Preaching Fire and Comfort

Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent based on Matthew 3:1-12

Dear hearers of the Word: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We tend to think of John the Baptist as a fire and brimstone kind of preacher; tough-as-nails, not backing down from anyone, even calling Herod the king to repentance at the cost of his head.

Certainly, today’s Gospel reading has much to do with this view of John as a fiery preacher. People are coming to him to be baptized, but instead of baptizing them, he says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John continues and tells them that it is of no value for them to be part of God’s people when they do not bear fruit in keeping with repentance. “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown in to the fire.” John threatens these people who are coming to be baptized with the fires of hell. No wonder we might consider him a fiery preacher.

That’s not what the prophet Isaiah calls John. Isaiah calls John a preacher of comfort. Isaiah writes of John, the voice crying in the wilderness, as a comforter of God’s people, speaking tenderly to them that their warfare is ended, and their iniquity pardoned (Is. 40:1-3).

So, is Isaiah wrong? Or did John the Baptist not preach what he was supposed to preach? Or is there a problem with God or in His Word? Where is the problem?

The problem is with the impenitent sinners who went to John for baptism, and the problem is with us. The Law of God cuts us to the heart because our hearts are filled with sin. The Law of God hurts when it is preached because it exposes our thoughts, words, and deeds for what they really are: wickedness. The Law of God hurts because it reveals the desires of our hearts to be opposed to God and His will. Those things to which we cling in this life are shown to be idols but our sinful flesh doesn’t want to give them up, so the Law stings.

The Law is not the problem. The Law is holy, and righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). The Law shows us what is already there.

John’s preaching didn’t make the Pharisees and Sadducees into sinners. The Law that John preached exposed their impenitence. John’s preaching proved that they were not coming to be baptized in order to flee the wrath to come. They were coming to be baptized for show. They had no intention of repenting and turning away from their sins. They had no intention of bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. Whatever their sins were, they had every intention of returning right back to their sins after receiving John’s baptism of repentance. That’s why John calls them out. That’s why John calls them a brood of vipers, but the problem is not with John.

John is simply acting like a physician with a diagnosis. You may not like the diagnosis of the doctor, but it’s not his fault that you’re sick. He just happens to be the bearer of the news. He’s not the one who decides that you are sick, nor is he the one who decides what kind of illness you have. He merely examines the patient and analyses the illness that is already present, and provides the diagnosis.

So also, the Law of God that we hear preached does not make us into sinners. We are already sinners. Every selfish thing we do is sin, but it takes the Law to reveal those things as being selfish. Every careless word we say is sin, but it takes the Law to show us that such words deserve God’s punishment. Every covetous or jealous thought is sin because it is against God’s will, but it takes the Law to expose our sinful thoughts as deserving to be cut down and thrown into the fire.

However, the Law is not preached with the purpose of sending the hearer to hell. The Law is preached to give the diagnosis, so that we would receive the medicine that we need. That medicine is comfort.

Unlike our medical doctors who may not have the medicine that will bring us back to health and save us, the Gospel is always the medicine that saves us. It doesn’t matter what specific sins have ailed us. It doesn’t matter how long we have suffered from their effects. Even if we have taken the medicine for granted for so long, it is here for us today.

Jesus comes to us with healing. He comes to us with forgiveness. He does this because He is the one who suffered all our diseases of sin and died for them. He is the one to whom the axe was applied. Jesus was cut off out of the land of the living for our offences. He suffered the wrath of God for our sin so that we will receive the medicine of immortality and live forever. Jesus gives us His own body and blood to eat and drink which is that medicine of immortality, which cures us of all our sins that ail us.

So, John’s fiery preaching wasn’t really bad news. The Law he preached sounded bad because it told them they were dying; that they need his medicine. But it didn’t change things. The Law just exposed them for what they were. They were dying whether they knew it or not or believed it or not. John called for them to realize their condition and receive the medicine he offered to them, with the warning that if they would not receive the medicine they would be cut down and thrown into the fire; that they would die eternally in hell. The goal of John’s preaching was to comfort the hearer with the medicine they desperately needed.

So also, the Law is not bad news for you. The Law sounds bad because it exposes your sins and what you deserve because of them. But the Law really just tells you that you need medicine. Jesus gives His medicine to you freely, without cost. He has paid the price and He give it to you freely.

You can try to fake comfort by saying that you’re not sick when you really are, but that’s not true comfort. True comfort is knowing the truth of your heart’s condition, yet knowing that Jesus Christ, the great physician, gives you healing, which gives you eternal life. True comfort is knowing that you are baptized into Christ and are covered with His righteousness. True comfort is receiving the Sacrament of the Altar which takes your sins away and heals you eternally.

Do not hear the preaching of the Law as bad news. Hear the preaching of the Law as God’s diagnosis of your sin, and receive the medicine of immortality that gives you comfort and brings you to eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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