Luke 3:3-17 (Second Sunday in Advent—Series C)
“The Forerunner’s Zeal”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 9, 2018
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the Gospel lesson for today recorded in Luke 3:
3And [John the son of Zechariah] came into all the region around the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it stands written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: A voice of one calling in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. 5Every ravine will be filled and every mountain and hill will be made low, and the crooked will be made straight, and the rough places into a smooth road. 6And all flesh will see the salvation of God. 7Therefore, he said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who pointed out to you to flee from the wrath about to come? 8Therefore produce fruits worthy of repentance and don’t even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds began to ask him saying, “What, therefore, should we do?” 11He answered and said to them, “Let the one who has two tunics share with the one who has none. And the one who has food, do likewise.” 12And tax collectors also came to be baptized and they said to him,” Teacher, what should we do?” 13And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are instructed.” 14Now soldiers also asked him saying, “And we, what should we do?” And he said to them, “You should not extort money from anyone by violence, neither should you accuse falsely. And be content with your wages.” 15As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, 16John 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. 17His 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.”
I’d like to begin this morning by having you turn in the hymnal to hymn number 346, “When All the World Was Cursed.” It is one of the Distribution Hymns today. Let us read together stanza 1 of hymn 346:
When all the world was cursed / By Moses’ condemnation,
Saint John the Baptist came / With words of consolation.
With true forerunner’s zeal / The greater One he named,
And Him, as yet unknown, / As Savior he proclaimed.
The line that always stands out to me in this hymn is the first half of line four: With true forerunner’s zeal. John, the Son of Zechariah, had zeal. But what is that? According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, zeal is “eagerness and ardent interest in pursuit of something.” Zeal is passion and intensity. And that’s how I picture John—wearing his garment of camel’s hair held in place with a leather belt, unkempt hair and beard, eyes wide and bright and full of expression; excitement and urgency in his powerful voice. John is the God-appointed forerunner of the promised Messiah-King. His father, Zechariah, had prophesied at his birth as he sang in Luke 1 what we call the Benedictus, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1:76-77 ESV). The Lord Himself, the Messiah, would be coming on the scene shortly and His ministry would begin and John’s would come to end in Herod’s prison. So time is short. The urgency is great. John’s zeal for his task doesn’t wane but is full of intensity.
“Brood of vipers! Who pointed out to you to flee from the wrath about to come? Therefore produce fruits worthy of repentance and don’t even begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I say to you that God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore, every tree that does not produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
I wonder how it would go over with you if I began preaching in this way, calling you a brood of vipers! I bet you’d take notice if I passionately called you a bunch of snakes, children of Satan! That is to what John’s phrase refers, that the crowds, which included the Pharisees and Sadducees, were descendants of that ancient serpent, the devil or Satan. “Who pointed out to you to flee from the wrath about to come?” Lost and condemned in their sins, they are all destined for God’s wrath and punishment against sin, and being children of Abraham wouldn’t be of any value to them if they did not submit to John’s baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior.
To preach the Word of God’s Law takes zeal. John’s passion for his ministry of the Word did not shrink back from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. “The axe is laid to the root of the trees,” John announced. This is God’s axe. The people are the trees. John announces with true forerunner’s zeal that God’s wrath is beginning to be poured out already in his own ministry. The wrath of the Lord will then reach its climax with the death of Jesus as the full wrath and displeasure of God against sin will be poured upon Jesus at the cross.
Now, we don’t like to hear about God’s wrath. However, the truth of God’s Word is that God is angry at our sins and failures to follow and to keep His commandments. St. Paul writes in Romans 1, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18 ESV). We are reminded of this in the
Media vita spoken or sung as part of the committal service for Christian burial, “In the midst of life we are in death; from whom can we seek help? From You alone, O Lord, who by our sins are justly angered. Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death.” A stark reminder that our sins lead to death under the wrath of God’s just punishment.
Truly, then, John would have called us a brood of vipers, for we too are children of the devil, held captive under his kingdom by our sins of thought, word, and deed. As children of Adam and Eve, we desire to be like God. We seek after fame and fortune. We desire the praise of others. We covet pomp, power, prestige, and possessions. We believe ourselves to be above all others. We are often people full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. We are at times gossipers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant, and boastful. We admit that we are senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless at times. A brood of vipers, indeed, who believe the lies of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh! With true forerunner’s zeal, John must also proclaim to us God’s Word of condemning Law.
During this Season of Advent, you and I must also hear the call of the Baptizer proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. For you and I have received, not John’s baptism, but the Baptism of water and the Word of Christ who has baptized us with the Holy Spirit and fire. The grace of God has washed away our sins, cleansing us by the very blood of Jesus which He shed on the cross as He endured God’s just wrath and anger in our place. Jesus Himself has been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. He has undergone this baptism as the substitute for all people. He endured the fire of God’s wrath on the cross, purchasing the forgiveness of our sins and the new life of repentance and faith which we received in our baptisms. In Holy Baptism, Jesus has cleansed us with the Holy Spirit and fire as we are united to Christ’s baptism, death, and resurrection. The forgiveness of sins now is ours. New life in Christ is ours. With zeal, the Gospel proclaims these gifts of forgiveness and life to be ours through saving faith in Jesus the Christ.
So what now? What happens next? By the hearing of the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection which has gifted to us the forgiveness of sins and the new life of repentance and faith, we are turned from our sins to live in the power of the Gospel with the zeal and passion for the Word and commandments of God. We are able, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to produce fruits compatible with the new life of repentance and faith we have been given by Jesus.
The crowds asked John, “What should we do?” His answer, “Share what you have been given by the Lord with others. Show love and mercy.” The tax collectors asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “Don’t lie and cheat others. Love them. Be honest with them. Take care of them.” Soldiers asked the Baptizer, “And we, what should we do?” Answer: “Don’t extort money from others with violence. Don’t falsely accuse. Be content.” In other words, be merciful as the heavenly Father is merciful to you (Luke 6:36). Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. Show that love with zeal and passion as you do acts of mercy for “the least of these.” And showing mercy certainly includes announcing with zeal the message of Jesus Christ, the Messiah-Savior, who has come to bring repentance and the forgiveness of sins to the world. As John the Baptist proclaimed with zeal, so do you and I:
Behold the Lamb of God / That bears the world’s transgression,
Whose sacrifice removes / The devil’s dread oppression.
Behold the Lamb of God, / Who takes away our sin,
Who for our peace and joy / Will full atonement win.
The message of Advent leads us to the manger, which leads us to the cross and empty tomb. With true forerunner’s zeal, John pointed to Jesus, the Messiah, the very Lamb of God who takes away our sins. With that very faith and trust in Jesus, we bear the fruits of repentance by the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. We show love and mercy as with zeal we announce the Good News that Jesus, the Savior, is come for all people. Let us then pray during this season of repentance and faith:
O grant, dear Lord of love, / That we receive, rejoicing,
The word proclaimed by John, / Our true repentance voicing,
That gladly we may walk / Upon our Savior’s way
Until we live with Him / In His eternal day.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Text: Stanza 1, © 1941 Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License no. 110000752.
 Text: Stanza 3, © 1941 Concordia Publishing House. Used by permission: LSB Hymn License no. 110000752.
 Ibid. stanza 4.