“In those days John the Baptist came preaching...” and he still comes. Not in person, of course, but his message continues to come as God sends preachers of every generation. In John’s day, God was preparing His people for the life and ministry of Jesus in His first coming. Today, God is preparing His people for their life and ministry as the Body of Christ as they wait for His second coming. Despite all that has changed, the Baptist’s two-part message remains the same: (1) repent (2) for the Kingdom of the Heaven is at hand. This, in broad strokes, would make an appropriate sermon on this second Sunday in Advent.
As you prepare to preach on this text, be careful to avoid two easily made mistakes. The first is a direct identification of your hearers with the Pharisees and Sadducees in John’s day. Those religious leaders were descendants of Abraham, but their lack of repentance showed they were children of snakes, which was an observation Jesus also made (see Matthew 12:22-37, especially verse 34). Unlike them, your hearers are baptized children of the Father. Their fruit is not perfect, but it includes confessing faith in Jesus and gathering with the faithful to worship Him. It would be a mistake, therefore, to think of your hearers as Pharisees or to call them a brood of vipers. A second mistake would be to envision your sermon as simply a second liturgical opportunity for confession and absolution. Many Christian congregations include a time in worship for the congregation to admit their sin and receive forgiveness. This is good and healthy. The sermon, however, should do more than accuse and absolve. It should help the hearers meditate on the reign of the heavens in such a way as to align (“make straight”) their hearts and minds for the second coming of Jesus. In other words, the sermon should lead them toward a more faithful life together as an expectant community of believers.
With these two mistakes in your rearview, I suggest organizing your sermon around the two parts of John’s message. I would start with the second.
The Reign of the Heavens
The reign of the heavens (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν) is at hand, John said. Matthew is the only gospel writer to use this phrase, and he chooses it thirty-two times. Scholars debate how closely it relates to a similar phrase, “the reign of God” (which Matthew also uses). For my part, John’s choice of “heavens” calls to mind the cosmic reach of Jesus’ reign. His reign extends over all creation, over all things in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth. Angels and archangels and all the company of Heaven serve under His reign. He is the One through whom all things were made, for whom all things exist, and in whom all things hold together. This One, John said, whose rule knows no bounds, was coming near.
His reign extends over all creation, over all things in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth.
He has come near to us, too. Like the humble and unexpected appearance of His first coming, Jesus continues to come to us through the humble message of a lowly church. The fact that the Church does not look like much, fits with God’s strange choice to reign through unexpected servants. He did this throughout the Old Testament by choosing His lowly servant Israel. He did this in the New Testament by choosing lowly disciples. Mary was among them, and since we will not be reading the Magnificat this year, you might recall her description of God’s reign:
“He has looked on the humble estate of his servant... His mercy is for those who fear Him... He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things... He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy” (Luke 1:46-55).
The good news that He who reigns over the heavens has come near will have a singular effect on those who recognize it rightly. Their only option is to repent. But this is much more than saying sorry or asking for mercy. It involves a conversion of the mind (μετανοεῖτε). In addition to remorse, Christian repentance involves trust in the promises of God. This trust, in turn, leads necessarily to a new and fruitful life of faith in Christ and love toward others.
Your call to repent, therefore, could be followed by a few questions to help your hearers engage in corporate and individual self-reflection. How does the coming of Him who reigns over the heavens change this congregation’s mind? How does it change the minds of your individual hearers? What promises are members of this congregation struggling to believe? Which commands are they having trouble accepting? If the faithful recipients of John’s message received baptism for the forgiveness of sins, what might it look like for baptized believers in Jesus to live out their repentance in these gray and latter days?
The Lord is coming, that much is certain. He is coming to reign, not only over the heavens, but also over the members of your congregation. This is good news, not only for their future bliss on that last day, but also for the rest of their lives here on earth.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 3:1-12.
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. Peter Scaer of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 3:1-12