Christmas is another week closer and, guess what, things are still not as they should be. They are not the rest of the year, either, but this month it stands out more than usual. We could blame the syrupy holiday playlist or our romanticized recollections of Christmas celebrations past. Whatever the reason, it is clear things are not right. Not at Christmas, nor at any other time of year.

This fact makes the message of John the Baptist perennially appropriate. It is a simple message. It came in two parts, summarized neatly in verse two of our reading. The first concerned the Kingdom. In short, John proclaimed the Kingdom (or reign) of Heaven was at hand. Not because of anything the people had done or were doing, but because God was at work. The second concerned how they should respond. It a word, they should repent, turn, change, do an about-face. The two go together; the coming of the Kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. As Paul said at the Areopagus, God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent (Acts 17:30).

While John’s message remains much the same, the audience has changed. This is no small thing for it effects how you will use the text. John has more in common with the prophets of old than with preachers today. He is more Isaiah than Paul. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, your hearers come after the fact. They have heard about the empty tomb and believe. They have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. They have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate, therefore, to imagine them as (much less call them) a brood of vipers. They are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

And yet, they (and we) still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our lives are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while (perhaps a week?) the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat.

John is talking about a fuller conception of repentance. He is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (verse 8). This kind of repentance begins with confessing sin (verse 6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It carries forth into action. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance” (Apology of the AC XII.132). It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.[1]

A sermon on this text offers the preacher an opportunity to renew a fuller sense of Christian repentance. This will lead the message to emphasize the coming judgment, the promise of God in Christ to forgive, and the new life God creates in those He saves.

The only question is what this looks like in your congregation. Given the season, you might help your hearers imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruits (could we call them “gifts”?) of repentance than the things we place under the tree.

Because you are preaching the Gospel, you will want to make sure the promise of Christ still dominates in this sermon. The text offers a way to do this in verse 11. There John reminds his hearers how Jesus will gather His wheat in the barn. That is a promise of eternal salvation at the coming judgment. It does not undo the warning in the text, but it offers the hearers confidence in the saving work of Jesus.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 3:1-12.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 3:1-12.

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 3:1-12.