The voice of one crying out in the desert rings out, “You brood of vipers. Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist does not gently tell us to try to do a little better. He doesn’t offer constructive criticism; he’s not welcoming and accepting; he’s not a helpful part of any dialogue. Instead John is a theologian of the cross. He calls a thing what it is. He calls sin “sin” and doesn’t hold back.
We all know that we are sinners. Every religion and belief system has a notion of sin. But usually we are very confused about this. We tend to think of sin as imperfection. We think we do our best, but just fall a little short of the standard. But John preaches the truth. We are a brood of vipers. We are warriors in a great struggle with God for supremacy. God has revealed to us that true life comes from trusting fully and completely in him to provide us with all things. But we would rather be God; we would rather trust ourselves. And so God has given us commandments for how to live well on earth, but we trust our own schemes for achieving the good life; we trust our own sin.
Our sin, of course, does not exclude having some religion, or even repenting. John is cursing particular people who have come to him to repent. But John senses that these men have what Martin Luther called “gallows repentance.” They see the punishment for their sin coming over the horizon and fear it. So they come to be baptized by John to avoid it. So even their repentance is sin. Their repentance is one last rebellion against God, one last attempt to save their own skin. Moreover, it is their attempt to avoid true repentance and stay safe and secure just the way they are.
So John cries out, “Produce fruit worthy of repentance.” If you truly repent of your sin, you do not do it to save your own skin, but you repent because you love God. So you fear and love God and care not only for your own skin, but for your neighbors. Loving your neighbors, your friends and your enemies, that is the fruit worthy of repentance.
Ultimately caring for our neighbors is always a matter of alleviating poverty. Whether it is poverty of companionship and friendship, poverty of health, poverty of days left in this life or lack of money. Love is always attacking poverty.
God’s law demands that we care for our neighbors. The fifth commandment is “You shall not kill.” Our Catechism asks what this means for us: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbor in any way, but help him in all his physical needs.”
If we really repent of our sin, if we are really sorry for it we will obey the fifth commandment and help those who are poorest. When we repent of or sins we realize that we are beggars. We have nothing to offer God except our sin. We must rely totally and completely on his mercy. In such a circumstance, how can we neglect to care for others in need of mercy? How can we claim to repent of our sin and desire God’s mercy, while not having mercy on those around us?
So God’s law is clear. Repent, and produce the fruits of repentance. Do the works that the truly repentant do. This in a way is good news to those who need mercy. This is good news to the poor, that God demands we help them.
However, the law in insufficient in its help of the poor. In whose hands does the law place the poor? In the hands of sinners. As Paul said [Romans 8:3], the law has been weakened by the flesh, namely our sinful flesh. The law speaks for the poor, but it leaves them in our sinful hands.
The law commands us to help those in need, but how many times have we already failed them? How many times throughout scripture did prophets rage against the people, telling them to care for the widow and the orphan? Is John the Baptist, the last prophet of the law, crying out in the wilderness, “Produce fruit worthy of repentance,” is he finally going to get people to start behaving themselves? Is this sermon today, is my preaching of the law finally going to revolutionize the world and start a movement that finally gets the rich and the powerful to start doing what they should for the poor and the weak?
Unfortunately the answer to those questions is simply “no.” “The law says ‘Do this,’ and nothing is ever done (Luther, Heidelberg Disputation).” The language of the law is the language of scarcity. Sure one or two people here or there might hear the law and bear fruit worthy of repentance, but sin is strong and shows no signs of letting up. Even the alleged “dictatorship of the proletariat” lead to just one more society of powerful and weak, rich and poor.
Today our nation finds itself in big trouble because of greed. Housing prices were soaring, so rich lenders wanted to give out as many loans and make as much money as possible. Now the whole system has blown up and the poor are losing their houses. Not that the poor are without sin, not even in this situation. Being poor does not prevent you from being greedy and trying to get deals that were too good to be true.
Furthermore, even on those rare occasions when the law works like it should poor people are hardly dancing in the streets. In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, we’re told that Lazarus longed merely to eat the food, “that fell from the rich man’s table.” Eating other people’s crumbs is hardly abundant life. The poor Israelites in the wilderness eating their daily gift of manna from the sky must have reflected on how far they were from the land of milk and honey.
But, as I said, John the Baptist was the last prophet of the law. Preaching repentance and obedience to the law was his proper office, but he also had an alien office. John also pointed beyond himself, beyond the law. John said, 11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”
The one who came after John is Jesus. He preached the law at times, but his proper office was to preach the gospel and to be the gospel. He healed the sick, he healed beggars. But even Jesus’ own healings were a scare trickle in comparison to the poverty and suffering that fills the world. He said so himself using historical precedent: [Luke 4] “the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
But Jesus ended the trickle of help for the weak and the poor with a ragging torrent of blessing: [Luke 6] “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” [Matthew 5]3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Christ brought overflowing blessings to the poor and the weak. He brings life so abundant that it’s eternal. Christ is the one the prophet Isaiah wrote about, “with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Christ has come to give righteousness to the poor, equity for the meek. It makes sense that these are eternal and not worldly gifts. Lions laying down with lambs, these things do not happen in this age. They point to Christ’s kingdom that is not of this world.
Christ is the answer to David’s prayer, “2May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.3May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness.4May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.5May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.6May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.7In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more.8May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” “12For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.13He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.14From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.” All these things were written so that we might have hope in the Christ to come (Romans 15:4). Once again in Psalm 72 we hear that Christ’s kingdom is an eternal kingdom (v.5-7).
I quote these passages at length because I cannot equal their beautiful language. Perhaps as Christians we’ve gotten too used to these passages or we expect language like this in the bible, but they are of course true, and shockingly true when compared to the reality that surrounds us.
However, Christ did not fulfill these words of the Old Testament in a straight-forward way. He did not come with a mighty army slashing away at the oppressors. He did not end the reign of sinful rulers with shock and awe. Instead Christ entered into poverty. He had no place to lay his head. He suffered under the hands of the religious leaders, who claimed to teach God’s law while neglecting the poor. He died under the command of a rich government official. So Christ blessed the poor in a strange way.
No doubt we would have preferred that he provide money for everyone instead of eternal life. We would have been happier if he had been like Robinhood or if he had established a kingdom of justice for the poor on earth for everyone to see. We would have preferred that he heal all the sick and the weak. In fact when Jesus reminded the Nazarenes that he had not come into the world to heal them all by reminding them that Elijah only helped one widow and Elisha only healed one leper, what happened? [Luke 4] “28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
The crowd didn’t kill Jesus that day, but we did another day. Sure the rich rulers were opposed to Jesus. Rich Pilate was to afraid to do the right thing, but the crowd of common poor people also chanted, “crucify, crucify.” We wanted Christ to fulfill the words of Isaiah and David exactly as we had expected. Instead Christ fulfilled these promises through his death and resurrection. And when his death and resurrection enter us through the ears as a living word, they kill us and raise us to new life. This story of Christ’s mercy on his cross is precisely the striking down of the wicked and the oppressor that Isaiah and David promised. Christ crucifies us with his words of mercy because we are the wicked oppressors, because our dreams for a kingdom of God on earth lead us to crush Christ. But this death he brings us through faith in his words is the only death that leads to resurrection. Faith alone in Christ alone makes us sons and daughters of Abraham (Matthew 3).
So we do not get the justice we wanted in this world. But justice is a matter of getting what you have coming to you. What do the poor have coming to them? What do we poor people who live under the oppression of our own sin, of death, of scrapping out a living day after day, what do we have coming to us? 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”
Some people will always hate us because of Christ. Some will always view the gospel of the forgiveness of sins as merely an excuse for not doing more to create justice in this world. Some will always see our looking ahead to the kingdom of God as an excuse for the suffering in this world. Like Christ before Pilate, we finally can’t defend ourselves against these accusations. We must let our enemies stumble over the stumbling stone that is Christ’s cross. Then when you’re down on the ground, when you actually are poor, when you have no righteousness of your own to brag to the world about, no righteousness to show the world for it to see with its eyes, then when you’ve stumbled over the stumbling stone, you’re ready for faith, ready for the words of eternal life to enter in.
And what has Christ to say to such poor people? 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Luke] 4Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” And when people curse you for the gospel’s sake? [Matthew] 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven.”
So perhaps now we should step back. You, who already have overflowing eternal life in faith, you will quickly realize that you are not yet in the kingdom. Lions and lambs aren’t lying down yet. The poor do not appear to be the most blessed of all people. So what are we to do? Should we think that the gospel isn’t really real? Should we turn back to the law in an effort to start making some things happen?
You who have abundant life in faith now have your time on earth as a bonus. Every day is a free gift. So what else is there to do but care for the poor and the needy? What else do we have to do with our time? Unlike the Sadducees and Pharisees we read about in Matthew 3, we are not trying to prove our righteousness to God through our obedience to the law. We have God’s own righteousness in Christ by faith. So we are free to care for all those around us who need our help and service. As Luther said in his essay, “The Freedom of a Christian,” we need no law to guide us, no Ten Commandments to order us what to do, because the Christian writes her own Ten Commandments. Before someone asks for her help, the Christian is already helping.
So I can’t turn you back to the law today like John the Baptist. I can’t leave you with the demand that you produce fruit worthy of repentance. Because the one to come, the one whose sandals John was not fit to carry, Jesus Christ has already come and he has changed everything. You have not produced the proper fruit and served others as you should, but Christ has forgiven this sin and made you righteous through his gospel. “(Romans 8:3) For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin.” Now go in peace and freedom.