Sunday’s Sermon

All Saints Day – November 7 (Rev. Stan Temme)

Last Sunday of the Church Year – November 21 (Rev. Stan Temme)

Thanksgiving Eve – November 24 (Rev. Stan Temme)

First Sunday of Advent – November 28 (Rev. Stan Temme)

Second Sunday of Advent – December 5 (Rev. Stan Temme)

What a Difference Christ Makes

            You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Our text for this Second Sunday of Advent is from the Epistle reading.  To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Here ends our text.

            Tell me, which greeting would you rather hear from your pastor?  Would you like to be called a brood of vipers and warned about the coming of God’s wrath upon you?  Or would you like to be called saints and hear that God’s grace and peace are upon you?  Both of these greetings were given in our Gospel and Epistle reading today.  Both of them came from God’s prophet or apostle.  And both of them were directed to Jews and Gentiles, some of whom were Roman soldiers.  So why the difference in greetings?  Why in the first greeting are the people addressed as snakes like the devil under the wrath of God and the second greeting they’re addressed as saints under the grace of God?  What makes the difference?  The difference is the coming of Jesus Christ.  The difference is Jesus Christ coming into this world, coming into their hearts, and coming into their life.  Jesus makes all the difference in the world.  However, both these greetings are necessary.  The first greeting of wrath is necessary to prepare the heart for Christ’s first coming and the second greeting of grace is necessary to assure the heart for Christ’s second coming.  But between the two greetings stands Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and His work for us.

            In our Gospel reading today, John the Baptist came to the wilderness region around the Jordan river.  His job as foretold by the prophet Isaiah was to “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”  Like a construction crew with backhoes and bulldozers, John was to fill in the valleys of sin and knock down the mountains of self-righteousness in men’s hearts.  Like a highway department with graders and compactors, he was to level and smooth the rough places of the heart to prepare a highway for God to come to mankind.

John began this reconstruction of men’s hearts with the Law, particularly the second use of the Law which accuses us and shows us our sin.  As the Jewish religious leaders and laity, Gentile tax collectors and Roman soldiers came to hear him, John leveled them with the Law.  He greeted them, “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.  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 into the fire.”  This greeting minced no words.  It showed them who they were by nature, a brood of vipers, children of that snake the devil.  It showed them what they had coming from God because of their sinfulness – His wrath and judgment.  It showed them that their rotten fruit, their paltry works according to their traditions, were not in accord with the good fruit of true repentance, the works God requires according to His Commandments.  It showed them that no natural birth as children of their father Abraham qualified them for the inheritance of heaven, but only a spiritual birth from God their Father who raised up His own children from all the nations.  It showed them that God had His axe in hand ready to cut them down and throw them into the fire of hell for not bearing good fruit.  All in all, it was a very harsh greeting, but one intended to make a difference.

            What was the result of this shocking salutation?  The religious leaders and their scouts turned right around and went back to Jerusalem, convinced John was a madman.  They hardened their hearts, ignored God’s warning, and clung to their legalism, lineage, and self-righteousness.  John’s message didn’t make a difference to them.  But many of the Jews and even some Gentiles heeded John’s words.  They repented and turned from their sins.  But what did they turn towards?   John baptized them in the waters of the Jordan with a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Their sins were washed and taken away by their Savior, one who was soon to be baptized for them.  John pointed to Jesus Christ and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  Those who believed John’s words repented.  They turned from their sins and turned to Jesus for forgiveness.  What a difference of heart!

            Of course, a change of heart means a change of life.  A good tree bears good fruit.  However, John’s audience didn’t know the difference between good fruit and bad fruit.  So John had to instruct them with the third use of the Law.  The third use of the Law is a rule and guide for Christians so they can know and do what God desires.  It tells us what we should do.  The repentant crowds asked John, “What shall we do?”  John tells them “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”  Love your neighbor by sharing the extra that God has given you.  Tax collectors who repented and were baptized asked, “What shall we do?”  John tells them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”  Don’t quit your vocation as necessary workers for the government which God instituted, but be honest in your job.  Roman soldiers asked, “And what shall we do?”  John tells them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”  Don’t use your position of protection to steal by force, threat, or lying.  Don’t covet, but be content with your God given work and pay.  What a difference of life!

            But the real difference maker is Jesus Christ.  At the Jordan He was baptized for us and became the sin bearer for the world.  In the wilderness He dueled that snake the devil and overcame his temptations.  Jesus bore the good fruit of loving His neighbor, healing the sick, and feeding the hungry.  He changed the heart of tax collectors and prostitutes to live a new life.  Jesus traversed the crooked road to Jerusalem, descended into the Kidron valley, and ascended Mount Calvary.  Along the way He was extorted for 30 pieces of silver, falsely accused, and threatened by religious and government authorities.  He gave His one tunic to the Roman soldiers who crucified Him, and then He forgave them.  On the tree of the cross Jesus suffered all the wrath of God for us and bore the judgement of our bad fruit.  He was cut down from the land of the living and cast into the tomb.  Of course, if things had ended there, it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.  But a shoot came forth from the stump, and God raised Him from the dead.  Jesus changed the hearts of His disciples and sent them out as His apostles to proclaim the Gospel of forgiveness of sins.  Then Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father and reign in the hearts of men.  What a difference maker!

            One of those apostles whom Jesus sent out was the apostle Paul.  He became the first missionary to reach Europe and made his way to a small, backwoods town called Philippi.  Philippi was a Roman city, built as a retirement community for Roman soldiers who now enjoyed their pensions in peace.  There he met a small group of Jews gathering at the river for worship.  He baptized Lydia there and her whole household.  While in jail, Paul converted the Roman jailor and then baptized his whole household.  From this mix of Jews and Gentiles and Roman soldiers came the Philippian church.  It’s a very similar mix as the crowds which John the Baptist exhorted 30 years previous.

            Now imprisoned in Rome, Paul writes to the Philippians in our Epistle reading today.  But he’s not writing to a group of hardened religious leaders or Jews stuck in their manmade traditions or ignorant Roman soldiers.  Paul doesn’t address them as a brood of vipers who need to flee from the coming wrath.  These were now mature Christians who have been changed by Christ through Paul’s preaching of the Law and Gospel.  So he greets them, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  What a difference in greeting from that of John the Baptist.  What a difference in who they are – not vipers but saints.  What a difference in their standing before God – not under wrath but under grace.  What a difference Christ makes.

            What a difference Christ made in the hearts and lives of these Philippians.  So much so that Paul shows his gratitude by writing, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you . . . because of your partnership in the Gospel.”  As Paul continued his mission work in Europe, the Philippian church was the first church to support him.  They didn’t just give Paul an extra tunic, though.  They gave their offerings for all his food and clothing, shelter and transportation, so he was free to preach the Gospel throughout Greece.  Paul didn’t have to extort these Christians by threats or levy a temple tax to squeeze money out of them.  They gave freely and willing from a generous heart, a heart changed by Christ.  In fact, Paul attributes all their good fruit to Christ.  He writes, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”  So Paul no longer has to instruct these Philippians with the third use of the Law.  He doesn’t have to go into excruciating detail about how they should live their life in their vocations.  He doesn’t have to tell them what to do.  These Christians know God’s Commandments, and as God’s saints with a new nature, they do them without being told, without even thinking about it.  By faith in Christ, they’re good trees bearing good fruit naturally.  Paul simply needs to encourage them and assure them of their salvation in Christ when He comes a second time on the Last Day.  He writes, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.”  Their purity and holiness, their fruits of righteousness which God sees on Judgment Day come from Jesus Christ.  What a difference Christ makes.

            And what a difference Christ makes in your heart and life.  You’re no longer a slithering offspring of the devil nor are you under God’s wrath for your hardness of heart and self-righteousness, coveting and greed, extortion and threats.  Convicted by the Law, you’ve turned from your sins, and enlightened by the Gospel, you’ve turned to Christ for mercy.  Like Abraham, you’re a child of God by faith in Christ.  You’re a repentant, baptized Christian who bears good fruit without even being told.  And so I don’t address you as a brood of vipers who need to flee from God’s coming wrath, not just so I can keep my job, but because that’s not who you are or your condition before God.  Because Christ has changed your hearts and lives, you are His saints under God’s grace.  So instead, I continue to greet you with these words.  “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Trinity Darmstadt.  Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”  What a difference Christ makes for you.  Amen.