Third Sunday in Advent
December 11, 2016
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
The straightest road I can remember driving on is State Highway 36 in Illinois. On the east side of Decatur it turns into a stretch of straight, flat highway that does make a single zig or zag until you’re well into Indiana. You don’t have to wait for Google’s self-driving cars on this road; all you have to do is set the cruise control and if your car is in proper alignment, you have instant auto-pilot.
On the other side of the spectrum is this past summer’s youth trip to Colorado. Twice we drove up into the mountains (once at Colorado Springs, and another into Rocky Mountain National Park). This is not the place to get drowsy while driving. It’s an almost constant up, down, back, and forth. If not for the aid of the internal combustion engine, it would be a hard trip indeed. Perhaps impossible.
The way of the Lord is not by nature a straight way. Isaiah prophesies that there would be a preacher crying in the wilderness, “Prepare a way for the LORD: make a straight highway in the desert for our God. Every valley must be raised; every mountain and hill be lowered. The steep places must be made level; the impassable ridges be made a plain.” (v 3). This is the voice of John, the one who baptizes in the wilderness. And his message is what makes the way straight for the Lord, who follows him.
The Message of Repentance Lowers Mountains and Raises Valleys and Makes Crooked Right
Whether a person is particularly religious or not, human nature’s inmost desire is to justify itself before God, the universe, and everything. And the only way that a person can justify himself is by heaping up more and better works. This is the project of every religious or moral system in the world. But when such a system or conviction comes into contact with God’s Word, it cannot stand. Because God’s holy Law will not let it stand. The Word of Law brings the high low.
The message of John the Baptist is, “Repent.” In those days John the Baptists arrived, preaching in the Judean wilderness and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is near.” For this is what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, saying, “A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; makes his paths straight’” (Mt 3:1-3). The Evangelist becomes the interpreter of the Prophet; the preparation of the way in the wilderness is repentance.
Repentance has two parts. It begins with contrition. Contrition is knowledge of and sorrow for sins. Our Lutheran Confessions define this as “terrors striking the conscience through knowledge of sin” (AC XII.4). There is a natural knowledge of sin, but it is severely limited. The conscience is aware that some things are out of bounds. This is what Scripture means when it says that the Law is written on our hearts. But it’s an incomplete knowledge. What shall we say, then? The Law is sin? Let it not be so. But I did not know sin except through the Law, for I did not know what coveting was except the Law said, “You shall not covet” (Rom 7:7).
The Law doesn’t just point out the things that everyone already knows are sins. “You shall not murder” is not exactly a ground-breaking divine revelation; any civilized society has that law whether or not they have God’s Word. But you don’t by nature know that anger and insults are also murder. It takes a special revelation of God’s Word to show that the desire to sin—the secret sins of the heart—are as much sin as committing the act. It’s no accident that St. Paul chose the Law against coveting as his example, because coveting begins in the heart.
So through the Law comes knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20b). But knowledge doesn’t equate to terrors. When was the last time you were shaking in your boots on account of your sins? When was the last time you actually feared that you would be crushed under the hammer of God’s wrath on account of your sins? It probably wasn’t this morning before confession. I didn’t hear any wailing or see any tears flowing. Perhaps I should just rescind that absolution until you all get your contrition right.
Maybe you have felt that terror of conscience at a time in your life. But the measure of contrition isn’t emotional. It’s the knowledge of sin, the recognition that the heaps of works you’ve produced thus far in your life are rotting with your sin. That’s where repentance begins. It’s a change of thinking about your best and greatest works—that they cannot even begin make the way straight for the Lord. They must be broken down.
But being puffed up with pride, sitting on a mountain of your own works and spiritual ambitions isn’t the only problem people face. Sometimes those mountains come crashing down in spectacular ways, and you’re left in the rubble of despair. Sometimes you’re stuck in valley. Actually, more like falling into a well that you have no possible way of climbing out of. But there is another Word God brings. It’s not a contradictory Word, but a complimentary Word. Gods’ Word of Gospel brings the low high.
If God’s Word were only about knowledge of sin, it would be a very poor religion indeed—one you would do well to flee from. But contrition, knowledge of sin, and despair is not the end of the Law. This is the penultimate goal; the knowledge of sin is a means to an end.
Again, St. Paul: Brothers, the good pleasure of my heart and prayer to God on their behalf is for salvation. For I bear witness that they have a zeal for God, but not recognition. For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to the righteousness of God. For the end of the Law is Christ for righteousness to all who believe (Rom 10:1-4). St. Paul is speaking of the Jews who continue to practice the works of the Law, but do not believe that Jesus has fulfilled it and is the Righteousness we lack. But he could have just as easily been writing about us.
The second part of repentance—the completion of repentance—is faith. But not just faith in general. Faith in Christ. Faith in the forgiveness of sins won by Him. This faith is born out of the Absolution. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He forgave us without us needing to make any movement toward Him. Repentance that lacks faith is no repentance at all.
To say that Christ is the end of the Law doesn’t mean that the Law ends, or that it ceases to be. The Word of the Lord endures forever, and that includes His Law. What it means is that Christ is the goal of the Law. You cannot travel on the way of the Law any further than Christ. Moral improvement may result from the preaching of the Law (its tertiary use is to guide us in the way of righteousness, although its only power is to bring mountains low, never to raise up from valleys of despair—that’s what forgiveness is for). But moral improvement is something that happens on the way to Christ and the Gospel, which is the fulfillment, completion, and goal of the Law. There is no righteousness to be sought that is beyond the righteousness of Christ.
Faith is the completion of repentance. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4). Jesus’s first sermon after His baptism is, Repent and believe the Gospel (Mk 1:15). Jesus sends His apostles, that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem (Lk 24:47).
This is how the straight highway is made for the Lord. Repentance. Knowledge and sorrow for sin. Faith in forgiveness. Then follows the reign of the heavens. This is the purpose of John’s preaching that continues to go forth in the Church. “Comfort My people, comfort them” says your God. “Talk to the heart of Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of hard service is over, her wrong is paid for, and she has received from the LORD double for all her sins” (vv 1-2).
The message of comfort is a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. You, the people of God and the new Jerusalem, receive double for all your sins. Not double the punishment. Double the grace. That is to say that the grace of God will never run out. His righteousness endures forever. His Word endures forever. Crushing mountains and raising valleys.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard