He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
I’d like to ask you a question this evening/morning: what brings you hope this Advent season? I pray that you have a reason to hope today. And I pray that you will find this place, Bethel Lutheran Church, to be a community of hope that celebrates the presence and the love of God in every season of the year. This is the weekend/Sunday each year when we light the Hope candle on the Advent wreath. And our Bible story for today is usually read as a message of judgement, but I think it’s overwhelmingly a message of hope.
I read about a young woman named Elizabeth who had spent many years struggling with a drug addiction. During those years she was desperate for some words of encouragement, some signs of hope. When she got into recovery and created a new life for herself, she wanted to help others who were trapped by hopelessness. So, she started writing notes of encouragement and sticking them on the windshields of cars around the city or posting them on telephone poles in local parks. She ended one note with the words, “Much love. Hope sent.”
Much love. Hope sent. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas, that Jesus exemplified the message of much love, hope sent. When you listen to our lesson for today, I want you to hear the love of God. I want you to understand that this is a message of hope that God has been preparing for thousands of years. This is the message sent through numerous prophets. And what God promised through the prophets has now been fulfilled in a Person, the person of Jesus Christ. But are we ready to hear these words? More importantly, are we ready to put them into action in our own lives?
Our Bible passage begins, in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is He who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’”
John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Don’t you wish my sermons were that short? The word used here for repent means “to think differently” or “to change the inner person.” John the Baptist is saying here, Jesus has brought the kingdom of heaven to you. And you can receive His message when you think differently, when you change your inner person.
That sounds like a message of overwhelming hope. But repentance is just the first step to receiving the kingdom of heaven. The next step is Baptism with water, and then finally a Baptism with the Holy Spirit. And each one of these steps is necessary for receiving new life as citizens of the kingdom of heaven.
In the Jewish tradition, repentance is an example of time travel. We’re not talking science fiction here. The Bible shows us that true repentance changes both your future and your past. Think about that for a second: repentance changes both your future and your past.
If you repent properly, what God promises is that He will change who you are. It’s a question of identity. In Judaism, what God promises to those who sincerely repent is the opportunity to say, I am no longer that person who sinned . . . I am a fundamentally different person. It’s as if I am a newborn child, and I have a new path in life.
That’s the promise and the hope of Christmas. At Christmas, the kingdom of heaven came near in the person of Jesus Christ. And through Jesus, we have a new King, a new life, and a new purpose all promised to us when we receive the kingdom of heaven.
The first promise and hope of Christmas is that in Jesus, we have a new King. The history of humanity has been shaped by sinful, unworthy leaders. We could easily name a whole list of kings, emperors and politicians who have been greedy, power-hungry, violent. And their moral failings are responsible for unimaginable suffering all over the world.
But when God wanted to show us His love, purposes and power in action, He came in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Advent season, we realize more than ever that the priorities of this world, like greed, power and violence, are empty and contrary to God’s kingdom. That’s why Jesus came, not as a powerful military leader, but as a helpless baby born to a poor family. That’s why He didn’t search for status with the religious or political leaders of His day. He rejected wealth, power, status, success. He rejected others’ attempts to make Him a religious celebrity or a king. He rejected all the things we desperately chase after because His mind was fixed on God’s will, on bringing in God’s kingdom. We can put our hope and trust fully in him because He embodies the use of power in the service of love.
During World War II, German pastor Helmut Thielicke visited a prominent church that had been bombed by the Nazis. Thielicke understood the suffering and hopelessness the people were feeling in the midst of war. He stood in the rubble of this devastated church, and he preached these words of hope: “Where Christ is King, everything is changed. Eyes see differently and the heart no longer beats the same. And in every hard and difficult place the comforting voice is there, and the hand that will not let us go upholds us.”
“Where Christ is King, everything is changed.” That’s the hope we are promised at Christmas time. In Jesus, we have a new King.
The second promise and hope of Christmas is that in Jesus, we have new life. Notice that John Baptized people in the Jordan River. This particular river was significant to the people of Israel. In Deuteronomy 30: 18, the Israelites had been wandering in the desert for forty years. The elders who had escaped slavery in Egypt had died off. And God planned to lead His people into Canaan, into the Promised Land. But before He did, God challenged the people to choose between death and life. The people of Israel chose life and following God. When they crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, they crossed over into freedom and new life. It’s no accident that John Baptized people in the Jordan River. Our Baptism represents our crossing over from death to new life in Jesus Christ.
A man who, after attending a short while, approached the pastor and asked, what do I have to do to be baptized? And of course, the answer was, nothing, it’s a gift from God and His Son. This man was fifty-five years old. He’d spent his professional career as a counselor. But he reported that it was only after his Baptism that he found the wholeness he’d been looking for in his life. He had always felt that something was missing; in his Baptism in Jesus’ name, he found the life God made him for.
The man became a regular volunteer at the church food pantry. The following Christmas, he joined a team that cooked and served Christmas dinner at a local health clinic. His Baptism marked the start of a new life of service in Jesus’ name.
We can learn from these words, let us astound them by our way of life. This is the unanswerable argument. Though we give 10,000 precepts in words, if we don’t exhibit a far better life, we gain nothing. It’s not what is said that draws their attention, but what we do. Let us win them therefore by our life.
Let us astound them by our way of life. Let’s show the world what it looks like for Jesus to live through our actions, our words and our priorities. Let’s show them by our actions what it means to go from death to new life.
And finally, the promise and hope of Christmas is that in Jesus, we have a new purpose. In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matt. 6: 33) When we have been Baptized into new life with Jesus, our new purpose is to prioritize the kingdom of heaven above all else. The kingdom of heaven is the rule of God in this world. It’s what the world looks like when Jesus is living in us, and we’re practicing the priorities of Jesus in the world. What difference could you make in the world if your priority was to further the kingdom of heaven in your daily life?
I’ll ask you this question again: where do you find hope in this Advent season? Is your hope that you’ll get everything done in time for the holidays? Is your hope that next year will be better than this one? Or is your hope in knowing that the pressures and priorities of this world no longer hold you down. You follow a different King, you are living a new life, and you have found a new purpose because you have received Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us. Do you have the kingdom of heaven in you? That’s the hope and the promise of Christmas that you can receive today.