God, comes into this world as one of us. He is the King of angels, but He was born with the poor and lowly and laid in a manger, in a cattle shed. In Jesus God assumes our human flesh with all its rough edges, except He was born without our sin.

Jesus lived the life we couldn’t live on our own. He died the death we deserved – all to be our Saviour. All we can do is receive this good news of great joy! Jesus is the reason angels and shepherds can be side by side. Jesus brings heaven and earth together, because in Jesus, humanity is reconciled to God.

We are reconciled to our Father, God. That’s why the angels sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests.” (verse 14).

Those God favours are those who are found in Christ, having received the good news of great joy. Sin and evil want to divide and drive apart, but God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are in the business of bringing together, bringing peace. And that is good news of great joy.

What Jesus has done, cannot be undone. And so heaven and earth continue to be joined together even this very night.

You might remember singing in the well-known carol:

‘Sing choirs of angels,

Sing in exultation,

Sing all ye citizens of heaven above,

Glory to God, in the highest…’

‘Sing choirs of angels’.

We sing these words tonight, not in some imaginary way, as if we have travelled back in time to the fields surrounding Bethlehem, We acknowledge the presence of the angels here and now because the reconciliation Jesus has brought between heaven and earth, between God and humanity, is a permanent change which still today protects us from our old shepherd-like rough edges and the dark corners of our lives.

We worship together with heaven. We glorify God together with the angels, As we gather in worship, heaven and earth are brought together all because of the Saviour who was born for us.

That’s why Sunday by Sunday we sing ‘Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased…’

And again, ‘together with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven, we adore and praise your glorious name’.

God may not give shepherds wings to fly through the air like the little Child Care Centre girl suggested, but He does transform shepherds into something close to angels. Have you ever noticed what the shepherds do at the end of the Christmas story? They return glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, which is just what the angels had been, and are doing.

The coming of Jesus our Saviour, that good news of great joy, is something which did change the shepherds. May that good news of great joy that is our Saviour’s birth for us, do its work in our lives once again this Christmas.

In the name of Jesus, Amen. 

Joseph’s predicament

The Text: Matthew 1:18-25


Today’s focus is going to be on Joseph and his part in the coming of our Lord Jesus. So let’s begin with a little Bible quiz about Joseph—just three quick questions…


  1. 1. Do you remember what Joseph’s trade was?

He was a carpenter. We think of Jesus as a carpenter, but that’s mainly because we know Joseph was a carpenter. In the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, people ask of Jesus, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?’

  1. 2. Here in today’s Gospel Reading is the first time we hear of Joseph. Do you remember the last time we hear of him in the Gospels?

It’s in the Temple twelve years after Jesus’ birth, when Mary and Joseph lost Jesus because, as Jesus says, he was in his true Father’s house. We hear of Mary right up to the crucifixion, but the last we hear of Joseph is when Jesus is twelve years old, which leads most people to guess that Joseph probably died some time after that, perhaps because he was older than Mary. But we don’t know that for sure.

  1. Now for the last quiz question. Do you remember how many things Joseph says in the Gospels?

It’s a trick question actually. The answer is…none; not one recorded word from Joseph. Joseph comes across as the ‘strong, silent’ type and we’ll return to this later in the sermon. 

For these sorts of reasons, Joseph is an intriguing and even mysterious character. But what we want to see today is that his role in God’s plan of salvation is no less significant because of it.

So, as we think more about Joseph, let’s look first at his predicament; second, at his task; and third, at his response.

First, what is Joseph’s predicament? His quandary? His dilemma? In simple terms, Joseph’s predicament is that he is pledged to be married to Mary; Mary is pregnant and the one thing Joseph knows for sure is that he is not the father. So what to do? 

If we probe a little deeper we can discover there’s actually two possible ways of reading this situation, both of which could leave Joseph in a difficult spot. The one we most commonly hear, is that Joseph assumed that Mary had been unfaithful to him. Now this may have been difficult just on the personal level. But more than that, according to the law and social custom, it would’ve created big problems for Joseph to take Mary as his wife if it was known she had been unfaithful to him. So divorce seems to be the inevitable end. The problem, then, is that this sort of thing could be punished quite severely according to the law. So Joseph is in a predicament. He is a righteous man, and comes across as a kind and merciful man. So what is he to do?

Well, he arrives at a less than ideal solution but the best he can work out—arranging the divorce, but doing it quietly and so not creating more problems for Mary. Quite a predicament! This is the most common way to read this situation, and I think is the most likely. But there is another possibility that is worth considering, which is how many in the early church understood this story.

According to the alternative understanding of this story, Mary told Joseph about the visit to her by the angel and the news that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph believed her. So he wasn’t suspicious of her, but he believed her. One of the things to remember here is that Joseph wasn’t a modern materialistic sceptic. He was a faithful, believing first century Jew who would’ve been much more open to God’s miraculous intervention than people today would be.

So if this understanding of the story is correct, then the predicament of Joseph is that he is overwhelmed by the magnitude of what is happening and what he is being called to do. He perhaps feels unworthy about caring for the holy child. So again, what to do?

Okay, divorcing Mary and running away from the situation may not be the best option. But it’s the sort of thing a lot of the prophets felt like doing when God called them into his service. So whether Joseph is suspicious of adultery, or he is overwhelmed by the presence of God’s holiness, he finds himself in a predicament.

Now let’s pause, because there’s a connection here with our lives today.  

As people of God today, as married people, as Christian families, we find ourselves in our fair share of predicaments, don’t we? And if we take our faith seriously, if we want to hear what God has to say to us and live according to his will, this doesn’t necessarily mean we have less difficult situations. In fact it can mean we have more of them.

Let me give you a very simple example, which perhaps some of you are facing right now. Let’s say Christmas lunch this year is scheduled for 12:30 at the rellies’ place. This part of the family isn’t involved in the life of the church. The problem for you is that it’s a two hour drive to their place. Church is at 9:30. So by the time we finish and get on the road you’re thinking: “Hmm, are we going to make it? Are they going to be upset if we’re late?” And so on…

Now at one level this may not sound like a big deal. But still, this small example can simply illustrate for us that our faith constantly raises these predicaments, dilemmas, and difficult situations. Many of you are facing your own particular ones right now, no doubt. In these experiences it can simply be good to remember that even the ‘holy family’ of Joseph, Mary and Jesus was not exempt. God’s interaction in their life is disruptive and confusing, at least at first.

Do you think it’s hard being late to lunch because of church? Imagine explaining that you’re late to lunch because an angel had just visited you! And in fact it gets a lot worse after this for the holy family, because they are forced to flee to Egypt to escape Herod. But notice too, that God does not leave Joseph in his predicament. God intervenes through his angel and reassures Joseph, comforts him, and assures him who this child is and where he is from. God’s enters into Joseph’s predicament.

Now we are not promised such extraordinary angelic interventions in all our difficult situations. But let us be open to God’s coming into them, to lead us through them, and to work all things for good according to his purposes.

So that is our first point: The predicament of Joseph.

Now we move onto the task of Joseph. What is Joseph actually called to do?

The reality is that biologically, Joseph was not needed. We confess from this text and from Luke’s account that we believe… ‘In Jesus Christ our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit…’ The Christian church has always confessed that the conception of Jesus was a miracle. The church confesses that the Son of God became a human being in this world not through the normal processes of a man and woman coming together, but through the power and work of the Holy Spirit in Mary. Biologically speaking, Jesus had no human father. So what is the task of Joseph?

You could say Joseph is called to be a foster-father of sorts—to adopt and care for and protect Jesus as his own. He certainly does a good job of that especially in the flight to Egypt. So Joseph is sometimes called the guardian of Jesus. Notice too that Joseph is addressed by the angel as ‘Son of David’.

So, there’s something going on here to do with the fulfilment of the covenant that God made with David—that by Joseph becoming Jesus’ legal father the rightful King will come to his throne. But connected to this in the text, we read of a very specific task Joseph is given, which is the naming of Jesus: ‘Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him… Jesus…’

Now, you’ve probably noticed that names seem to carry a lot more significance in the culture and time of the Bible than they do for us today in our culture. But even today we still often spend a lot of time thinking about what to name our children, don’t we? It’s fairly important to us. Just imagine if someone tried to restrict this freedom. Imagine if the government tried to tell people what they could and couldn’t name their children! We seem to instinctively know there’s something very important about names, and so there is a certain honour and gravity in the giving of a name.

So Joseph’s task is to name the child, not using a name of his own choosing, but with the name the Lord supplies: ‘You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

Let’s think a little about the name Joseph is to give the child. The name ‘Jesus’ comes from two Hebrew words, which together mean ‘the Lord saves’. Notice the emphasis in his name—Jesus comes to save. This is who he is; this is his work; this is his mission. He comes to save his people. He comes to save you.

Jesus does other things. He teaches, he heals, he works miracles, and so on. But everything else serves this main purpose of being the Saviour. This is no small point. Just about everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus in some way—as a great teacher, as a spiritual guru, or as a nice guy. But the only way to truly know him is as the Saviour.

The reason that it’s difficult to acknowledge him as Saviour is that it also requires realising your problem is much deeper than you think. So, for example, if all we need is a bit more information and guidance, then Jesus the teacher will do. But if our problem is that actually we are broken from the core; if our condition is terminal, then we need a Saviour. And notice what he saves from!

Many people of that time were hoping for a saviour—a saviour from the Romans, a saviour from their enemies, a saviour from all the problems out there. But the angel says he comes to save his people from their sins. Salvation is about delivering us from the problem inside of us—in our sinful hearts.

Jesus comes to save you from your sins. He does this by taking your sins on himself on the cross, and so removing their power. And he’s not only Jesus, the Saviour. He’s also Immanuel; God with us, God for us. So that’s the awesome task of Joseph—naming Jesus.

Now finally and more briefly, let’s note the response of Joseph, which is the obedience of faith. ‘When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.’

One of the striking features of both Mary and Joseph in the Christmas event is that when the angel comes with the news of Jesus’ birth and gives instructions concerning it, to use the words of the old hymn, they simply ‘trust and obey’. With Joseph it stands out even more because of what we said earlier about there being no record of anything he said. All we have is his action. Joseph hears, trusts, and does what God has called him to do. At the beginning he was in a predicament and he was unsure and unclear about what to do. He had to work it out as best he could and choose a course of action.

But with a clear word from God to him, there’s no great deliberation, no argument, and no second guessing. He simply hears, trusts, and obeys.

So what about for us?

It’s true that there are situations we find ourselves in in which it is not always easy to know what God would have us do. Things can be unclear to us, and so we are called to use our Christian wisdom to find the best course of action we can. But perhaps there are not as many of these as we think there are, and in our lives there are often situations which we make more complicated because we have trouble simply obeying the clear and simple word of God.

There’s a time for deliberation and discernment. There’s even a place for wrestling with God, and asking our questions, and pouring out our hearts’ struggles to him. But there’s also a time for simple, trusting obedience. This obedience does not put us right with God. We stand right before God by faith in Jesus Christ. But from our faith flows a joyful obedience.

So as you face predicaments in your Christian life, remember Joseph, and, as Joseph did, trust God to intervene and lead you through them. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember Joseph, the one charged with giving the child the name and all it means, Jesus, the Saviour from sin. And as you believe in Jesus, your Saviour, may a simple and joyful obedience to God’s will overflow in your life. Amen.

Jesus & John the Baptist

The Text: Matthew 11:1-12


1After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

2When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

4Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

7As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written:

“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,  who will prepare your way before you.’

11Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.


In today’s text, Matthew tells us that John is in prison. He had been arrested by Herod because John had condemned Herod’s adulterous relationship with his brother Philip’s wife. John was simply being faithful to God’s Word. John the Baptist showed his love for God by not compromising his word, and he loved Herod too―really loved him by pointing out the hard truth to him and calling him to repentance, in accordance with God’s own definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13―that love rejoices in the truth.

Okay―people don’t like to hear the truth that hurts―but being imprisoned for speaking it? It wasn’t meant to turn out like this for John, was it? Maybe that’s the reason for John’s question of Jesus: “Are you the one to come, or should we wait for another?” The reason behind John’s question has resulted in quite a deal of debate and uncertainty among scholars for a long time. Was John doubting that Jesus was really the Christ? After all, John has faithfully prepared the way for him. Yet instead of the situation getting better it has only become worse. John had proclaimed that the Christ would come to bring judgment on evil―and now languishing in prison as a victim of injustice perhaps that is what John is longing for Jesus to do for him.

Or perhaps John was uncertain or confused because his proclamation was of a Messiah coming to bring judgment. He had heard in prison of the works Christ was doing―but where was the swinging of the axe that had gone below stump level and was already at the roots? The only works John had heard were those of forgiveness, healing, and mercy―would another follow Jesus, who would perform these works of judgment?

Or could it be that John’s question is not one of doubt, but really a question of trust―expecting confirmation and verification for what he already knows? The fact that John sends a delegation to Jesus with his question and awaits an answer from him proves his faith in Jesus. I’m not so sure it need be an either/or answer. Could it not be all of these thoughts are running through John’s mind while he waited and waited in prison?

It seems like we wait and wait too. Come Lord Jesus we pray. We don’t like waiting, especially in today’s society. But today’s text doesn’t just leave us with the questions. Jesus gives his own response. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say: “Yes, go and reassure John that I’m the Messiah.” But Jesus says: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.” This is the best assurance possible, for what Jesus says is the direct fulfilment of what God promised through Isaiah in today’s Old Testament reading. Jesus is the fulfilment of what has been promised from of old. He has been doing precisely these things since the beginning of his public ministry. He has preached in the synagogues. He has cast out demons. He has healed many from their sicknesses including a lame man and a blind man. The miracles point to his authority and power over all things, even to release people from their sin and the kingdom of darkness, and to be victorious over the power of death itself. It’s no wonder Jesus tells them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”

Perhaps at some point or other we can all relate to John the Baptist as he waited in prison. Just like John, everything we might expect or hope for from God is not always fulfilled in the way we’d like, or with the timing we’d like. Maybe it’s an illness that we or a loved one suffer, or the troubles of our family. Maybe it’s a time of difficulty we’re going through, or maybe it’s wondering about an uncertain future. We might feel trapped and isolated with burdens nobody else could understand. We might feel imprisoned by our frail bodies or our own sinful human natures.

Yet the season of Advent focuses our attention on God who did not abandon his creation but stepped into it in the person of Christ and was born in that stable at Bethlehem. However if Advent were just a reminder of what had happened in salvation history then it becomes emptied of so much hope and power. Neither is Advent only about hoping Christ will come again one day. In The freedom of a Christian, Luther says

“…it is not enough…to preach about Christ just by telling what he did and said, simply as a story or as historical facts. Just knowing these things doesn’t necessarily make any difference to how a person lives.

Instead, Christ ought to be preached about in such a way that faith in him is kindled and kept burning, so that he is not only Christ, but Christ for you and me; so that what we are told he is and does takes effect in us. Such faith is produced and grows in us when we are told why Christ came, what he has brought and given us, and what good things we have when we have him.”

Together with our remembering and hoping, this is why the season of Advent is so special. Jesus came for us. He was born, truly human, for us. Born there in a stable surrounded by dirt and animals and their waste, Jesus came to us to know what it means to be a person and live in vulnerability and weakness and brokenness. He overcame temptation for us and lived perfectly for us. He came to rescue us and bring us true freedom by calling us into God’s Kingdom.

No one knows when he will come again but he tells us where he comes now with his re-creative power at work. He tells us where he comes in the midst the suffering of this world to bring the Good News to the blind, the lame, the sick, and the poor. Through the Holy Scriptures he continues to teach us, just like he taught his disciples in verse 1. He raised us from the dead and brought us his new life and resurrection power in baptism. He continues to bring freedom and release through the holy meal he serves his people which is not just bread and wine but his own flesh and blood. As he ministers to us through these ways, he calls us to wait―and to wait with him. As we do wait for his return we can rejoice that he will never leave us. As we wait with our Advent King and gather around him to be served by him, we proclaim to the world that he has trampled over death and lives today, and that he uses his authority to bless unworthy sinners with the abundant grace of God, so that there is hope and strength, joy and refuge in even the darkest places of human experience.

Blessed are those who do not take offence at Jesus’ words! For those who cherish Jesus’ words rather than taking offence at them can only do so because they have first been blessed by God. And those who have been blessed by God so that they do not take offence at the words of his Son—but hold firmly to them in faith—will see John the Baptist and all the other saints of all times and places, as we gather around the throne of the Lamb in heaven.


Prepare the way for the Lord

Matthew 3:1-12


In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe 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.

 “I baptize you with water. 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.”

Repentance―it’s a key theme of advent and clearly a focus of today’s Gospel reading. “Repent.” That word is the opening word spoken in today’s text. It’s not even softened with a sugar-coated preface. Human ears don’t like that word. It’s a word frowned upon and laughed at by society. It’s an idea that society says oozes with irresponsibility because it gets in the way of personal freedom in deciding and claiming for ourselves what we think is our right to have. Society protests: “How dare anyone else try to snuff out my right to have whatever I want, whenever I want it and tell me what I should and shouldn’t be doing!”

Even in the church it’s a word that grates and cuts against the grain of our human nature. “Outdated!” “Not progressive!” “Unloving!” “An impediment to mission!” we might argue. Or, those of us who call the church to take a stand against immorality might be heartened when we hear the word ‘repent’―until we realise that word is spoken to the unacceptable things we think or say or do ourselves. Then we quickly get to work at building the self-justification fortress: “Repent!?! Me?! We’re not that bad!!” our old self protests. “OK, we’re not perfect, but we’re pretty good.”

John the Baptist didn’t come to tell people everything was ‘OK’. “Repent!” he calls. What an unusual sight he must have been, eating locusts and wearing garments made of camel’s hair, the food and attire of the very poor. As he stood there in the wilderness, the hot, uninhabited gorge through which the Jordan flows―itself symbolic of the spiritual wasteland of the people’s hearts, devoid of any love for God―John drew people into a place where they were without the luxury, comforts, and security of their normal daily routine, to reflect on what they had prioritised in their life and how their priorities were at odds with God’s.

John saves the strictest rebuke for the Pharisees and Sadducees, very different religious sects in Israel, but with a common problem―they are assuming that because they were born into the covenant people Israel, they will be saved from the wrath to come simply because of their ancestry. Yet their hearts are far from God. They had all the external marks of religious respectability―and that is what they are trusting in. They have the false confidence that they have Abraham as their father and so have an automatic right to heaven. But they did not bring forth the fruit of genuine repentance and humility before God. John calls them to repent. He warns them the axe has gone far below the stump of the trees; it is already at the roots. Not so much as a twig will remain―God’s judgment is that they will be completely removed from the privileges he has given them.

Why does John make this call to repentance? Because the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Through the ages there have been so many predictions about how near the Kingdom of Heaven really is―even though Jesus teaches us that no-one knows the day or hour. “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near”―those words can be hard for us to hear for other reasons―just how near is God’s Kingdom, given that these words were spoken some 2,000 years ago? How then can we be firm in hope that God’s Kingdom is near? Is it an empty promise?

Although we don’t know when God’s Kingdom will come again, we can know where it comes now. A kingdom is where ever its King rules over his subjects. In his explanation to the petition “Thy Kingdom come”, Luther explains in the Small Catechism: “God’s Kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us. God’s Kingdom comes when our Heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy word and live a godly life on earth now, and in heaven forever.”

With this understanding of the kingdom, it might be easier to see what the Baptist means when he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” The Kingdom is near―close by―in Christ, the King of heaven, who came all the way from heaven down to earth, born in a stable at Bethlehem to be God with us. In him the kingdom has drawn close by to us, and indeed is in us, as Christ rules over our hearts and uses his authority and power to serve sinners and bless them with his grace and bring, love, forgiveness and joy. John was the one that Isaiah had spoken of in Isaiah 40:3-4:

A voice of one calling in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,  the rugged places a plain.

Isaiah says that mountains and hills are to be levelled and valleys raised up. The hills and valleys are symbolic of the sin in the human heart that separates people from God. Just as levelling mountains and raising valleys is a task beyond human ability, so too is making a way through sin to fellowship with God. It is a task that is utterly beyond human power. Only God is able to construct a way through such obstacles. He must prepare a highway to come to his people and deliver them. That is what Jesus does for us. Notice that our reading does not say: “Make a straight path so we can travel to him.” It says “Make a straight path for him to travel”. God has made the roadway and travelled it first in the person of Christ. He has come near to us.

He made the way straight for you in your baptism, where the rough ways and mountains and valleys in your heart were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work through God’s word. Christ came to you and washed you clean at the font and joined you to his own death and resurrection. You were born again from above and the Holy Spirit created faith in your heart, calling you to Christ through the Gospel—even if you were asleep and blissfully unaware of what was taking place, and even if you cried and squirmed and protested.

Since the Kingdom is so near in Christ who reaches out with God’s grace, it is only appropriate that all people should long to receive this Kingdom and turn to Christ with their sins for him to free them from them. John the Baptist’s call to repentance is for our ears too. It is not just to escape judgment but to receive grace. For us the call to repentance is because, though Christ will come again, he is also already here. The freeway has been opened! In the person of Christ, the Kingdom of heaven is near, again, today. He has already spoken his absolution to you this morning. He has come with good news for you through the words of Scripture. He serves you this gospel as a holy meal that he hosts―his true body and precious blood. As he hands it to you he says: “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

The Kingdom of Heaven is near. It is 2000 years closer than when John first spoke these words in the Judean wilderness. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as we, the church, live in the wilderness of this age―the wilderness of western materialism, spiritual supermarkets, and spiritual wasteland of living for the self. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as we live in a consumer age that looks to filling the valleys of loneliness and the potholes of anxiety with things that promise hope but can’t give lasting peace. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as you live in a society with all its ethical and moral upheaval that has so many different ideas about what walking the straight path looks like, depending on opinion and trends. The Kingdom of Heaven is near to you as the church lives in a world that doesn’t want to hear the call of John the Baptist and in some parts would do anything to drown it out.

In days like this many of us might groan and wonder “Lord, how long? How near is your return?”

Rejoice that the Kingdom of Heaven is near to you, because you have the Christ. When we hear John’s words: “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is near” we don’t know when that is…but we do know where. Thinking of the Kingdom of Heaven being found close by is actually of far more help to you than speculative dates of Jesus’ return. For when you look for the Kingdom of Heaven close by in worship; in God’s word and sacraments and in devotional time in the word of God each day, there Christ meets you with all the treasures of his grace, forgiveness, life and salvation for you. Looking for him there with repentant hearts and open hands waiting to receive is the best way to prepare for Christmas and your Saviour’s coming again―when he will take you to be with all the other saints of all times and places and serve you in the heavenly banquet that has no end.